15 Years Later, Govt Scheme to Rehabilitate Manual Scavengers Has Made Little Progress

The government's obstinate denial of the existence of manual scavengers is proving to be detrimental in making any real progress.

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The Self-Employment Scheme of Liberation & Rehabilitation of Scavengers (SRMS) is one of the most important government interventions for manual scavengers. Implemented by the National Safai Karmacharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) more than ten years ago, it is far from meeting its goals. Launched in 2007, the objective of SRMS was to rehabilitate manual scavengers and their dependents in alternative occupations by 2009.

Following the enactment of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act, 2013, the scheme was revised in November 2013 until 2016-17. The Act prohibits insanitary latrines, manual scavenging and hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. The scheme has since then has been extended periodically, with very little outcome progress.  

The government’s obstinate denial regarding the existence of manual scavenging is proving to be detrimental in making any real progress. Even though the mobile app launched in December 2020 to identify existing insanitary latrines and manual scavengers engaged therein has had 6,000 cases uploaded, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) told the Rajya Sabha that it could not confirm the existence of any insanitary latrines, concluding that the practice of manual scavenging does not exist anymore. However, this does not correlate with the findings of Census 2011 that 26 lakh insanitary latrines existed.

Further, it is important to remember that while manual scavenging under Section 2(1) (g) of the PEMSR Act, 2013 is defined as the lifting of human excreta from insanitary latrines, it is not just limited to dry latrines, but also applies to cleaning sewers, septic tanks and railway tracks as India has not fully mechanised these processes yet.

The MSJE though, while maintaining that there is no report of people currently engaged in manual scavenging, has also reported in the Lok Sabha the death of 340 people involved in the cleaning of sewers and septic tanks in the five years before December 2020. Engaging persons to clean sewers and septic tanks, whether they are called manual scavengers or sanitation workers, by definition violates the PEMSR Act 2013, which prohibits hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.

Additionally, last year the government informed the Lok Sabha that up to November 2021, two surveys conducted in 2013 and 2018 had identified 58,098 eligible manual scavengers. This is severely understated as the 2018 survey was conducted in only 170 identified districts in 18 states, leaving out data from 11 states.

The MSJE said that all identified eligible manual scavengers have received One-Time Cash Assistance (OTCA) of Rs 40,000 per head amounting to Rs 232.39 crore as of March 2021. However, only 2.7% and 31.3% of total identified manual scavengers have received the capital subsidy and skill development training respectively. State-wise data shows that in Uttar Pradesh, a state with the highest number of manual scavengers (32,473), only 2.4% have received the capital subsidy. As many as seven states have not disbursed any capital subsidy at all. Even states like Maharashtra and Assam that have significant numbers of manual scavengers (6,325 and 3,921 respectively) have not disbursed any capital subsidy.

Abysmally low achievement against skill development training and capital subsidy indicates that the government has not been able to fulfil the long-term objectives of rehabilitation of manual scavengers in terms of sustained livelihood. Further, considering the level of physical progress and how many manual scavengers out of already understated data have been left out of capital subsidy and skill development training, a reduction in budget allocation for the scheme makes little sense.

An analysis of the budgetary resources available to the SRMS and NSKFDC clearly indicates their inadequacy to rehabilitate and empower manual scavengers. Although the scheme saw a gradual increase in fund allocation and utilisation post the national survey on manual scavengers in 2018 from 2017-18 to 2019-20, the utilisation declined substantially in 2020-21 (Figure 1). The allocation has also declined since then, and the 2022-23 budget saw a decline by 30%. 

Figure 1: Status of Budget Allocation and Fund Utilisation under SRMS (In Rs crore)

Source: Compiled by CBGA from Union Budget Documents, various years

Interestingly, the budget allocation for NSKFDC (Figure 2) which is supposed to implement various other loan and non-loan-based schemes for the welfare of safai karamcharis and manual scavengers, has also declined by half. As per the MSJE’s response in the Rajya Sabha, funds amounting to Rs 192.16 crore have been released by the ministry to NSKFDC in the last five years before December 2021.

During the same period, NSKFDC has utilised Rs 211.84 crore (including funds spent out of the unspent balance of previous years). This suggests that underutilisation has not been an issue by NSKFDC in recent years. In spite of that, the allocation has been halved in 2022-23. Combined the budget for SRMS and NSKFDC as a proportion of total budget allocation for MSJE of Rs 13,135 crore in 2022-23 (BE) is 0.7%. 

Figure 2: Trend in Budget Allocation and Utilisation for NSKFDC (In Rs crore)

Source: Compiled by CBGA from Union Budget Documents, various years

Another important scheme under the MSJE, that could aid not just in the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and sanitation workers but lend sustainability to SRMS by breaking the intergenerational cycle, has been rationalised. The scheme, called “Pre-Matric Scholarship for the Children of those Engaged in Occupations Involving Cleaning and Prone to Health Hazards” has been merged under the Pre-Matric Scholarship Scheme for SCs and Others since 2021-22. Although the scheme had low utilisation of funds in 2017-18 (12.9%), the utilisation had picked up to around 60% in 2018-19 and 2019-20. The allocation for the scheme also picked up in 2020-21, after which it was clubbed. In the absence of disaggregated data under the Pre-Matric Scholarship Scheme for SCs and Others, there is no telling how much goes towards families of manual scavengers. This does not just reduce accountability, but also indicates the lack of commitment and focuses priority towards this group. 

Apart from budgetary issues, the implementation of the scheme is further impacted by various administrative and design issues. For instance, the documentation process to avail of the loan is tedious and the documents which are required are not always available to the targeted beneficiaries. Awareness regarding the scheme, both within the government apparatus as well as among the beneficiaries, is limited, leading to its constrained outreach. The amount of OTCA is not adequate to fulfil the employment need of manual scavengers and should be increased.

In terms of monitoring and evaluation, it is a challenge to track the scheme implementation under the NSKFDC, owing to the unavailability of any information/data in the public domain. The fund for the SRMS flows through the NSKFDC, and its budget allocation and utilisation is only reported in the Union Budget. The scheme budget is not reported in the Detailed Demand for Grants (DDGs) or SCSP at the state level, or through any separate Management Information System (MIS) as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) or Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), thereby making any state-level budget analysis difficult. 

Therefore, to strengthen the SRMS scheme, it is very important that first and foremost, all the manual scavengers in the country are identified and a regular state-wise database is maintained for the same. Disaggregated budget data for different levels of the government needs to be provided in the public domain for transparent implementation and monitoring. It is also necessary to make changes in the SRMS guidelines to address the bottlenecks constraining the utilisation of allocated budgets. Improvement in physical progress will also improve the utilisation of funds. The demand can be increased through increasing awareness regarding the scheme among beneficiaries as well as within the government apparatus. Regular monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of the scheme have to be carried out to keep the outcome progress on track and increase accountability. 

Jawed Alam Khan and Rahat Tasneem work at the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, New Delhi.