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Manual Scavenging

The practice of manual cleaning of sewers without safety equipments is not only violation of the laws of the land but reflects the inhuman attitude towards certain sections of society, the life conditions they face. There is urgent need to take proactive actions against such practices and those violating the laws should be strictly punished. Thus, hereby discussing the issue of manual scavenging in India.

Why manual scavenging is prevalent in India?

Scavenging has been an occupation imposed upon certain citizens of the country by the society, which later on continued as a traditional occupation among Scheduled Castes. This class of citizens of India is known as Manual Scavengers.

  • Manual scavenging exists primarily because of absence of water borne latrines. The House-listing and Housing Census, 2011 reported that there are about 26 lakh insanitary latrines in the country. 
  • With emergence of urban areas these people were also employed for cleaning of sewers or septic tanks.
  • Low level of education, awareness about their rights, laws and low self esteem force them to take such work.
  • Lack of empathy among the government, contractors and household members employing manual scavengers is another reason, wherein these class of people fail to see the agony of the manual scavengers.
  • Poor implementation of the existing laws has also helped in continuation of this practice.
  • These section of society are not organized and don’t have any significant voice in the government structures which cause their voice being unheard.

Manual scavengers are exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections that affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. The toxic gases from sewers create death threat for them. Their children are also caught up in this quagmire. Under these circumstances, it is almost impossible for their children to become educated. Even though, in modern times these people desire to leave the profession, their social, economic, educational and cultural aspects have made it difficult for them to find an alternate profession. The social stigma of untouchability continues to stick, in one form or the other largely because of the unclean nature of their occupation.

Government initiatives to eliminate manual scavenging

Considering the seriousness of the situation government has taken a number of initiatives focussing on conversion of insanitary latrines, rehabilitation and employment of manual scavengers, scholarships for their children being the main focus area.

  • Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’ (MS Act, 2013) which came into effect from 6thDecember, 2013 replaced Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines(Prohibition) Act, 1993.This Act intends to achieve its objectives to:-
  1. Eliminate the insanitary latrines.
  2. Prohibit:-
    1. Employment as Manual Scavengers
    2. Hazardous manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks.
  • Survey of Manual Scavengers and their rehabilitation,

within a time bound manner. The act says National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) would monitor implementation of the Act and enquire into complaints regarding contravention of the provisions of the Act.

  • Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers(SRMS), a successor scheme to NSLRS ( National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their Dependents), was introduced in January, 2007 with the objective to rehabilitate remaining manual scavengers and their dependents in alternative occupations, in a time bound manner.  The responsibility of rehabilitation of the identified manual scavengers to the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation.
  • Apart from these under Swachh Bharat Mission focus has been given on conversion of insanitary latrines into sanitary latrines.
  • Under the Scheme of “Pre Matric Scholarship to the Children of those engaged in Occupations involving cleaning and prone to health hazards”, being implemented by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the children of manual scavengers are also provided scholarship.
  • Honorable Supreme Court of India gave landmark judgment to identify and award compensation of Rs 10 lakh to dependents in deaths of sewerage workers who died while cleaning sewerage and septic tanks since 1993.

Problems in implementation

Despite a large number of schemes and provisions the inhuman practice of manual scavenging has continued.

  • The National Safai Karmachari Commission which was mandated to implement the act has not been functioning properly. Its website has not been updated about recent developments and new initiatives.
  • In urban areas municipalities are cash short to use machines for cleaning of the sewers or provide protective equipments. They generally blame contractors for any loss of life.
  • The States/UT’s are slow in identification of insanitary latrines and manual scavengers as there is no time-bound plan for identification of insanitary latrines and manual scavengers.
  • Further, in a case filed in the Supreme Court of India, many States/UTs gave affidavit that there are no insanitary latrines in their jurisdiction.  Due to fear of contempt of the Court, they hesitate in reporting existence of insanitary latrines and manual scavengers in their States/UTs. 
  • At present the work of conversion of insanitary latrines into sanitary latrines is being attended to as a part of broad programme of construction of toilets.  There is a need to have a time-bound approach as per the mandate of the MS Act, 2013, for conversion of insanitary latrines. 

Rehabilitation of manual scavengers is also slow and in many cases not adequate due to various problems being faced, which include:-

  1. Manual scavengers are mostly illiterate and have no exposure to any work, other than sanitation related work.  Many of them are old. They lack confidence for running self employment projects. Many of them are not willing even to avail any skill development training.
  2. Banks are hesitant about providing loan to manual scavengers. Even many State Channelising Agencies, due to low rate of recovery of loan from safai karamcharis, are not willing to extend loan to manual scavengers.

Due to low confidence levels the identified manual scavengers demand that they may be provided jobs of safai karamchari in local authorities.

Way forward

In India of 21st century, which aspires to be world power the practice of manual scavenging must be completely abolished, otherwise it will remain a blot on India and its value system. An aggressive campaign for this which focus on attitudinal change of the all sections of the society must be followed. The National Commission for Safai Karamchari must be made responsive and responsible to the needs of time. Swachh Bharat Mission may be used to actively target conversion of insanitary latrines on priority basis. Liberated manual scavengers must be linked to social security and other welfare schemes to ensure that they are not dependent on this inhuman work for their survival. All these steps if taken seriously the problem of manual scavenging can be eliminated.