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The Curious case of data on Manual Scavengers

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Manual Scavenging is an inhuman practice that continues even to this day though the government denies the same. In fact, multiple government & independent agencies such as the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis & the NHRC have expressed serious reservations about the government data based on a 2018 survey. Even the NCRB has stopped publishing the number of cases registered under the 2013 act meant to prohibit employment as manual scavengers. 

Despite a legislation banning the act of manual scavenging, the practice continues to exist in India. While there is some general agreement that this practice continues to exist, there are a lot of discrepancies around the data on manual scavengers in the country. The numbers provided by independent organizations like the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) point towards the underestimation of the figures by the government. Even the government data, provided in response to multiple questions in Parliament at different points of time is contradictory. 

Manual scavenging exists despite legislation

According to the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 that was brought in to prohibit employment of manual scavengers, ‘Manual Scavenger’ is a person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta. 

After close to two decades, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was passed to override the provisions of the 1993 act. This act laid down a detailed definition of ‘manual scavenger’ as an individual engaged or employed for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in premises such as railway tracks, open drains, septic tanks, and insanitary latrines. Those persons who clean excreta using devices and protective gears are not deemed as manual scavengers, as per the Act.  

Government’s legislation and schemes to prohibit manual scavenging

Various laws and schemes have been implemented over the years to put an end to the practice and uplift the individuals and families involved in manual scavenging. Two important legislations, as mentioned earlier are,

  • The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 criminalized the employment of manual scavengers to clean dry latrines. Under this Act, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) was constituted in 1994 to investigate the conditions of Safai Karamcharis in the country, investigate grievances with respect to the implementation of schemes and make recommendations to the Central Government.
  • The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was also passed with the objective to end manual scavenging. The 2013 Act also focused on the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and the introduction of mechanization to prevent manual scavenging. Under this Act, any person who engages an individual for manual scavenging is punishable with imprisonment up to two years and/or a penalty of Rs. 1 lakh.

In addition to the government’s interventions, there are organizations like the Safai Karmachari Andolan which are also on a mission to eliminate manual scavenging from the country.

More than 97% of those engaged in manual scavenging are from the SC community

Manual scavenging invites not only caste-based discrimination & social inequality but also is hazardous with severe health implications for those involved. Most of the people engaged in this activity are those belonging to Scheduled Castes. According to a parliament response from December 2021, a total of 58,098 manual scavengers have been identified as per the criteria laid down in the 2013 act. Of these, caste-related data is available for 43,797 manual scavengers, 97.25% of who belonged to Scheduled Castes. 

Source: Rajya Sabha

Multiple other Government agencies contradict the official Government line

Despite a legislation with stringent provisions, and concerted efforts to eliminate the practice, manual scavenging is prevalent even today. Though the Government recently stated in Parliament that there is no report of people currently engaged in manual scavenging in the country, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK)’s latest annual report (2019-20) noted that the practice which started long back and became prominent due to urbanization and industrialization is still continuing in both rural and urban areas. Even the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in a statement in January 2021, held that the claims made by many States that they have zero manual scavengers and zero insanitary latrines are far from the truth.

SECC 2011 revealed that 1.82 lakh persons in rural households were involved in manual scavenging

Based on the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 (SECC-2011), data of manual scavengers was released by the Ministry of Rural Development in July 2015. As per SECC-2011, there were 1,82,505 manual scavengers in only the rural areas of the country. It should be noted that the SECC-2011 data is based on respondent input as revealed by the households to the enumerator. Census 2011 also revealed that there were over 26 lakh insanitary latrines in the country which requires human excreta to be cleaned or handled manually. The government claims to have converted the majority into sanitary ones under the Swachh Bharath Mission.

Only a few avail benefits under relevant schemes due to data gaps

To identify the number of manual scavengers in the country, two surveys have been conducted by the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment during the years 2013 and 2018 in which 14,812 and 48,251 manual scavengers were identified respectively giving a total of more than 63,000 manual scavengers in the country. However, the 2018 survey was conducted only in a total of 18 states & 170 districts. Organizations like the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) have held that the real picture may emerge only after a nationwide survey on similar lines. 

Rehabilitation schemes such as one-time cash assistance, skill development training, and subsidies are provided to a smaller number of persons out of the identified manual scavengers. The poor implementation of the schemes has also been highlighted by the Parliamentary Standing Committee report.

In states for which data is available, the difference between the SECC-2011 data and the national survey’s data is huge. As per SECC-2011, Maharashtra alone has recorded more than 65,000 rural households (35% of the total) who were engaged in manual scavenging whereas the 2018 survey has identified only over 7,300 (11.7% of the total) manual scavengers in the state. 

Zero deaths were reported from manual scavenging while 321 deaths while cleaning sewers

In response to a question in the Rajya Sabha in December 2021, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment stated that zero deaths have been reported from manual scavenging in the last five years. However, a total of 321 persons lost their lives while cleaning sewers and septic tanks between 2017 and 2021. Data available with the NCSK indicates that 954 sewer deaths took place between 1993 and July 2021. The NCSK clearly mentions the data is based only on the information received from States/UTs, Print and electronic media reports, complaints received by the Commission, etc. In other words, even this data may not reflect the true picture. 

There are 7.7 lakh manual scavengers in the country according to SKA

According to the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a non-profit working to eliminate this inhuman practice, the actual number of manual scavengers in the country could be much higher than what is being officially reported. SKA website reports that there are an estimated 7.7 lakh sewer cleaners and 1760 deaths of sewer cleaners have been reported since the year 2000.  It has also been reported that there are 36,176 railway sewer cleaners. 

NCRB stopped publishing data of cases under the 2013 act from 2017

With respect to the cases filed under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) data reveals that there have been no cases registered till 2014. In 2015, two cases were registered under the law in Karnataka. In 2016, NCRB stopped showing the number of cases registered under the Act separately in its main report. However, data of cases registered under the 2013 act for the year 2016 was provided in the additional tables. In 2016, two cases were registered under the law in Tamil Nadu. From 2017, even this data is not available as a separate head and the number of cases registered under this act has been merged with cases under the existing ‘Other Special and Local Laws (SLLs)’.  In other words, there is no way of knowing how many cases are being booked under the 2013 act from the NCRB reports. 

Proper data is the need of the hour

All the available information makes it amply clear that there is a huge issue with data related to various aspects of manual scavengers. Such discrepancies in data points result in inefficient enforcement of legislations and schemes formulated for relief & rehabilitation of manual scavengers. 

Identification & Estimation: The first big issue is the identification & estimation. A nationwide survey covering all the states & districts is a must to identify and come up with a foolproof database of manual scavengers & related households. Such data should be regularly updated to ensure they reflect ground realities. Secondly, there must be proper registration & enumeration system for sewer workers. 

NCRB Data: The NCRB on its part should start including the number of cases under this head in its main report irrespective of the quantum of cases registered under this act. Fewer cases should not be an excuse to not release this data. 

Only when proper data & available, can manual scavengers be identified to provide them with adequate infrastructure, and provision of alternate livelihood. The NHRC also recommends that the Rehabilitation process of manual scavengers may be linked to other schemes like MGNREGS, a hike in compensation under one-time cash assistance, removal of middlemen, and monitoring by NCRB among others. There is an urgent need to address the data issues without which the laws & schemes brought in for this purpose will remain only on paper. 

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