The deeply inhuman practice of manual scavenging, where people manually clean, carry, dispose off human excreta has been banned in India since 1993. A more comprehensive legislation—the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was enacted by Parliament in 2013. Despite legal measures, the practice continues, affecting lakhs of people—from some of the most marginalised sections of society.
IDENTIFICATION OF MANUAL SCAVENGERS: DEFLATED NUMBERS
An important component of the law is the identification of manual scavengers across the country through surveys. It’s only when the state accepts that the practice of manual scavenging exists in large numbers that it can commit to their holistic rehabilitation. Even as fresh surveys are being carried out in 164 districts, the numbers as they exist in various government censuses and reports are vastly underestimated. The Wire’s Manual Scavenging Project has arrived at the three crucial numbers — the number of manual scavengers employed/rehabilitated, the number of deaths, and the number of arrests/detentions in case of death/injury – by reconciling different data sets maintained by the government.
The 2013 Act mandates the verification of a person engaged as a manual scavenger by a local authority (panchayat in rural areas, municipalities in urban areas) before they can be provided rehabilitation benefits. The number reached through this process is a serious underestimation. Local officials and the enumeration process is often characterised by apathy and personal and institutional prejudices. Not surprisingly, manual scavengers have been officially identified only in 13 states so far, according to the government’s own data.
In the latest set of government figures revealed in a response to a question raised in the Lok Sabha on July 31, 2018, Ramdas Athawale, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, said that 13657 people were identified as manual scavengers across 13 states. 11247, or 82% of them, were reported from Uttar Pradesh alone. Earlier in the Budget session, in response to a similar query, the Minister had informed the House that there were 13640 people identified as manual scavengers in the country, and that under the Self Employment Scheme for the Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers, the government had provided rehabilitation – which included cash assistance (to 12,853 people), training (13,587) and capital subsidy (809). It is unclear whether rehabilitation efforts have been adequate and allowed those who were engaged in manual scavenging to leave that life permanently.
The Socio-Economic Caste Census, 2011 (SECC) recorded 1,82,505 households as those where at least one member was engaged in manual scavenging. Not only are the numbers, as reported in the SECC, and in the government’s enumeration exercise, widely disproportionate, there are other gaps as well. While the SECC identifies more than 65,000 manual scavengers in Maharashtra and over 17,000 in Tripura, the government’s enumeration exercise for both these states has no data on manual scavengers there.
Even though many have lost their lives or sustained serious injuries while manually cleaning sewers and gutters, there is no official record of the number of lives lost. For the purpose of this project, we reached out to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment for data. The numbers as provided by the ministry reveal and hide in equal measure.
- 75 people died in sewers/septic tanks. These deaths were brought to the notice of the ministry via press reports/individuals. The 75 deaths occurred in 12 states/UTs from 2014 to 2017.
- While 75 people died, a state-wise list of 293 cases was provided by the ministry where compensation was paid by the state government to the family of the victim. These 293 cases (as of Oct 31, 2017) are spread across seven states – Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Karnataka, Haryana, Kerala, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. An updated version of the list mentioned in the Lok Sabha reply of March 2018 puts the number of cases identified at 323, and also adds cases from Delhi along with the seven states. This number was further updated to 331, as per the data shared in response to a question asked in the Rajya Sabha in the Monsoon Session. The updated list added Telangana to the previous eight states.
- Another list collated by the Safai Karamchari Andolan (as on April 13, 2015) puts the number of deaths at 143. These were spread across 12 states.
While some states are mentioned in only one of the three data sets, others were mentioned in two, or all three. Since the data is state-wise and not by individuals, there was no way to verify overlaps and double-counting. For states mentioned only in one of the three datasets, we picked up the count of deaths as it is. For states that appeared in more than one dataset, we chose the count of deaths from the dataset that had the highest number for that particular state. There were 419 cases of death across the three data sets, a figure grossly underestimated according to ground reports and experts.
EMPLOYING A MANUAL SCAVENGER: IT’S ILLEGAL
Further, while employing a person as a manual scavenger is a punishable offence – and despite the fact that at least 416 people, if not more, have lost their lives and/or sustained serious injuries –arrests, convictions, and punishments have nearly never taken place. The National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) annual reports from 1993 onwards have no mention of any specific crimes under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (P) Act, 1993. They could be included in the category of ‘Other Special and Local Laws’ crimes. The manual scavenging Act came up in the NCRB report for the first time in 2014. There were no cases reported. In 2015, two cases from Karnataka were mentioned. Only one went for trial.
In a slightly encouraging divergence, the Lok Sabha response of March 2018 mentions two states where some action has been taken. The Karnataka government reported filing FIRs in 55 cases. In a 2017 case in Delhi, the government reported suspending the concerned Delhi Jal Board and Public Works Department officials, and the initiation of a police investigation.
CONCLUSION: THE NUMBERS DO LIE
Instead of being able to identify patterns and trends, what our Manual Scavenging Project reveals is that very little data around manual scavenging has been collected and maintained by the government. It has many inconsistencies and wide gaps. If the continuation of this practice despite stringent laws is a reflection of our collective overwhelming apathy, the lack of reliable, updated and comprehensive data on its widespread prevalence is a further indicator of this indifference.
If the Indian state is serious about its commitment to providing all its citizens a life of basic dignity and freedom, merely passing a law on the eradication of manual scavenging will not be enough. Manual scavenging is caste based oppression. Its perpetuation is not just the government’s responsibility but also a reflection of our collective sinful history.
Note: This piece was updated on August 04, 2018 to reflect the latest data.
Data analysis by ICFJ Associate Akshi Chawla. ICFJ Associates Kunal Ranjan, Kamala Sripada and Furquan Ameen contributed to this piece.