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

Manual flushing has been a scourge of Indian society for decades. Despite legislative efforts, there are still significant numbers of manual scavengers in the country, more than 80% of which are concentrated in just four states. Data also shows that 340 people lost their lives in sewers and septic tanks between 2016 and 2020.

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

The 1993 Law on the Use of Manual Scavengers and the Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) defines “manual scavengers” as a person engaged or engaged in the manual carrying of human waste. The scope has been expanded in “The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013” ​​to include people who are employed in cleaning septic tanks, open drains and railroad tracks, etc.

Despite the fact that 1993 legislation banned manual flushing in India and the 2013 amendment provided severe punishment for dangerous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks, manual flushing continues to this day in certain parts of the country.

Over the years, governments have passed laws and regulations to alleviate the plight of manual scavengers. Organizations like Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) are also at the forefront of fighting the root cause of those involved in manual cleaning and its disposal.

Factors such as the caste paradigm – most of the people involved in this activity belong to the lower Dalit castes, poor alternative livelihoods, poor infrastructure (e.g. lack of water for sanitation) etc. have efforts to prevent Box interferes with manual flushing.

We take a look at the history of legislation and reforms in this area and their effectiveness in solving this problem over the past few years.

A long history of legislation banning the use of manual scavengers

The government of the Union planned to introduce the Law “The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and its Rehabilitation Law (Amendment), 2020” at the monsoon session of Parliament in 2020. However, the same was not introduced at this session of Parliament.

The bill proposed full mechanization of sewer cleaning and compensation for manual scavengers for deaths from sewer systems. This bill should 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 and efforts to ban manual cleanup.

  • One of the first attempts made after independence to address the problem of manual tidying was the Civil Rights Protection Act of 1955, which called for the abolition of tidying up or sweeping on the grounds of being untouchable.
  • In 1980-81 a centrally sponsored low-cost sanitation program – Integrated Inexpensive Wastewater Disposal (ILCS) – was initiated aimed at freeing scavengers by converting dry toilets into pit toilets.
  • In 1989, the National Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Finance & Development Corporation (NSCSTFDC), currently known as the National Scheduled Castes Finance & Development Corporation (NSFDC), was established as an integrated platform to provide financial assistance to manual scavengers.
  • Since most of the people were employed as manual scavengers at Scheduled Castes, the Atrocity Prevention Act was passed in 1989 to protect plumbing workers. This also facilitated the liberation of manual scavengers from their traditional occupation.
  • The 1993 law on the use of manual scavengers and the construction of dry latrines (ban) was one of the first efforts to ensure strict measures against the use of manual scavengers.

The National Commission for Safai Karmacharis (NCSK), formed in 1994 on the basis of the above 1993 Act, presented its first report in 2000. In that report, she highlighted the legislative loophole and actual implementation of the 1993 law. The 2003 CAG report evaluating the National Scavengers and Relatives Program for the Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers confirmed the observations made in the NCSK report.

In 2013, the law on the prohibition of employment as manual scavengers was passed in Parliament 2013. A major focus of this law was the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and the introduction of mechanization to prevent manual flushing.

The Kaka Kelelker Commission (1956), report of the Barve Committee, report of the Pandya Committee (1968), made early proposals to introduce mechanization and to regulate the operating conditions of manual scavengers.

SRMS was introduced to rehabilitate manual scavengers and dependents in alternative occupations

In 2007 the “Self-Employment Program for the Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS)” was introduced. The original goal of the program was to rehabilitate manual scavengers and their dependents into other professions by 2009.

The original schedule was not followed, and so the scheme was expanded. The system was revised under the Law on Prohibiting Employment as Manual Scavengers and its Rehabilitation Law of 2013. The definition of who constitutes a manual scavenger has been highlighted earlier in history. The system has been further expanded to include dependents, that is, anyone who is a member of the family or is dependent on the manual scavenger. Support under this scheme includes:

  • Cash assistance of up to Rs. 40 thousand upon identification, with limit on withdrawal in installments.
  • Loan assistance for sanitary projects.
  • Training to acquire new skills and entrepreneurship along with a scholarship.

To a response in Lok Sabha in September 2020, the Indian government responded with data on the number of beneficiaries under the SRMS. More than 45,000 families received support in the four-year period 2017-2021 (until September 15, 2020).

In the past five years, 340 manual scavengers deaths have been reported while at work

While SRMS has benefited more than 45,000 families in trying to rehabilitate them for alternative employment, data presented by the Indian government suggests that nearly 67,000 people are involved in manual cleanups.

In answering a question in Rajya Sabha in February 2021, the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment recognized the prevailing practice of people engaged in manual cleaning despite government efforts. According to the respective states, there are a total of 66,692 manual scavengers in the country as of February 10, 2021. More than half of these, i.e. 37,379, are located in Uttar Pradesh, followed by 7378 in Maharashtra and 6170 in Uttarakhand. In fact, according to government data, more than 80% of manual scavengers are only located in the four states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand and Assam.

The government also released details of manual scavengers deaths in the workplace, that is, death in sewers or septic tanks. In the past five years (2016-2020) there have been over 500 deaths from drowning in sewers and septic tanks. During this period, 2019 saw the highest deaths with 110 deaths. Of those deaths, 217 received full compensation while 47 received partial compensation.

Inconsistency & underreporting of manual scavengers

When asked in Lok Sabha in November 2010, the government replied that more than 1.18 lakh had been identified as manual scavengers for rehabilitation under SRMS.

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Based on this information, it can be said that the number of people identified as manual scavengers has declined over the past decade. As mentioned earlier, according to the latest information, there are around 66.6 thousand manual scavengers. However, there were concerns about the underreporting of the number of manual scavengers.

According to the 2018 National Safai Karmacharis Finance & Development Corporation (NSKFDC) survey, there were 87,913 manual scavengers in India. However, this survey was only conducted in 170 identified districts in 18 states. In addition, only 42,000 have been recognized by the government and only around 27,000 have received benefits.

According to a report on Down to Earth, there are around 1.82 lakh households that listed their main occupation as manual tidying up in the 2011 socio-economic census. As mentioned earlier, in its response from Lok Sabha in 2020, the Indian government identified around 1.18 lakh manual scavengers. This suggests underreporting and misidentification by the government. Even the number found in the 2018 survey is inaccurate because it doesn’t cover all states and counties.

Beyond the validity of the government figures, the fact that a significant number of people are still involved in this activity and that their engagement continues to cause deaths is very worrying, especially in a modern democracy like ours.

Proper and foolproof identification of those involved in manual cleanup, alternative employment promotion, and infrastructure development, as well as efforts to address caste-related issues are the way forward.

Selected image: Manual scavengers in India

In fact

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