Seven Govt Surveys to Count Manual Scavengers Couldn't Agree on How Many There Are

If the government does not act with speed, sensitivity and consideration once this ongoing survey is complete, this will be the eighth time that it will let down the manual scavengers in India.

In the last 26 years, national governments have conducted seven national surveys and modified the identification process in national censuses to identify manual scavengers. A survey conducted in 1992 identified 5.88 lakh manual scavengers in the country. In 2002-­03 this number went up as the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment recognised 6.76 lakh manual scavengers in India. It revised this number upwards to nearly eight lakh (7,70,338).

Ironically, the number miraculously reduced to a few thousands, just 13,639 in a 2013 nationwide survey. The survey was commissioned after The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was passed to eradicate manual scavenging. Going by this slide in government numbers, it could be safe to assume that manual scavenging is all but extinct in 2018.

The farce behind these numbers is only too clear, even to the government to some extent. If one was to compare and analyse the number of manual scavengers and the number of dry latrines, there can be two conclusions. The 2011 census identified almost 21 lakh toilets in this country (21,09, 042 toilets which were either “serviced manually” or where night soil was disposed into open drains). Either a big chunk of these 21 lakh toilets in the country, were miraculously getting cleaned on their own every night, or the 13,639 manual scavengers were criss-crossing the length and breadth of India every night cleaning toilets. Both scenarios are laughable. Manual scavenging is far bigger, prevalent and deeply entrenched than any government would like to believe.

The legislation, therefore, important as it maybe is only the first and not the last step taken by the government to correct this historical wrong. It is high time that elected representatives and bureaucrats recognise that this law is 70 years too late. The commitment to eradicate this inhuman practise entirely should be a big priority.

Flawed surveys, incorrect numbers

Every survey process undertaken in the past has been flawed from the very start. The process of designing the survey, lack of training surveyors and a blatant disrespect and suspicion of the community has marred the process. Further, civil society organisations exposing the data and inefficiency of the survey process have not been taken seriously. The culture of denial by state and district authorities exposes the deeply casteist mindset that exist among the very officials who have been given the responsibility of eradicating manual scavenging.

The 2013 law talks in detail about the need and process of rehabilitation of manual scavengers, once identified. Like most rehabilitation laws, this remains mainly on paper. Even before the law was passed, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2007 introduced the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers’ (SRMS) with the objective of rehabilitating manual scavengers and their dependents in a time bound manner by March 2009.

As per ministry data, by 2009 1.18 lakh of the 3.42 lakh manual scavengers and their dependents in 18 states/UTs were identified for implementation of the SRMS. The ministry claims to have provided assistance of loans at subsidised interest rates and credit-linked capital subsidy for self-employment to 78,941 manual scavengers out of 1.18 lakh scavengers. There has been no follow up action since then nor the rehabilitation of the remaining 2.6 lakh manual scavengers who were identified and then left high and dry. In fact, government data records that after the new legislation was passed in 2013 claims only 12,771 manual scavengers received the one-time cash assistance and 4587 received skill development training.

In 2018, the Central government announced its plan to conduct yet another survey. I have been invited to be a part of the committee that is advising the ministry on this process. This time the government has allowed third parties like NGOs and community based organisations to become part of the survey process. This is a welcome move. It remains to be seen how the government is going to consider the recommendations made to it about planning and implementing a holistic rehabilitation plan. Rehabilitation is not just about dispensing a cheque of Rs 40,000, but also about ensuring that these families have a real chance and the power to lead their lives with dignity. This includes free decent housing, relevant vocational training, financial assistance for self-employment opportunities and free education and scholarship for the children of these families.

It will be wise for this government to remember that if it does not act with speed, sensitivity and consideration once this ongoing survey is complete, this will be the eighth time in our recent history that it will be letting down the manual scavenging community in India. It will be fresh ink that will taint an already sinful history of caste based discrimination in India.

Ashif Shaikh is director, Jan Sahas and member of the Central Monitoring Committee, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. The committee is monitoring the Manual Scavenging Prohibition Law, 2013.

#Grit, where this story first appeared, is a new initiative of The Wire dedicated to the coverage of manual scavenging and sanitation and their linkages with caste, gender, policy and apathy. The Manual Scavenging Project is the first in a series of deep dive editorial projects.