The recently-concluded monsoon session of parliament saw questions being raised on the practice of manual scavenging. A total of six questions, one in the Lok Sabha and five in the Rajya Sabha, questioned the government about survey data of manual scavengers, budgetary allocations, rehabilitation schemes and benefits.
The minister of state for social justice and empowerment, Ramdas Athawale, while answering these questions, accepted in the Lok Sabha that “the inhuman practice of manual scavenging is still continuing in the country”. According to the data tabled in response to multiple questions, 13,657 people have been identified as manual scavengers across 13 states of the country. This is a marginally higher number than the 13,640 reported in a response to a similar query raised in the Budget session earlier this year.
The minister also informed the MPs about an ongoing survey in 170 districts across 18 states to count the number of people still trapped within this occupation. The survey has been completed in 155 districts and 14,678 manual scavengers have been identified up to July 23, 2018. While answering a question raised by Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’ Brien, Athawale spelled out the rationale for collecting data from the 170 districts. These districts, he said, were shortlisted on the basis of insanitary latrines converted to sanitary latrines under the Swachh Bharat Mission. Members of a task force representing social organisations that work with sanitation workers and manual scavengers also provided information about the presence of manual scavengers. O’ Brien also wanted to know if the survey would include numbers for sewer and septic tank cleaners who work without protective gears, to which the minister responded that, “No such data is captured in the present national survey of manual scavengers which is restricted to identification of manual scavengers.”
A question about a “four-fold increase” in the number of manual scavengers was asked twice – one each in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Both were met with a disagreement: “The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has not received any such report.”
In a response to a question by another Trinamool Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha, Abir Ranjan Biswas, on details about people who had lost their lives due to manual scavenging, the house was informed, “There have been no deaths due to manual scavenging in the last three years. However, some states have reported death of persons while cleaning septic tanks and sewers”. Three hundred and thirty one such cases of death have been reported across nine states, eight more than the 323 cases reported according to data tabled in the Budget session of the parliament earlier this year.
Akshi Chawla is an ICFJ Associate.