Context: The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has observed in its recent report that only 508 of the 766 districts in the country have been declared free of manual scavenging.
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- The Ministry previously had maintained that manual scavenging had been eliminated in the country, and that any deaths were attributed to the hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.
- The Ministry differentiated between manual scavenging and the hazardous cleaning of sewers and acknowledges that manual scavenging still persists in many districts.
- The report also mentions the scheme for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, which provided a one-time cash payout of ₹40,000 each to the identified sewer workers, along with skills training and support for starting their own businesses.
- However, this scheme has now been merged with the NAMASTE scheme, which focuses on mechanizing sewer work.
- The NAMASTE scheme aims to mechanize sewer work and improve the working conditions of sewer workers.
- It involves collaboration with other ministries and requires urban local bodies to identify and profile septic tank/sewer workers, provide them with training, safety equipment, and health insurance, among other interventions.
- The scheme also provides capital subsidies to incentivize workers to mechanize their work.
Understanding Manual Scavenging
What is it?
- Manual scavenging is a dehumanizing practice that involves the manual cleaning and handling of human excreta from dry latrines, sewers, septic tanks, railway lines, and other such places, typically using basic tools like brooms.
- It is predominantly a caste-based and forced occupation in India.
- Currently, there are approximately 58,098 individuals identified as “eligible manual scavengers” across the country.
- The eradication of manual scavenging is of utmost importance for achieving various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
- This practice not only violates various international conventions but also contradicts India’s legislative and constitutional mandates.
Factors Contributing to the Persistence of Manual Scavenging
- Informal Economy and Lack of Recognition: The practice of manual scavenging often occurs within the informal economy, making it challenging to identify and provide associated rights and protections to those involved.
- Weak Legal Framework: The Manual Scavenging (Prohibition) Act of 2013 does not consider the cleaning of human excreta with protective gear as manual scavenging, creating loopholes in the law and failing to address the issue comprehensively.
- Ineffective Implementation: Despite the ban on manual scavenging since 1993, the practice persists due to inadequate enforcement and implementation of the laws and regulations.
- Water Scarcity and Sanitation Issues: In certain rural areas of India, inadequate access to proper water supply results in the manual removal of excreta from toilets, as alternative sanitation facilities are lacking.
- Challenges in Restoration and Rehabilitation: The complex procedures for procuring loans through different schemes, such as the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), create barriers for manual scavengers to access funds for restoration and rehabilitation.
- Lack of Organized Representation: Manual scavengers often lack organized representation, such as trade unions or advocacy groups, which could amplify their voices and protect their rights. They belong to highly marginalized sections of society, perpetuating their exploitation.
- Absence of Mechanization: The design of septic tanks often requires manual cleaning, as they are not equipped with mechanisms for safe and automated disposal of waste, further perpetuating the need for manual scavenging.
Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act 2013
- ‘Manual scavenger’:
- Any person who has been employed to handle undecomposed human waste from an insanitary latrine, open drain or pit or railway track is a manual scavenger under this law.
- The person could have been employed by anyone – say, someone from their village or by an agency or contractor.
- It does not matter if she was given regular employment or engaged on contract basis, she is covered under this law.
- Exception – Any person who has been employed to clean human waste and does so with the help of the appropriate protective gear and equipment will not be considered a manual scavenger under this law.
- Another group of people called ‘safai karamcharis’ are also sometimes considered as manual scavengers – however, they usually refer to people working as sweepers or cleaning workers in the municipalities, government or private organisations.
- Preventing Manual Scavenging:
- Under this law, the first step to preventing manual scavenging is demolishing ‘insanitary latrines’.
- It imposed certain time bound commitments by the local authorities (municipal bodies, cantonment boards and railway authorities).
- The local authorities are responsible for the building and maintenance of the community sanitary latrines and must make sure that they are functional and hygienic.
- Offence: Under the Act, it is an offence to
- Employ people as manual scavengers to clean insanitary latrines.
- Employ people to clean sewers and septic tanks without protective gear.
- Construct insanitary latrines.
- Not demolish or convert insanitary latrines within a certain period of this Act coming into force
- Rehabilitation of manual scavengers:
- It lays down the rules and procedure for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers through training in alternate employment, financial help and help with purchasing property.
- Responsibility for identifying manual scavengers:
- Every local authority (municipality or panchayat), cantonment board or railway authority is responsible for surveying its area to identify manual scavengers.
- Violation: Violation of the Act is punishable with imprisonment upto 2 years or with the fine upto Rs 1 lakh or both.
Initiatives taken to prevent Manual Scavenging
The Government of India has undertaken several initiatives to address the issue of manual scavenging and improve the lives of those involved.
- The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013: This Act supersedes the 1993 Act and prohibits all forms of manual excrement cleaning of insanitary latrines, open drains, or pits. It also focuses on the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and provides measures for their welfare.
- The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020: This proposed amendment aims to mechanize sewer cleaning, introduce on-site protection for workers, and provide compensation to manual scavengers in case of sewer-related deaths. However, it is still awaiting cabinet approval.
- The Building and Maintenance of Insanitary Latrines Act, 2013: This Act prohibits the construction or maintenance of unsanitary toilets and the hiring of individuals for manual scavenging. It also places a constitutional responsibility on the government to provide alternative jobs and assistance to manual scavenging communities as reparation for historical injustice and indignity.
- Prevention of Atrocities Act: This Act, established in 1989, plays a crucial role in safeguarding the rights of sanitation workers, with a particular focus on Scheduled Castes who constitute a significant proportion of manual scavengers. It helps to protect them from atrocities and promotes their emancipation from designated traditional occupations.
- Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge: Launched by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs on World Toilet Day in 2020, this challenge aims to make sewer cleaning completely mechanized by providing proper gear and oxygen tanks to workers in case of unavoidable emergencies. The goal is to minimize the need for human entry into sewer lines.
- ‘Swachhta Abhiyan App’: Developed to identify and geotag insanitary latrines and manual scavengers, this app helps in replacing insanitary latrines with sanitary latrines and facilitating the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, thereby promoting a life of dignity for them.
- Supreme Court Judgment: In 2014, a Supreme Court order mandated the government to identify individuals who died in sewage work since 1993 and provide compensation of Rs. 10 lakh to their families. This judgment emphasizes the need for accountability and compensation in cases of sewer-related deaths.
Eliminating the demand:
- Promoting scientific waste disposal and raising awareness to prevent the clogging of sewer lines.
- Replicating successful models like the Kerala model, which employs technology-driven solutions for manhole cleaning.
- Encouraging behavioral change through information, education, and communication campaigns, along with effective implementation of laws.
- Ensuring access to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) facilities to facilitate behavioral changes.
Eliminating the supply:
- Ensuring proper identification of manual scavengers through accurate data collection and surveys.
- Recognizing and prioritizing the needs of women engaged in manual scavenging and empowering them.
- Facilitating easy access to rehabilitation measures, including loans and skill development programs, and providing legal support in case of violations of the law.
- Mobilizing manual scavengers into trade unions, self-help groups, cooperatives, and pressure groups to protect their interests and give them a voice.
- Inclusive policymaking by actively involving manual scavengers as stakeholders to identify loopholes in the system and shape effective policies.