manual scavenging

Although securing freedom for workers engaged in manual scavenging  and providing rehabilitation for them is supposed to be an important priority for the government, in reality progress has been very inadequate, slow and sporadic. The reasons for this are several, starting with problems relating to the proper definition and identity of workers engaged in manual scavenging.

If to start with the workers are not properly identified, there can be hardly any hope of the  benefits reaching those who have not been identified and recorded for this purpose.

Two important laws for prohibiting manual scavenging and rehabilitation were enacted in 1993 and 2013. The definition of manual scavenging was very restrictive in the first legislation and efforts were made to expand this somewhat in  the second legislation. However still the definition is not wide enough to identify all forms of manual scavenging. However what has been even over more damaging has been that the procedures laid down carefully for  proper identification in the 2013 law have been violated on a large scale to a glaring extent.

A recent study by the Centre for Equity Studies, supported by WaterAid India and the Association for Rural and Urban Needy ,, closely involving several dalit activists , has brought out this reality in greater detail. In many places a survey of identification   was just left to the whim of the local authorities. If they felt that there is no one engaged in manual scavenging in their area the need for doing a survey was altogether dispensed with.

Even when surveys were conducted,  pre-survey training and sensitization, provided by law and regarded as very important for proper identification, was generally neglected with the result that the ability of those conducting the survey for proper identification was   badly affected. Community leaders and  those working for the community’s welfare were to be involved in the survey work but this too was often ignored.

There was provision also for self-identification, and for giving proper attention to lists provided by independent sources, or for objections filed to official lists, but these provisions too suffered from frequent neglect. Similarly there were problems at the time of consolidating the lists from various places to form district estimates and sometimes names submitted at sub-district level would not get shown in the aggregated district list.

After 2013 the government recognized 12742 manual scavengers in 13 states, with 82% being just in Uttar Pradesh but this was widely criticized as a substantial underestimate. To place matters in perspective, the 2011 census recorded the presence of 740078 households where  waste and excreta is cleared out by manuals scavenging. This number does not include septic tanks, public sewers and railway tracks which involve manual scavenging as well. The Socio Economic Caste  Census counted over  1.82 lakh families that had at least one member employed in manual scavenging. In the most recent survey conducted in 2018-19 the government identified 54130 persons in 170 districts of 18 states as being employed in manual scavenging.

Hence the government estimates differ widely from each other and proper procedures mentioned in laws for identification were  ignored  resulting in lack of reliability in estimates.

One part of the  rehabilitation consists of a grant of Rs. 40000. This appears to be the easier part and the government claims that it has provided this grant to almost all the identified persons but the issue precisely is that most have not been identified and this is why this help has not reached most of the deserving persons.

The failure in terms of alternative livelihoods based on bank credit for entrepreneurial work and equipments has been even more glaring. Banks have been  releasing very little credit for this and even union government allocations have been very inconsistent.

Actual spending and revised estimates have often been generally very less compared  to Budget estimates, or original allocation, and there  has been no consistency in maintaining high allocations which may be made once in a while.

Another problem relates  not so much to shortcomings of government schemes but to widespread discriminative attitudes and even untouchability practices which still prevail among people even in cities and towns. Those communities which traditionally engaged in manual scavenging are  worst victims of this, to the surprising extent that other dalit communities also discriminate the against them,  even when living  in the same slum basti or cluster. As a result when with some government and NGO help for rehabilitation, those engaged earlier in manual scavenging manage to open a shop it is difficult to find customers as in small towns people know each other. Similarly they are not accepted for domestic work.

The CES-WA study  mentioned above presents anecdotal evidence of this. A man escaping from manual scavenging work from Jabalpur set up a shop in a smaller town to escape identity , but somehow his caste was revealed and this created such opposition by other traders that he had to close his shop and move back to  Jabalpur. Another such person got a job in the show room of a reputed footwear company but he was removed once his caste identity  was revealed. A woman from this community who set up a vegetable shop faced problems as customers refused to buy her  vegetable. She told researchers , partly in humor– even my vegetables  got  labeled as dalit vegetables and hence faced discrimination.

Given such attitudes clearly much stronger and sustained efforts are needed for success of rehabilitation but such commitment is missing on the part of the government. Much higher investments are needed to find safer technologies and equipments suitable for Indian conditions regarding sanitation work but such investments are not being made. Hence we need much higher investments both for better rehabilitation work and for safer sanitation technologies and all these efforts  should involve community members and workers ( as well as those working for their welfare ) so that the most serious problems faced by the community and workers can be resolved in the near future

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author who has written on public interests issues for several decades.


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