Ending Manual Scavenging in India

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    • Supreme Court has recently directed government to file report on steps taken to end manual scavenging.

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    • The court sought details of steps taken by the government to end manual scavenging, including rehabilitation and payment of compensation and rehabilitation of families.
    • The court has also made entry into sewers without safety gear a crime even in emergency situations.
    • Previously, according to the Union government’s statement to Lok Sabha, no person died from manual scavenging in India in the last three years (2019 to 2022).

    What is Manual Scavenging?

    • Manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta or any kind of dry or wet waste from insanitary latrines, open drains, septic tanks or other similar places.
    • Manual scavenging is a dehumanizing practice that involves the use of basic and often unsafe tools like brooms, buckets, and baskets, which can lead to serious health hazards, injuries, and even death.

    Manual scavenging: A Sad Story

    • As per 2011 Census of India, there were over 740,000 households in the country where manual scavenging was still being practiced.
    • This practice is often associated with the caste system in India, where people from lower castes, such as Dalits, are forced to engage in manual scavenging.
    • According to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, a total of 482 manual scavengers died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks across India between 2016 and 2019.
    • The Safai Karamchari Andolan, an advocacy group working to eradicate manual scavenging, estimates that there are still around 1.8 million manual scavengers in India.

    • Many manual scavengers suffer from various health problems, including skin diseases, respiratory issues, and even death due to exposure to toxic fumes in septic tanks and sewer lines.
    • A total of 233 people died due to accidents while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks from 2019 to 2022.
    • Haryana had the highest number of deaths at 13, followed by Maharashtra with 12 and Tamil Nadu with 10.
    • The practice of manual scavenging is mostly carried out by people from lower castes, such as Dalits, and this perpetuates the cycle of caste-based discrimination and social exclusion.

    Steps Taken by the Government

    • The government has formulated the NAMASTE scheme or National Action Plan for Mechanised Sanitation Ecosystem in an effort to stop deaths due to hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks,
    • The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was introduced to ban manual scavenging.
    • The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 to further reinforce the ban and to provide for the rehabilitation of people employed as manual scavengers.
    • In 2014, the Supreme Court directed the government to take several measures including:
      • One-time cash assistance to people employed as manual scavengers
      • Houses for manual scavengers
      • Training in livelihood skills for at least one member of their families
      • Concessional loans to prop them up financially and find an occupation
      • Payment of ?10 lakh in compensation in the case of sewer deaths
    • Despite the legal prohibition and government efforts to eradicate manual scavenging, the practice still persists in various parts of the country.

    Challenges of stopping manual scavenging

    • Social stigma: Manual scavenging has been associated with certain castes and communities, which has resulted in social discrimination and stigmatization of people engaged in manual scavenging. 
    • Lack of awareness: There is a lack of awareness among people about the health hazards associated with manual scavenging, which has resulted in people continuing to engage in this practice.
    • Insufficient implementation: While laws and regulations have been put in place to prohibit manual scavenging, their implementation has been poor in many areas. 
    • Poor infrastructure: In many parts of India, there is a lack of proper sanitation infrastructure, which has resulted in people engaging in manual scavenging to clean the sewage.
    • Inadequate rehabilitation measures: Many of the rehabilitation schemes have not been implemented properly, which has resulted in people not being able to find alternative sources of livelihood.

    What more can be done?

    • Strict implementation of laws: Ensuring strict implementation of laws that prohibit it to act as a deterrent for people engaging in this practice.
    • Awareness campaigns: Raising awareness among people about the health hazards associated with manual scavenging campaigns, workshops, and other awareness programs.
    • Sanitation infrastructure: Building proper sanitation infrastructure can go a long way in stopping manual scavenging. This includes building toilets, drainage systems, and sewage treatment plants.
    • Technology-based solutions: Technology-based solutions like sewer cleaning trucks and robotic machines can be used to replace manual scavenging. 
    • Rehabilitation of manual scavengers: Measures like providing alternative sources of livelihood, education, and training can help rehabilitate people and enable them to find jobs in other sectors and lead a dignified life.
    • Strict action against violators: Strict action including fines, imprisonment, and cancellation of licenses must be taken against those who engage in manual scavenging.

    Source: TH