The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) is an important source of study material for IAS, especially for the current affairs segment. In this section, we give you the gist of the EPW magazine every week. The important topics covered in the weekly are analysed and explained in a simple language, all from a UPSC perspective.
Topics covered in this article:
Are Sewer Deaths the New Normal?
- Role of Dams in Kerala’s Flood Disaster
Are Sewer Deaths the New Normal?
Why in news?
The recent deaths of six sewerage workers in Delhi while manually cleaning the sewers form part of a continuing series of such deaths.
What is manual scavenging?
- Manual scavenging refers to the unsafe and manual removal of raw (fresh and untreated) human excreta from buckets or other containers that are used as toilets or from the pits of simple pit latrines.
- Manual scavenging is done with basic tools like thin boards and either buckets or baskets lined with sacking and carried on the head (carrying ‘Night Soil’). Due to the nature of the job, many of the workers have related health problems
- The official definition of a manual scavenger in Indian law from 1993 is as follows:
“Manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.
- The International Labour Organization describes three forms of manual scavenging in India:
- Removal of human excrement from public streets and “dry latrines” (meaning simple pit latrines without a water seal, but not dry toilets in general)
- Cleaning septic tanks
- Cleaning gutters and sewers
- Manual cleaning of railway lines of excreta dropped from toilets of trains is another form of manual scavenging in India.
Why the problem exists?
- Manual scavenging is traditionally a role determined by the outlawed caste system in India for members of the Dalit caste, usually from the Balmiki (or Valmiki) or Hela
- Poverty and lack of alternative jobs.
- In many cities apartment blocks and group housing can have their own sewage treatment plants, and do the repairs and maintenance too without involving civic authorities. This means that private agencies and contractors are hired to do this work and they in turn get “casual” workers on an ad hoc basis, without any thought to safety, and get the work done.
- Manual scavenging still survives in parts of India without proper sewage systems or safe fecal sludge management practices.
- It is thought to be most prevalent in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Some municipalities in India still run public toilets using simple pit latrines.
- The biggest violator of this law in India is the Indian Railways where many train carriages have toilets dropping the excreta from trains on the tracks and who employ scavengers to clean the tracks manually.
- In March 2014, the Supreme Court of India declared that there were 96 lakhs (9.6 million) dry latrines being manually emptied but the exact number of manual scavengers is disputed – official figures put it at less than 700,000.
What the law says?
- No person, local authority or agency can hire people for hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, amended in 2013.
Efforts to eradicate the menace?
- In India in 1970s, Bindeshwar Pathak introduced his “Sulabh” concept for building and managing public toilets in India, which has introduced hygienic and well-managed public toilet system.
- Activist Bezwada Wilson founded a group in 1994, Safai Karmachari Andolan, to campaign for the demolition of then newly illegal ‘dry latrines’ (pit latrines) and the abolition of manual scavenging.
- Of late efforts have been made to mechanise sewer cleaning. Among them may be mentioned: Jetting machines used by the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, the experiment launching “Bandicoot,” the robotic machine devised by socially conscious engineers of Kerala in Thiruvanathapuram, the “sewer croc” built by scientists and engineers in Hyderabad etc.
- There is also a proposal to make “entrepreneurs” of safai karamcharis by providing them loans to buy and use sewer-cleaning machines.
- Workers should be given proper safety gears which are not heavy and unwieldy. Efforts should be to constantly experiment and finely hone lighter safety suits.
- Govt should do away with contract sewerage workers and instead establish an agency to monitor and prevent such practices.
- The Railways should do away with manual cleaning of tracks and strictly adhere to the deadline of 2022 for the introduction of bio-toilets in all its trains.
Complete mechanisation and introduction of robots and other devices to clean sewers and pits can prevent deaths and make the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan a complete success.
Role of Dams in Kerala’s Flood Disaster
If the dams in Kerala had been managed and operated prudently, the flood disaster which the state faced/is facing could have been to a large extent reduced. In the write-up, a strategy for the management of dams to mitigate similar disasters has been outlined.
Case for Kerala
- Kerala is almost entirely a part of the Western Ghats, is a high biodiversity area and has a fragile ecology.
