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Data: 340 deaths of Manual Scavengers in Sewers & Septic tanks between 2016 & 2020

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Manual scavenging has been a scourge of the Indian society for decades. Despite legislative efforts, there is still a sizeable number of manual scavengers in the country with more than 80% concentrated in just four states. Data also indicates that 340 people lost their lives between 2016 & 2020 in sewers & septic tanks. 

The practice of manual scavenging has plagued Indian society for decades. Despite efforts over the years to eradicate this practice, it still exists in various parts of the country. 

‘The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993’ defines ‘Manual Scavenger’ as a person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta. The scope was expanded in – ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’, to include persons employed in the cleaning of septic tanks, open drains and railway tracks, etc.

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In spite of the fact that the legislation in 1993 banned manual scavenging in India and the amendment in 2013 imposed stringent punishment for engaging any person in hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks, manual scavenging continues to this day in certain parts of the country.

Over the years, governments have enacted laws and implemented schemes to alleviate the plight of manual scavengers. Organizations like the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) are also at the forefront of fighting the cause of those involved in manual scavenging and its elimination.

However, factors like the caste paradigm – with most of the people engaged in this activity belonging to lower Dalit castes, meager alternative livelihood opportunities, lack of infrastructure (e.g., lack of water for sanitation), etc. have hindered the efforts towards prevention of manual scavenging. 

We take a look at the course of legislation & reforms in this area and their efficacy in addressing this issue over the last few years.

A long history of legislation to prohibit employment of manual scavengers 

The Union government planned to introduce‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020’ in the Monsoon Session of Parliament in 2020. However, the same was not introduced in that session of parliament. 

Complete mechanization of sewer cleaning, compensation to manual scavengers in case of sewer deaths was proposed in the bill. This bill was planned to be an amendment to – ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’. 

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Here is a timeline of the legislation & efforts towards the prohibition of Manual scavenging. 

  • One of the first attempts that were made Post-independence to address the issue of Manual scavenging was the – Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, which called for an abolition of scavenging or sweeping on grounds of untouchability. 
  • In 1980-81, a centrally sponsored Scheme for low-cost sanitation – Integrated Lowe Cost Sanitation (ILCS) was initiated, which aimed at ‘liberation for Scavengers’ by conversion of dry toilets into Pit toilets. 
  • In 1989, National Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Finance & Development Corporation (NSCSTFDC), currently known as National Scheduled Castes Finance and Development Corporation (NSFDC), was established as an integrated platform to provide financial aid to manual scavengers. 
  • With most of the people employed as manual scavengers belonging to Scheduled Castes, ‘the Prevention of Atrocities Act’ was made as a safeguard to sanitation workers in 1989. This also facilitated the freeing up of manual scavengers from their traditional occupation. 
  • The Employment of Manual Scavengers & Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was one of the first efforts of ensuring strict action against employing manual scavengers. 

The National Commission for Safai Karmacharis (NCSK) constituted in 1994, based on the aforementioned act in 1993, provided its first report in the year 2000. In this report, it highlighted the gap in the legislation and its actual implementation of the 1993 Act. The CAG’s report of 2003, evaluating ‘National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers & their Dependents’ corroborated the observations made in the NCSK’s report. 

In 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Act, 2013 was passed in the parliament. A key emphasis of this act was on the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and also to introduce mechanization to prevent manual scavenging. 

Kaka Kelelker Commission -1956, Barve Committee Report, Pandya Committee Report – 1968, made early suggestions to bring in mechanization and to regulate the service conditions of manual scavengers. 

SRMS introduced to rehabilitate manual scavengers and dependents in alternative occupations 

In 2007, the ‘Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS)’ was introduced. The initial objective of the scheme was to rehabilitate manual scavengers and their dependents into alternate occupations by 2009. 

The initial timeline was not met, and hence the scheme was extended. The scheme was revised under – Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers & their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. The definition of who constitutes a manual scavenger has been highlighted earlier in the story. The scheme was extended further to include dependents i.e., anyone who is a member of the family or is dependent on the manual scavenger.  The assistance under this schema includes: 

  • Cash assistance of up to Rs. 40 thousand upon identification, with limits on withdrawal in installments. 
  • Loan assistance for sanitation-related projects. 
  • Training for acquiring new skills & entrepreneurship capabilities along with a stipend.  

Responding to an answer in Lok Sabha in September 2020, the Government of India provided data on the number of beneficiaries under SRMS. More than 45 thousand families received assistance during the four-year period 2017-2021 (up to 15 September 2020). 

In the last five years, 340 deaths of Manual scavengers while on work were reported

While SRMS has benefitted more than 45 thousand families in an effort to rehabilitate them towards alternate employment, the data presented by the Government of India indicates that there are nearly 67 thousand people engaged in manual scavenging activity.

Responding to a question in Rajya Sabha in February 2021, Minister of State for Social Justice & empowerment took cognizance of the prevailing practice of people employed into manual scavenging, in spite of the efforts of the government.  As per the information provided by the respective states, there are a total of 66,692 manual scavengers in the country as of 10 February 2021.   More than half of them i.e., 37,379 are in Uttar Pradesh followed by 7378 in Maharashtra and 6170 in Uttarakhand in that order. In fact, more than 80% of the manual scavengers as per the government data are in just the four states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, and Assam. 

Further, the government also provided details of on-job fatalities of manual scavengers i.e., death in sewers or septic tanks.  In the last five-year period (2016-2020), there have been over 500 fatalities due to drowning in sewers and septic tanks. During this period the highest fatalities were recorded in 2019 with 110 deaths.  Of these deaths, 217 were fully compensated while 47 received partial compensation. 

Inconsistency & under reporting of Manual scavengers 

Responding to a question in Lok Sabha in November 2010, the government stated that more than 1.18 lakh people were identified as manual scavengers for rehabilitation under SRMS. 

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Based on this information, it can be said that there has been a fall in the number of people identified as manual scavengers in the last decade. As highlighted earlier, the latest information states there are around 66.6 thousand manual scavengers. However, there have been apprehensions about the under-reporting of the number of manual scavengers.  

As per the survey conducted by National Safai Karmacharis Finance & Development Corporation (NSKFDC) in 2018, there were 87,913 manual scavengers in India. However, this survey was conducted only in identified 170 districts in 18 states. Furthermore, of these, only 42 thousand have been recognized by the government and only around 27 thousand have received any benefits. 

As per a report on ‘Down to Earth’, there are around 1.82 lakh households who have listed their primary occupation as manual scavenging in Socio-Economic Caste Census-2011. But as pointed out earlier, the Government of India, in its Lok Sabha answer in 2020 has identified around 1.18 lakh Manual scavengers. This does point to under-reporting & improper identification on part of the government. Even the number identified through the 2018 survey is inaccurate since it does not cover all states & districts. 

Beyond the validity of the government numbers, the fact that a sizable number of the people are still engaged in this activity and deaths are still caused due to their engagement is very concerning, especially in a modern democracy like ours. 

Proper & fool-proof identification of those engaged in manual scavenging, encouragement for alternative employment, and development of infrastructure along with efforts to address the inherent caste-related issues, is the way forward.

Featured Image: Manual Scavengers in India

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