Hundreds protest in Indian capital against deaths of sewer cleaners

NEW DELHI, Sept 25 (Reuters) - The relatives of thousands of Indians who died cleaning sewers protested in the capital on Tuesday, aiming to stop the practice of workers entering underground conduits to unclog drains and remove waste with their bare hands.

Hundreds of protesters shouted slogans accusing the government of delaying compensation for sewer deaths, while others waved banners saying they came as Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushes his "Swachh Bharat," or "Clean India," program.

"I lost my only son," said Saroj, a mother among the protesters, who hails from the northern city of Ludhiana in Punjab. "He went into the sewers and never came out. How long will these deaths continue?"

One placard read, "Eleven workers died in the sewers in seven days. 'Swachh Bharat' for whom?"

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Sewer cleaning controversy in India
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Sewer cleaning controversy in India
TOPSHOT - An Indian manual scavenger looks on as he cleans a manhole in the old quarters of New Delhi on March 21, 2018. Slum dwellers depend on government supplies for drinking water and struggle to get adequate supply during summers. World Water Day is observed on March 22 and focuses on the importance of universal access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. / AFP PHOTO / CHANDAN KHANNA (Photo credit should read CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)
A wife of a sanitation worker who died while cleaning a sewer, cries as she attends a protest against the rising deaths of people cleaning sewers, in New Delhi, India, September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
NEW DELHI, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 9: A pair of boots of a worker lies on the ground who was among the five workers who were killed after they stepped into sewage treatment plant DLF Capital Greens, a posh residential society in Moti Nagar on September 9, 2018 in New Delhi, India. Colleagues of the victims alleged they had been threatened that theyd be sacked if they refused to clean the tank. They also claimed they had not been provided any safety gear. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Family members of sanitation workers attend a protest against the rising deaths of people cleaning sewers, in New Delhi, India, September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
An Indian manual scavenger is helped out of a manhole in the old quarters of New Delhi on March 21, 2018. Slum dwellers depend on government supplies for drinking water and struggle to get adequate supply during summers. World Water Day is observed on March 22 and focuses on the importance of universal access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. / AFP PHOTO / CHANDAN KHANNA (Photo credit should read CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)
A wife of a sanitation worker who died while cleaning a sewer, cries as she attends a protest against the rising deaths of people cleaning sewers, in New Delhi, India, September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
NEW DELHI, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 9: Workers looking inside sewage treatment plant where five of their colleagues have died of toxic gases while cleaning the tank at DLF Capital Greens, a posh residential society in Moti Nagar on September 9, 2018 in New Delhi, India. Colleagues of the victims alleged they had been threatened that theyd be sacked if they refused to clean the tank. They also claimed they had not been provided any safety gear. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
A wife of a sanitation worker who died while cleaning a sewer, holds her son as she attends a protest against the rising deaths of people cleaning sewers, in New Delhi, India, September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
NEW DELHI, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 24: CPI (M) politburo member Brinda Karat and others protest against the deaths of the employees working under the sewers, as they marched from MCD office Ambedkar Stadium to Delhi Secretariat on September 24, 2018 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
An Indian manual scavenger looks on as he cleans a manhole in the old quarters of New Delhi on March 21, 2018. Slum dwellers depend on government supplies for drinking water and struggle to get adequate supply during summers. World Water Day is observed on March 22 and focuses on the importance of universal access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. / AFP PHOTO / CHANDAN KHANNA (Photo credit should read CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)
A wife of a sanitation worker who died while cleaning a sewer, cries as she attends a protest against the rising deaths of people cleaning sewers, in New Delhi, India, September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
NEW DELHI, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 9: Workers looking inside sewage treatment plant where five of their colleagues have died of toxic gases while cleaning the tank at DLF Capital Greens, a posh residential society in Moti Nagar on September 9, 2018 in New Delhi, India. Colleagues of the victims alleged they had been threatened that theyd be sacked if they refused to clean the tank. They also claimed they had not been provided any safety gear. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 24: CPI (M) politburo member Brinda Karat with Rani, (whose husband Anil died recently because of poisonous gas while working in the sewer) and her children (R) son Gaurav, Suman (orange T-shirt Left) and Laxmi (C), during a protest against the deaths of the employees working under the sewers, as they marched from MCD office Ambedkar Stadium to Delhi Secretariat in New Delhi, India, on Monday, September 24, 2018. (Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA - SEPTEMBER 9: Workers looking inside sewage treatment plant where five of their colleagues have died of toxic gases while cleaning the tank at DLF Capital Greens, a posh residential society in Moti Nagar on September 9, 2018 in New Delhi, India. Colleagues of the victims alleged they had been threatened that theyd be sacked if they refused to clean the tank. They also claimed they had not been provided any safety gear. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