- It has mountains on one side, and the sea on the other.
- It is a traditionally high-rainfall state, with some parts receiving a double monsoon, and the entire state is close to the equator and the sea.
- Kerala’s 44 rivers have relatively short lengths and high slopes.
- The state has over 60 large dams, and a highly urbanised society.
What is a dam?
- A damis a barrier that stops or restricts the flow of water or underground streams.
- Reservoirs created by dams not only suppress floods but also provide water for activities such as irrigation, human consumption, industrial use, aquaculture, and navigability.
- Hydropower is often used in conjunction with dams to generate electricity.
- A dam can also be used to collect water or for storage of water which can be evenly distributed between locations.
- Dams generally serve the primary purpose of retaining water, while other structures such as floodgates or levees (also known as dikes) are used to manage or prevent water flow into specific land regions.
Purposes of Dams:
- Dams serve various purposes such as water supply, power generation, flood prevention, land reclamation, water diversion, navigation, irrigation and help to stabilize water flow.
Types of Dams:
Dams are classified into various types on the basis of their structure (arch dams, gravity dams etc); Use(check dam, saddle dam, Weir etc);size (large,medium,small); by material (steel dam, timber dam etc) etc.
Role of dams during floods:
- Theoretically, every dam can help moderate floods in the downstream areas, as long as it has space to store water, and depending on the amount of space available.
- Every action that helps store, hold, recharge (to groundwater aquifers), or delay the flow of rainwater from the catchment to the river helps moderate its flow, and, in turn, moderates floods in the river.
- When dams are not operated with the above objective, but are, instead, filled up as soon there is water available, there is no space left to store more water.
- The only alternative then is to release all the inflow into the downstream river.
- Due to this, in downstream areas, which are already facing floods due to local rainfall or other reasons, the dams end up increasing the magnitude of the flood disaster.
Examples of flawed operation of dams which created or worsened flood disasters in downstream areas:
Floods in Uttarakhand (June 2013), Tehri (September 2010), Hirakud (2009, 2011, 2014), Damodar dams (multiple years), Krishna basin dams (2006, October 2009), Ukai (August 2006), Chennai floods (December 2015), Bansagar dam (August 2016), Kurichu dam in Bhutan (2004, 2016, others), and Ranganadi (2017) and Doyang (2018) etc
In Kerala, most of the dams were almost full by the end of July 2018.
According to the report of the ‘The Central Water Commission (CWC) on the Kerala floods, the dams in Kerala neither added to the flood nor helped in reduction of flood, as most of the dams were already at FRL (Full Reservoir Level) or very close to FRL on 14 August 2018, due to more than normal rainfall in the months of June to July 2018.”
Such statements, imply that the floods in the river downstream, before and after the dam, are same. This is a misleading and incorrect assumption.
Post-dam V/s Pre-Dam Flood:
The flood in the downstream area, from water released by the dam, is very different from the flood in an undammed river for a number of reasons.
- Floods in rivers before the dam can, most of the time, be seen gradually rising, which allows people to prepare and can save lives as well as valuables. Floods from water released by the dams come much more suddenly, leaving little time to respond.
- The potential damage from water suddenly released from a dam is much greater than that of a gradually rising flood in the river.
- The river downstream, its flood plains, and even the riverbed—which do not experience regular floods—may have changed. The dam induces a false sense of security from floods, often propogated by dam proponents, which leads to encroachment on the riverbed/floodplain. The carrying capacity of the downstream river may have also changed.
- Finally, the water released from the dam is either relatively silt-free or carrying too much silt if released from the bottom sluices. In either case, it is different than normal floodwater, and has a different damage potential.
Therefore, dam operators cannot be exonerated on the claim that they have not added to the incoming floods.
What could the dam operators have done to moderate the floods in Kerala during the 2018 monsoon?
Violation of the Rule Curves
Every dam is supposed to have a dam-specific rule curve that regulates, among other things, how the dam is supposed to be filled during the monsoon to optimise flood moderation for the downstream areas, while ensuring that it is filled up only towards the end of the monsoon.
Almost all the dams in Kerala were almost full by the end of July.
