New Delhi: The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment admitted in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday that while it cannot be denied that manual scavenging – a caste-based profession outlawed in 1993 and again in 2013 – still exists, there have been no reports from states or union territories of people being convicted for employing manual scavengers.
Responding to a question by Vishnu Dayal Ram, minister Ramdas Athawale said that while 53,398 manual scavengers have been identified across the country, “there have been no reports from any State/Union Territory regarding conviction in such cases.”
The minister added that under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, the district magistrate or any subordinate authority has to ensure no manual scavengers are employed within their jurisdiction and hold those who break the law accountable. “The State Governments have been requested to ensure implementation of these provisions and furnish monthly progress report in this regard.”
In a separate question on the same day, asked by Asaduddin Owaisi and Imtiaz Jaleel, Athawale said that 88 manual scavengers had lost their lives in sewers or septic tanks in the last three years. The highest number of deaths have been in Delhi: 18.
Of the 88 people who had died, the families of 36 had received the Rs 10 lakh compensation from the government. Since 1993, 620 deaths have been reported, Athawale said, and 445 families have received the full compensation amount. In that list, Tamil Nadu has reported the highest number of deaths at 141, and Gujarat next at 131.
Activists have often argued that this compensation is inadequate, and that authorities are evading responsibility and not doing enough to ensure the Act is properly implemented and deaths avoided. They have also raised concerns about the government’s rehabilitation measures, saying a one-time cash transfer of Rs 40,000 or loan to start a business is not enough to ensure people are able to build a different life for themselves.
Enumerating the number of manual scavengers in the country is a task that the government has undertaken numerous times – the survey Athawale referred to is the eighth such effort – but local authorities have made it a habit to deny the existence of the profession in their jurisdiction and so evade responsibility. This invisibilisation is particularly rampant when it comes to women manual scavengers, who are mostly employed to clean dry toilets and pick up night soil.
The current survey has also been called into question, and some believe the government is underreporting figures on purpose, as The Wire has previously reported.
Athawale was also asked whether the government planned to amend the Act to make it mandatory for states to report cases of manual scavenger deaths; the current information with the government comes largely from press reports. He said there is “no proposal” at present and went on to list the various monitoring provisions in the Act.
Rampant caste discrimination, and state and societal apathy towards those from the ‘lowest’ castes, has meant that the law has been poorly implemented, activists argue. Athawale’s admission that nobody has been convicted of the crime of employing manual scavengers, despite the fact that it cannot be ignored the profession still exists, lends credence to this argument.
“Our movement to eradicate manual scavenging is basically a movement to break the shackles of caste. It directly questions patriarchy and caste based discrimination,” Bezwada Wilson, head of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, told The Wire in a 2016 interview. “It exposes the whole sanitation system, which is terribly casteist. In one line, I can say that because of the lack of political will and casteist mindsets, manual scavenging still exists. The system wants a particular community to clean its shit. They don’t want to change, but we are forcing them to bring the desired change.”
Wilson and others have argued that local authorities should be incentivised to recognise manual scavengers in their jurisdiction, and penalised if they don’t. At a recent event organised by WaterAid India, activist and researcher Harsh Mander said that culpability should also be fixed on public officials, as it is the only way people will stop turning a blind eye to what is happening in front of them.
#Grit is an 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.