Since the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), there has been a significant political and financial movement towards tackling India’s huge sanitation challenge. More toilets were constructed, more sewer lines were laid and more septic tanks and toilet pits were built. However, much of the work of sanitation maintenance and cleaning falls under the broad category of manual scavenging in India.
Manual Scavengers Rehabilitation Act, 2013 prohibits the employment of manual scavengers, the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment, and the construction of insanitary latrines.
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As the Centre’s process to count the number of manual scavengers in the country continues, state governments have reduced the number of “verified” people in the caste-based profession by more than half.
The Socio-Economic Caste Census (2011) had shown the existence of at least one person each from 1.8 lakh households in rural India being engaged in manually cleaning excreta from dry latrines, open drains, and single pit toilets.
“There are almost five million people involved in sanitation work across the country; and is of nine different types that vary in terms of risk exposure, payments, and policy regulation” says Dalberg Advisors who conducted Sanitation Workers Project.
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According to the Indian Express, states were asked to verifying 54,929 manual scavengers identified across 170 select districts – but have said that only 25,015 of those people were confirmed to be working in the banned profession.
“Bihar, Haryana and Telangana governments have denied the existence of even a single manual scavenger in their states, even though hundreds had shown up to self-identify during the survey” said state’s official data.
Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Punjab have also brought down the number of manual scavengers.
Maharashtra is the only state to have verified all 5,638 people and registered themselves as manual scavengers during the survey. Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Karnataka too have verified a large proportion of the names registered. But it is very unfortunate that no survey could be conducted in the seven selected districts of Jammu and Kashmir.
The government’s statistics on manual scavengers are grossly inadequate. There have been seven surveys conducted already to identify the number of manual scavengers and each has come up with a different number. The activists have been arguing for years that the official numbers are heavily under-represented.
The Economic Times on October 2, 2018, quoting a senior official of National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation (NSKFDC), reported a survey by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment across 18 states, stating that over 20,500 people have been identified as involved in manual scavenging in India- with Uttar Pradesh accounting for nearly 6,000 of them.
An earlier survey conducted over a period of three years (2014-17) had estimated there were 13,770 manual scavengers in the country. In this survey, some states like Gujarat, Kerala and Maharashtra had even denied the existence of persons engaged in manual scavenging in their territories. However, the latest ongoing survey has revealed that manual scavenging was prevalent even in these states.
“The 170 districts were identified based on two parameters — firstly the inputs we received from the agencies working for the community of sanitation workers like Safai Karamchari Andolan and others and those districts where larger number of conversion of insanitary toilets have been reported by the ministry of drinking water and sanitation,” said the National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation (NSKFDC).