Policymakers have failed to use technological advances made in treating faecal sludge
The tragic death of six people who entered a septic tank in Tamil Nadu’s Sriperumbudur town is a grim reminder that sanitation remains a low-priority area despite the high political profile of Swachh Bharat. Public understanding of the science of managing septic tanks continues to be poor, and the availability of cheap labour to clean these structures has slowed efforts to develop technologies that can safely remove and transport the waste.
Sanitation thus remains a challenge in thousands of unsewered towns. What sets the incident apart from the several instances of people dying of asphyxiation in the tanks is that some of the victims were the owners of the property and not workers. Three people collapsed while inspecting their residential septic tank, and others who tried to save them also perished.
Although workers were not affected in this case, it confirms Tamil Nadu’s abysmal overall record at raising sanitation standards. Since 1993, when the first law was passed against manual cleaning, there were at least 144 worker deaths in Tamil Nadu as of November 2018, according to official data reported to the Centre for grant of compensation.
Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab also fared badly with a cumulative toll of 146 lives lost during that period. But this is obviously a gross underestimate, since the Safai Karmachari Andolan, which has litigated in the Supreme Court seeking to aggressively prosecute offenders, contends that septic tank cleaning claimed nearly 1,500 lives between 2014 and 2016. More reports of deaths continue to come in.
Every death of a manual worker represents a crime, since the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 makes the use of such labour to clean septic tanks an offence punishable with imprisonment of two years or with a fine of â‚¹2 lakh or both even in the first instance.
If State governments are reluctant to prosecute offenders, they are also slow to adopt newer technologies such as Faecal Sludge Treatment Plants (FSTP), which can be combined with omniprocessors for safe treatment of waste. For the task of cleaning the tanks, indigenous innovation in robotics looks promising.
A prototype is planned to be tested by the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and such devices can potentially transform sanitation in India and other developing countries. But the pace of adoption will depend on the priority that governments accord to the long-neglected problem. Last year, Tamil Nadu, and some other States, notably Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, announced plans to scale up FSTP infrastructure. This is a task that deserves the highest importance, and needs to be completed on deadline.
What happened in Sriperumbudur highlights the heavy price that communities pay for the lack of scientific sanitation. If governments remain apathetic, citizens would expect the courts to step in to uphold the law against manual scavenging and make individual departments accountable. The science on sanitation has advanced, and policy must urgently catch up.
The tragic heroes of the anti-IS war
Despite their historical role in destroying the IS Caliphate, the Kurds face risks of further aggression than recognition
With the liberation of Baghouz in eastern Syria last week, the physical structures of the Islamic State (IS) Caliphate have now been shattered. Baghouz had been the last slice of land the IS clung on to even as its territories continued to shrink in the wake of counter-attacks. Hundreds of IS fighters had surrendered in recent weeks, while thousands withdrew to the Iraqi and Syrian deserts.
All this does not mean that the war against the IS is over. The IS is basically a terrorist insurgency and it had started moving back to its insurgency roots when the Caliphate came under attack. It still has its sympathisers, active members and sleeper cells in many parts of West Asia. Besides, it has branches in other countries which include Afghanistan, the Philippines, Nigeria and Libya. It is an ongoing story.
But the neo-Caliphate announced by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, from the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in 2014 — which had erased the Iraqi-Syrian border and lured tens of thousands of youth from across the world — no longer exists. It is no small feat in the history of counter-terror operations. So who brought the Caliphate down?
There have been multiple players and factors in this war, in which the U.S. has played a pivotal role. U.S. President Barack Obama ordered American air strikes on the IS in August 2014, a few months after Baghdadi appeared in Mosul and when the militants were fast-expanding their territorial influence to the south and west of Iraq.
Since then the U.S. has carried out thousands of strikes, in Iraq, Syria, Libya and even in Afghanistan against the IS. The U.S. may not like to recognise it, but Iran has also played a crucial role in this war — directly in Iraq and indirectly in Syria. In Iraq, the Iran-trained Shia militias were at the forefront of the battlefield. It was a coalition of the Shia militias, the Iraqi national army and the Peshmerga, the armed wing of the Iraqi Kurdistan, with support from the U.S. that recaptured IS-held territories in Iraq such as Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi.