GHAZIABAD, INDIA - JULY 8: Family members and relatives of the victims seen at the spot where three men drowned in a sewage pumping station at Loni on July 8, 2018 in Ghaziabad, India. STP Pump Operator Mahesh Kasana of Baghpat entered a 40-feet-deep tank in the Dabur Talab Colony to clean it but did not come out. Another Operator Roshan Lal of Saharanpur descended into the tank but he too perished. An unidentified third person also met the same fate. (Photo by Sakib Ali/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA - AUGUST 20: Delhi Police officers investigating the sewer where Rishi Pal was dead and left three people unconscious during sewer cleaning at Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital, on August 20, 2017 in New Delhi, India. Rishi Pal, 40, along with Bishan, 30, Kiran Pal, 25, and Sumit, 30, fell unconscious after inhaling poisonous gases while cleaning the sewer. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA - AUGUST 20: Delhi Police officers investigating the sewer where Rishi Pal was dead and left three people unconscious during sewer cleaning at Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital, on August 20, 2017 in New Delhi, India. Rishi Pal, 40, along with Bishan, 30, Kiran Pal, 25, and Sumit, 30, fell unconscious after inhaling poisonous gases while cleaning the sewer. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Indian labourers clean a sewer in New Delhi on May 27, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / CHANDAN KHANNA (Photo credit should read CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - MAY 03 : A sewer cleaner of Dhaka City Corporation cleaning out the city's sewers on May 03, 2017 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Despite a rise in the number of deaths of manhole workers every year, workers regularly go into the manholes without any protective gear. PHOTOGRAPH BY Zakir Chowdhury / Barcroft Images London-T:+44 207 033 1031 E:hello@barcroftmedia.com - New York-T:+1 212 796 2458 E:hello@barcroftusa.com - New Delhi-T:+91 11 4053 2429 E:hello@barcroftindia.com www.barcroftimages.com (Photo credit should read Zakir Chowdhury/Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - APRIL 30: Jashim 23 , a sewer cleaner of Dhaka City Corporation cleaning out the city's sewers on April 30, 2016 in Old Dhaka, Bangladesh. Despite a rise in the number of deaths of manhole workers every year, workers regularly go into the manholes without any protective gear. PHOTOGRAPH BY Zakir Chowdhury / Barcroft Images London-T:+44 207 033 1031 E:hello@barcroftmedia.com - New York-T:+1 212 796 2458 E:hello@barcroftusa.com - New Delhi-T:+91 11 4053 2429 E:hello@barcroftindia.com www.barcroftimages.com (Photo credit should read Zakir Chowdhury/Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
DHAKA, BANGLADESH - APRIL 30: Jashim 23 , a sewer cleaner of Dhaka City Corporation cleaning out the city's sewers on April 30, 2016 in Old Dhaka, Bangladesh. Despite a rise in the number of deaths of manhole workers every year, workers regularly go into the manholes without any protective gear. PHOTOGRAPH BY Zakir Chowdhury / Barcroft Images London-T:+44 207 033 1031 E:hello@barcroftmedia.com - New York-T:+1 212 796 2458 E:hello@barcroftusa.com - New Delhi-T:+91 11 4053 2429 E:hello@barcroftindia.com www.barcroftimages.com (Photo credit should read Zakir Chowdhury/Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
*** EXCLUSIVE *** NEW DELHI, INDIA - APRIL 29: Harish on April 29, 2015 in New Delhi, India. The sewer divers of Delhi, India, risk their lives to unclog the city's maze-like drains. Dubbed 'manual scavengers', the workers wade through human waste for 30 days a month and are paid just �3 (Rs 300) a day - regardless of their level of experience. The divers often spend up to six hours a day immersed in the sewage, forced to endure the extreme smells and sights of their subterranean world. PHOTOGRAPH BY Arkaprava Ghosh / Barcroft India UK Office, London. T +44 845 370 2233 W www.barcroftmedia.com USA Office, New York City. T +1 212 796 2458 W www.barcroftusa.com Indian Office, Delhi. T +91 11 4053 2429 W www.barcroftindia.com (Photo credit should read Arkaprava Ghosh / Barcroft India / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
***EXCLUSIVE*** NEW DELHI, INDIA - JULY 13: Devi Lal age 43, cleans drains for a living, is seen inside a drain, cleaning it on July 13, 2012 in New Delhi, India. THESE amazing pictures show what is probably the worlds filthiest job. Everyday thousands of manual scavengers in India unplug the dirtiest sewers and drains without any safety equipment or protection. It is also one the deadliest jobs in India, with almost 61 scavengers having died in last 6 months alone. According to Harnam Singh, the chairman of the Delhi Safai Karamchari Commision, ( Delhi cleaners commission) almost 70 percent of the manual scavengers die on the job. Even though India has banned Manual scavenging in 1993, government agencies still use thousands of manual scavengers to clean drains through out India. PHOTOGRAPH BY Sagar Kaul / Barcroft India /Barcoft Media via Getty Images
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About 1,800 sewers cleaners have asphyxiated to death in the last decade, says the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), a group that is campaigning to eliminate the practice.

Most of the roughly 160,000 workers involved in cleaning human waste are women, it added.

In 1993, India outlawed what it calls "manual scavenging," a practice that includes the barehanded cleaning of dry latrines, mostly by women and Dalits, who are at the bottom of Hinduism's social hierarchy.

For centuries, Dalits have battled discrimination ranging from segregation and ostracism to violence. Hindus are traditionally grouped into thousands of castes, their membership determined by birth.

Some members of India's lower castes still engage in unsafe cleaning practices, including the capital, where recent deaths sparked off the protests.

Workers picking up human waste with bare hands and broomsticks are a common sight on railway tracks and stations across the country.

(Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Clarence Fernandez)

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