The shame of manual scavenging

Manual scavenging, the act of cleaning latrines, septic tanks etc by human labour was banned in India by an act of parliament way back in 1993. The said act was further reinforced in 2013. Yet, 6 years later, the practice continues unabated as observed in a report by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), there is a death every 5 days in India’s sewers, manholes and septic tanks. And yet, by the NCSK’s own admission, this number is way under reported. Firstly, the NCSK survey covered only 8 states. Secondly, in many cases, manual scavenging deaths are not documented properly. A much more reliable source of data in this regard is the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), an organisation run by Magsaysay awardee Bezwada Wilson, and working for the development of manual scavengers. The SKA data suggests one such death every 2 days in the country. The SKA data also suggests that average age of manual scavenging death victims is around 32 years.

A survey by the ministry of social justice and empowerment put the number of manual scavengers in India at around 20,500. However, other available stats do suggest that this figure is grossly underestimated. The 2011 census recorded 740,078 households that have their waste and faecal matter cleared out by manual scavengers. 21 lakh houses disposed of their faecal matter in dry latrines, which were also cleaned manually. The Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 counted over 1.82 lakh families that had at least one member employed in manual scavenging. The SKA estimates the number of manual scavengers in India today at over 7 lakhs.

One key reason for the continued bane of manual scavenging is the law itself. While the doctrine does put down manual cleaning of septic tanks and sewer pits as illegal, it also says that the same is not illegal if the workers are provided “protective gear” and “other cleaning devices” but doesn’t specify nature of protective gear. This lacunae is exploited mercilessly by private contractors. Moreover in India, this profession is largely taken up by the lower castes who largely do not have access to any other livelihood means and are completely dependent on this heinous profession.

As per figures released by the union ministry of social justice and empowerment, 817 manual scavenging deaths have occurred in the country since 1993. TamilNadu and Gujarat top the list of manual scavenging deaths. 144 such deaths have occurred in TN since 1993 while the figure for Gujarat is 131. According to the SKA survey data, 294 manual scavenging deaths have occurred in TN between 2008 & 2018 – an indication of the huge suppression happening in no of deaths. Moreover, as confirmed by the ministry, not a single person has been convicted in any state for these deaths. In 2017, the supreme court had ordered awarding of compensation to the tune of Rs 10 lacs to families of manual scavenging victims. Yet there is no definitive data available on the compensation disbursal. Official estimates suggest 75% victims in TN have received compensation while the same for Gujarat is only 30%.

Loophole in the governing law, lack of education and viable alternative employment opportunities, poor information collection & maintenance, exploitation by private contractors and lax attitude of the law enforcement all are contributing to this inhuman and shameful practice continuing in India.

While in words the union government had expressed determination to eradicate manual scavenging, actions haven’t been quite as enthusiastic. Union budget allocated only Rs 47 crore for rehabilitating manual scavengers in 2014-2015. In the three subsequent years, the actual spends were Rs 10.01 crore (2015-2016), Rs 1 crore (2016-2017) and Rs 5 crore (2017-2018) only. However, here state governments are more culpable since it is primarily their responsibility to execute and use the sanctioned amounts for rehabilitation of manual scavenging workers – something that clearly most state governments haven’t done properly.

Yet there’s some silver lining even to this dark cloud. Last year, a group of engineers in Kerala developed “Bandicoot” , a robot for cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. Having undergone successful field trials, it was adopted by the Kerala Water Board for cleaning of sewers in Trivandrum. With the Swachh Bharat Mission aiming at a cleaner India, investment of funds on this and similar other technological interventions will be the way forward on this matter.

Additionally, amending the existing law to eliminate the loopholes, ensuring accurate estimation of manual scavenging workforce and providing alternate employment opportunities to them are absolutely essential steps that are needed immediately.

Above all, what is needed is to recognize that to make another human being take up such a demeaning task is in violation of humanity itself. Till such realization occurs among us all, things will never change.

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