The practice of manual scavenging has accursed Indian society since time immemorial. The efforts to abolish this custom have garnered momentum within the state machinery, advocacy groups and academia the last three decades, particularly since the constitution of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) in 1994. Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge, aims to completely mechanize all septic and sewage tank cleaning operations in 243 cities across India, by April 30, 2021. Officially, the number of manual scavengers dropped to 42,303 in 2018 from 770,338 in 2008. Notwithstanding the said developments, the drastic reduction in the official count in the recent past can be construed as indicative of gross underassessment rather than being reflective of their actual numbers in India.
What is Manual Scavenging?
Manual scavenging is the practice of removing human excreta by hand from sewers or septic tanks. India banned the practice under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR). The Act bans the use of any individual for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta till its disposal. In 2013, the definition of manual scavengers was also broadened to include people employed to clean septic tanks, ditches, or railway tracks. The Act recognizes manual scavenging as a “dehumanizing practice,” and cites a need to “correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by the manual scavengers.”
Why it is still prevalent in India?
The lack of enforcement of the Act and exploitation of unskilled laborers are the reasons why the practice is still prevalent in India. The Mumbai civic body charges anywhere between Rs 20,000 and Rs 30,000 to clean septic tanks. The unskilled laborers, meanwhile, are much cheaper to hire and contractors illegally employ them at a daily wage of Rs 300-500. In 1993, India banned the employment of people as manual scavengers. In 2013, landmark new legislation in the form of the Manual Scavengers Act was passed which seeks to reinforce this ban by prohibiting manual scavenging in all forms and ensures the rehabilitation of manual scavengers to be identified through a mandatory survey. Despite progress, manual scavenging persists in India. According to the India Census 2011, there are more than 2.6 million dry latrines in the country. There are 13,14,652 toilets where human excreta is flushed in open drains and 7,94,390 dry latrines where the human excreta is cleaned manually. Seventy-three percent of these are in rural areas and 27 percent are in urban areas.
Act and its Implementation
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 aims to eliminate insanitary latrines (those not connected to pits/septic tanks/sewage lines) alongside tracking the rehabilitation of manual scavengers in other occupations and conducting periodic surveys. To eliminate this practice, the act has provisions for stringent penalties, for direct or indirect employment of any person in hazardous cleaning of sewers or septic tanks by any person, local authority, or agency. For example, even the first instance of its contravention is punishable with imprisonment up to two years or a fine up to Rs 2 lakh or both. If a worker dies while performing such work, even with safety gear and other precautions, the employer is required to pay compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the family.
The state and society need to take an active interest in the issue and look into all possible options to accurately assess and subsequently eradicate this practice. It also warrants an engagement of all stakeholders for the proper introduction of mechanization and ensuring that it is made available to all those who are forced to engage in this undignified practice.