The Syrian angle
In Syria, the war was more complex. If in Iraq, the national government had international recognition and support from both the U.S. and Iran, in Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which was in the midst of a civil war, lacked international support. The Obama administration initially wanted Mr. Assad to quit. There was no united anti-IS front in Syria, but the regime had done its bit. Government troops, backed by Russia and Iran, defeated the IS in Palmyra and recaptured the ancient city twice.
The survival of the regime itself acted as a bulwark against the further spread of the IS from the east, where it established a de facto capital in Raqqa, to the west and the south. Had Mr. Assad’s regime fallen, one possible outcome would have been the IS overrunning Damascus, just like the Taliban captured a battered Kabul by 1996 in the midst of a civil war and the collapse of the central authority.
On the other side, the most dangerous and prolonged anti-IS battles were carried out by Syrian Kurdish fighters. It is this group that ousted the IS from Baghouz last week, sealing the victory against Baghdadi’s Caliphate.
The beginning of the end of the IS was in Kobane, a small Syrian town on the Turkish border that was overrun by the IS and later recaptured by the Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The battle for Kobane threw the Syrian Kurds, who were a nonentity in the civil war till then, into the centre of West Asia’s most complex war.
Though the U.S. started bombing IS positions months earlier, it saw the first major result in Kobane, after finding the Syrian Kurds as an ally on the battlefield, in January 2015. But this opened up new geopolitical complications. The YPG is the armed wing of the left-wing Democratic Union Party (YPD), which is now in control of the Syrian Kurdish region. Both the YPD and the YPG have strong ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on the Turkish side, which has been designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the U.S.
The rapid rise of the Syrian Kurds and their military alliance with the U.S. have upset Turkey, which saw a stronger Syrian Kurdistan (also known as Rojava), as a threat that could strengthen the PKK further. This drove a wedge between Turkey and the U.S., both NATO members.
Tip of the spear
To overcome this contradiction, the U.S. founded a new coalition, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was led by the YPG and included Arab and other ethnic militias. The U.S. argument was that it was not directly helping the YPG but was supporting the SDF in the fight against the IS. But in effect, the SDF remained the official defence force of the Syrian Kurdistan; it is this force that has been the tip of the spear that destroyed the IS Caliphate.
After Kobane, the IS experienced a series of defeats on the Turkish border region. It lost Tal Abyad, Manbij, and then further east in Raqqa, the de facto capital. There was also Der Ezzour, one of the towns captured earlier by the jihadists and where it had been well-entrenched. In all these battles, the SDF did the ground fighting, clearing block after block and street after street of IS militants. It did the same in Baghouz, bringing the Caliphate to an end.
Despite the historical role the Kurds have played in destroying the Caliphate, they face risks of further aggression than recognition. Turkey is alarmed by the SDF’s victories. It has already carried out two attacks inside Syria, first to capture an IS stronghold on the border (which in a way stopped the Kurds from capturing that territory) and then drive Kurdish rebels away from Afrin, a border town.
Turkey wants to create a buffer between its border and the Syrian Kurdistan. It has also threatened to attack the Syrian Kurdish militias, calling them a “terrorist army”. Iran, which backs both the Iraqi and the Syrian governments, is wary of the Kurds as it has its own Kurdish problem. Recently, Turkey and Iran have announced a joint military campaign against the PKK.
The Syrian government has repeatedly vowed that it will retake every inch of territory lost during the civil war, which includes the Syrian Kurdistan where the PYD, the Kurdish party, is now in charge.
This means the Kurds are surrounded by enemies. The U.S. is their only ally.
But President Donald Trump has already announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Now that the Caliphate is destroyed, the U.S. has no strategic reason to continue troops in Syria. But if it pulls out troops without securing a deal for the Kurds, a tragic fate could be awaiting the heroes who brought down the IS Caliphate