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Modi Pays Tribute to Sanitation Workers After Five Years of Ignoring Them

Government documents and budget data reveal that the prime minister's feet-washing act is just optics.

On Sunday, a video uploaded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his personal Twitter account showed him washing the feet of four safai karamacharis in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh.

Within two hours, 19,000 Twitter users had liked it, 7,200 had retweeted it and 1,700 had commented on the link. Uploading the video, Modi had tweeted that washing the feet of safai karmacharis constituted moments he will “cherish for his entire life!”

Is Modi expressing his heart’s truth when it comes to safai karamcharis? As the prime minister, does he really care for them?

Unfortunately, government documents and budget data reveal he doesn’t much.

Declining budget allocation

In the 2019-20 Interim Budget, the Modi government allotted just Rs 39.87 crore for five national commissions, including the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the National Commission for Backward Classes, as against the allocation of Rs 33.72 for 2018-19. Just Rs 9 crore has been set aside for the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis.

Also read: The Nine Kinds of Manual Scavenging in India

According to Indian Budget data, in 2018-19, when Rs 33.72 crore was allotted for all five commissions, only Rs 5.92 crore was set aside for the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis and in 2017-18, it was Rs 4.5 crore.

In a December 2018 Lok Sabha session, minister of state in the Ministry Of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ramesh Chandappa Jigajinagi, had said that the socio-economic and caste census of 2011 had identified 1,80,657 households as dependent on manual scavengers across India.

In a bid to rehabilitate the identified manual scavengers and their dependents to alternate professions, in 2007 itself, the government of the time had launched a Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS).

The scheme mandate was slated to end in 2010. However, in November 2013, the government revived the scheme and increased its scope by widening the definition of manual scavenging and enhancing the entitlements available to identified beneficiaries.

The revival followed the passing of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 (MS Act).

Cash-strapped corporation

The scheme is run by the National Safai Karmacharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) – a government-owned, not-for-profit undertaking under the aegis of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Interestingly, data reveal that allocations for the scheme had been declining. If the rehabilitation scheme received Rs 448 crore in 2014-15, it became Rs 470 crore in 2015-16. But in 2016-17, it became Rs 10 crore and, in 2017-18, it became Rs 5 crore.

Also read: Understanding India’s Sanitation Workers to Better Solve Their Problems

Allocations, however, increased significantly in FY 2018-19. Rs 20 crore has been allocated to the scheme – four times the allocation of the previous year. Additionally, an analysis reveals that there have been significant gaps between the budget estimates (BEs), revised estimates (REs) and actual expenditures. At the start of FY 2014-15, the first complete financial year since the launch of the revived scheme, Rs 439 crore was allocated by the Indian government. This was, however, revised to Rs 47 crore in the REs.

Similarly, while the BE for FY 2015-16 was at Rs 461 crore, the RE was at Rs 5 crore.

According to a response to unstarred question number 594, answered in the Lok Sabha on 19 December 2017, the reduction in budget allocations was due to the existing corpus of funds available with the NSKFDC. At the end of FY 2015-16, Rs 35 crore was available with the NSKFDC. Between FY 2014-15 and FY 2017-18, just Rs 56 crore had been spent under the scheme.

In fact, no expenditure had been incurred by the Indian government under the scheme between FY 2014-15 and FY 2016-17.

Counting manual scavengers

According to the MS Act 2013, a manual scavenger is defined as “a person engaged or employed by an individual or a local authority or a public or private agency, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which human excreta from insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track, before the excreta fully decomposes”.

This definition includes both permanent and contractual employees, but excludes from its ambit mechanised operators and sanitation workers who use protective gear as defined by the Indian government. Dependents include any family member or dependent who is not employed other than in manual scavenging. Coverage and rehabilitation are hampered by the lack of reliable information on the actual number of manual scavengers in the country.

There are three main sources for information on the number of manual scavengers. Firstly, there is the house listing and housing census of 2011, which provides information on the number of insanitary latrines – either serviced manually or emptying into an open drain, and thus requiring manual scavenging. Then there is the SECC 2011, which lists the number of households with at least one member involved in the profession. Finally, in accordance with the MS Act 2013, states are to conduct their own surveys to identify manual scavengers in need of rehabilitation.

According to the 2011 census, there were 26,06,278 insanitary latrines across India, of which 31% (7,94,390) were found to be serviced manually, and another 50% (13,14,562) were found to be emptied into an open drain. The SECC 2011 identified 1,68,066 rural manual scavenger households across the country, which had at least one member involved in manual scavenging. There are, however, inconsistencies in SECC 2011 numbers reported in different sources.

Thus, in the Lok Sabha, the answer to unstarred question no. 276 held that the total number of rural manual scavenger households as per SECC 2011 is reported as 1,67,487.

In the Rajya Sabha, unstarred question no. 1,296 – answered on 28 July 2016 – revealed that the SECC 2011 is reported to have identified 1,82,505 manual scavenging households. In this brief, the number reported on the SECC database (1,68,066) is used for analysis.

As per the surveys conducted under the SRMS mandate, only 13,465 manual scavengers were identified till 26 December 2017. While SECC 2011 data reveals that the SRMS surveys are meant to verify the claims presented. SRMS had found only 8% of the manual scavenger households listed in SECC 2011 after verification, till 26 December 2017.

There are also significant state variations. The SRMS survey identified more manual scavengers than recorded in SECC 2011 in Tamil Nadu and Assam. In fact, 154 manual scavengers were identified in Assam by the state survey, although the SECC did not list any manual scavenger households. In contrast, the proportion of manual scavenger households identified in the survey were less than 10% of those listed by SECC 2011 in six states, namely,  Rajasthan (10%), Karnataka (5%), West Bengal (4%), Bihar (2%), Punjab (1%), and Madhya Pradesh (less than 1%).

Manual scavenging Act

Interestingly, manual scavenging is prohibited under the MS Act 2013 in all the states and union territories except Jammu and Kashmir, with effect from December 6, 2013.

The act says that, from the above date, no person, local authority or agency shall engage or employ – either directly or indirectly – a manual scavenger, and every person so engaged or employed shall stand discharged immediately from any obligation, express or implied, to carry out manual scavenging.

Also read: Modi Govt Has Not Released a Single Rupee for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers

Those who contravene the above provision shall, for the first contravention, be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with a fine which may extend to Rs 50,000 or with both, and, for any subsequent contravention, with imprisonment which may extend to two years or with a fine which may extend to Rs 100,000, or with both.

In parliament in 2017, minister of state for social justice and empowerment, Ramdas Athawale, said that whenever any case of manual scavenging comes to the notice of the ministry, the same is referred to the concerned state government for verification and inclusion in the list of manual scavengers for their liberation and rehabilitation.

Manual scavenging still exists

In March 2018, the government agreed in the Lok Sabha that still manual scavenging is still reported from some parts of the country.

To a question raised over the number of reported deaths of manual scavengers while cleaning septic tanks and sewers between 2014 and 2018, and compensation paid to the families of the victims, Athawale stated that there were 323 deaths and 204 families received the full compensation of Rs 10 lakh, while 47 families received partial compensation. The maximum number of cases were reported from Tamil Nadu – 144 deaths with 141 families compensated. In Uttar Pradesh, 52 cases were reported and, unfortunately, only one family was compensated.

Interestingly, in Kerala, there were 12 cases reported and not one family was compensated.