manual scavenging

If the poorest of the poor people must get the topmost priority in terms of welfare programs, then surely those households who have been employed in manual scavenging (MS) work in India should get the highest priority. The scheme for self-employment based rehabilitation of those employed in MS has therefore been considered a high priority scheme. Despite this, it is both tragic and highly unjust that most of the funds allocated for this scheme were not utilized at all.

During the 8 years 2014-15 to 2021-22 a sum of Rs. 1255 crore was allocated for this scheme in terms of the Budget estimate or the allocation announced at the time of union budget presentation. While this by itself was not adequate, a sum of only Rs. 236 crore was actually spent. In other words, only about 19% of what was allocated was actually spent. Thus over a period of 8 years, Rs. 1019 crore of what was rightfully theirs was denied to the poorest households, or Rs. 127 crore per year. At the rate of Rs. 2 lakh per household, about 6000 households could have achieved satisfactory rehabilitation per year ( or over 48,000 during these 8 years) if this already allocated amount had been properly spent.

The average allocation per year at around 156 crore per year was not high, but still it would have served a useful purpose if it had shown stability and hence reliability over the years. As it was there was high volatility from year to year leading to uncertain conditions in which proper planning could not take place.

As against this yearly average allocation of Rs. 156 crore over the previous 8 year period , the allocation in the latest year for the scheme is just Rs. 70 crore, less than half of the average, resulting in further uncertainty.

In the middle of such uncertainties, even the basic task of identifying the beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries has left much to be desired. 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 so efforts were made to broaden this in the second legislation. However still the definition is not wide enough to identify all forms of manual scavenging as the procedures laid down carefully for proper identification in the 2013 law have not been followed properly.

A recent study by the Centre for Equity Studies, supported by WaterAid India and the Association for Rural and Urban Needy, has stated that in many places identification work  was just left to the whim of the local authorities. If they felt that there was no one engaged in manual scavenging in their area any further survey work was just not taken up.

Even when surveys were conducted, pre-survey training and sensitization 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. In addition 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 could not be seen 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 had earlier recorded the presence of 740078 households where waste and excreta is cleared out by manuals scavenging. This did not include septic tanks, public sewers and railway tracks which also involve manual scavenging. 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 generally tend to be serious underestimates, leading to problems in rehabilitation.

One part of the rehabilitation consists of a grant of Rs. 40,000. 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. What is more, there are serious questions as to the whether a sum of Rs. 40,000 can be adequate when the aim is not just some relief but proper rehabilitation based in self-employment. This is likely to involve purchase of some income earning assets, routine expenditure incurred while new skills are being learned and other arrangements are being made.

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

Rehabilitation based on self-employment efforts is not easy due to the prevalence of several discriminative attitudes against these households in society. Hence a lot of effort has to be made and it may take more time for success to be achieved by self-employment in new avenues. To enable these households to survive during the initial difficult days and to persist with the effort, more help is needed than what is available.

Much higher investments are needed to find safer technologies and equipment 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 Convener, Campaign to Save Earth NOW. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and Protecting Earth for Children.


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