While there is widespread agreement about the need to end various forms of manual scavenging, all the efforts to do so – including two national legislations and several court directives – have not succeeded in achieving this objective. At the same time, there are very serious lapses regarding rehabilitation and compensation provided to manual scavengers and sewer workers. As Bezwada Wilson, coordinator of the Safai Karamchari Aandolan, says, “There is clearly a lack of political will on this issue. I have become tired of sending endless letters about non-implementation of court directives, which do not even get a reply from the highest authorities.”
The sub-committee of the task force constituted by the Planning Commission in 1989 estimated that there were 72.05 lakh dry latrines in the country. Assuming one worker per six such latrines, there were over one million such workers in 1989. The present estimate of the Safai Karamchari Aandolan is that there are still 1.6 lakh such workers in various parts of the country, including in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.
Sudhir Kumar, a social activist associated with the NGO Participatory Research in Asia, has been working with sanitation workers for several years. He says, “Even when manual scavenging of the old type is abolished, similar problems and situations can appear for sanitation workers in other ways. In the absence of sewage treatment facilities, human excreta is dumped directly into some drains and sanitation workers who clean the drains have to cope with this.”
Sanjay Singh, director of Parmarth, an organisation that has worked for the rehabilitation of women engaged in manual scavenging in UP’s Jalaun district, says, “It was a heart-warming experience to ensure the rehabilitation of some women, but much more remains to be done as the satisfactory rehabilitation of only a few of the affected women has taken place so far.”
The first law to abolish manual scavenging was passed in 1993 and then a second law was enacted in 2013. While according to the first law only work in unsanitary latrines was abolished, in the second legislation the definition of manual scavenging was broadened to also include the cleaning of septic tanks and some railway tracks. This has obviously raised the number of those engaged in manual scavenging, but the exact number as per the new definition is not known.
Then, on March 27, 2014, came a landmark decision from the Supreme Court, which said sewer workers should also be included in this laws, as they also have to handle human excreta in very difficult conditions while cleaning sewer lines, often without any protected gear.
It’s clear that as per the new expanded definition of manual scavenging, there are still a very large number of workers engaged in this work, who need help and rehabilitation. In some cases, like with unsanitary latrines, the work must be entirely given up and rehabilitation properly arranged. In other cases, like with sewer workers, proper working conditions, including protective gear, have to be provided immediately.
The rehabilitation package for those liberated from the cleaning of unsanitary latrines is generally restricted to a grant of Rs 40,000. Sometimes deductions are been made even from this meagre amount. This is generally not adequate for self-employment, while other sources of employment are limited. This rehabilitation amount needs to be increased significantly.
Despite several court directives to improve the safety conditions for sewer workers, deaths due to hazardous working conditions continue to be reported regularly. According to the Safai Karamchari Aandolan, they have names of 1,370 sewer workers who died due to hazardous working conditions since 1993. They have complete records for 480 of these workers. The Supreme Court has ordered that the family of each one of these workers should get compensation of Rs 10 lakh. However, so far only 80 of these workers have got this compensation, in states including Tamil Nadu and Punjab. In 2017, between March and May 15, about 40 such deaths have been reported from various part of the country.
Wilson says, “Technological upgradation is badly needed as part of the overall efforts to end various forms of manual scavenging and in particular to protect sewer workers, but such efforts have been neglected by the government.”
Much remains to be done to help the poorest of the poor engaged in various forms of manual scavenging, but the government has not been allocating resources for this task.
For the self-employment scheme for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, around Rs 100 crore was allocated some years ago. However, the actual expenditure has been found to be negligible. During financial year 2016-17, there was an allocation of Rs 10 crore in the Union Budget. But even this was cut to Rs 1 crore in the revised estimate. The Budget allocation for financial year 2017-18 is only Rs 5 crore. While a part of this reduction may be due to the devolution of funds to states, on the whole there has certainly been a big cut to what should be a priority area.
A former secretary to the government of India has written to the prime minister and the finance minister expressing his anguish at the allocation for a priority scheme for Dalit welfare being reduced to just 1% of the allocation from a few years ago. In his letter, P.S. Krishnan has said that the Budget estimate for the scheme for the rehabilitation of those engaged in manual scavenging was Rs 557 crore in 2013-14, while the Budget estimate for this scheme in the 2017-18 Budget is just Rs 5 crore.
Back of the envelop calculations show that even if the plan is only to clear the backlog of compensation for known cases of sewer worker deaths, over Rs 120 crore will be required. And this is only one of expenditures needed in this neglected policy area.
The government must drastically improve the implementation of its own legislations as well as court directives on this high-priority issue, particularly at a time when the contribution of sanitation workers to a ‘swacch Bharat’ needs to be recognised and respected.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved in several social initiatives and movements. Reena Mehta is a freelance researcher and writer.