This was in complete violation of the rule curve, since by the end of July the south-west monsoon is just halfway through its course, and large parts of Kerala also receive the north-east monsoon, which follows the south-west monsoon.Thus, to fill up the dams by end of July was an invitation for disaster.
The Kerala dams clearly failed in flood moderation during the August 2018 floods, as they were already full when the floods occurred.
The CWC has recommended that the rule curves of the Kerala dams need to be reviewed.
Some of the factors that would be required for such review of rule curves include:
- Carrying capacity of the river downstream of the dams,
- Changed rainfall pattern in the upstream and downstream regions,
- Changed live storage capacity of the dam due to siltation,
- Changed flood profile due to degradation,
- Reduced flood absorption capacity of the catchment area, and
- Changed situation of the upstream areas and other basin dams.
Dam Operations in the Monsoon
Some of the factors that must be taken into account in order to achieve optimum flood moderation through dam operations during the monsoon include:
- Updated rule curves for the reservoirs
- Storage situation of the reservoir being operated
- Inflows into the reservoir
- Outflow capacity
- River flow in the upstream
- Storage position and releases from upstream dams
- Downstream river flow situation (including from downstream tributaries,the situation of dams if there are any in the downstream region and their inflow-outflow regime)
- Updated downstream river-carrying capacity
- Downstream high tide situation
- Downstream inundation maps for different releases
- Evacuation plans
- Upstream and downstream catchment rainfall in the last 24–72 hours (depending on travel time in the catchment), and
- Forecast of rainfall in the catchment (both upstream and downstream) over the next one to five days.
The Bureau of Indian Standards (1994) code for reservoir operations has a very clear stipulation in this regard: “the flood control schedules would consist of releasing all inflows up to the safe channel capacity.”
As the CWC (2018b) and CAG (2017, 2018) reports have noted, each state has to prepare a dam operation manual for each large dam that also includes an emergency action plan (EAP).Here, emergency does not only refer to the event of a dam break, but to all kind of crises.The EAP also requires
- Determination of potential inundation area,
- Preparation of inundation maps and notification of emergency,
- Setting up of a hydrological unit for preparation of inundation map, and
- Setting up of an emergency control room for each dam to coordinate crisis situation.
None of the Kerala dams whether the Chalakudy basin dams, the Idukki dam or for that matter the Mullaperiyar dam had all of these: no manuals, EAPs, or even inundation maps.
The worst affected districts were Wayanad (Kabini sub-basin), Idukki (Periyar sub-basin), Ernakulam (Periyar and Chalakudi) sub-basins, Alleppey and Pathanamthitta (both in Pamba sub-basin).
It is pertinent to note that the dams played a role in each of these sub-basins. And, in each case, the dams did not follow the rule curves, nor did they have emergency plans and inundation maps, and violated other basic norms of reservoir management.
Way forward-Strategy for Dam Management
- Dams need to review the rule curves and dams should follow the rule curves.
- Kerala (and also other states) needs to update, or formulate (where they do not exist), rule curves for each large dam in Kerala, and request that Tamil Nadu do the same for the four dams that it controls in Kerala.
- For each dam, there should be a study of the downstream channel-carrying capacity and removal of illegal encroachments where necessary.
- There should be mapping of inundation areas and formulation of standard operating procedures for different flood scenarios, including the control room, identified officer in-charge of dam operations, emergency action plans, and coordination mechanisms.
- There should be flood forecasting that takes into account both the upstream and downstream areas, the various river flows, dam storages and releases, actual rainfall that has occurred over the last three to five days, and rainfall forecast for the next three to five days, among others.
- All this information, for each dam, should be available daily in the public domain on a designated website, and should remain on the website at least for the next five years.
- In addition, there should be a dam management committee for each dam, in which about half the persons should be non-government persons with independent standing, and community Kerala should immediately set up an independent panel to review what happened during the floods and how different agencies responded, with an objective to learn lessons for the future.
- Another panel should be set up to create a long-term set of recommendations on how to deal with the fragility of Western Ghats of which Kerala is a part.
For more EPW articles, read “Gist of EPW”.