Manual Scavenging

Why in the news?

Recently, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment notified that a total of 971 people lost their lives while cleaning sewers or septic tanks since 1993.

  • Previously, the Union Cabinet certified the extension of the tenure of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) for 03 years beyond 31st March, 2022. The prime beneficiaries would be the Safai Karamcharis and identified manual scavengers in the country.

Manual Scavenging-

  • Manual scavenging is described as “the removal of human excrement from public streets and dry latrines, cleaning septic tanks, sewers and gutters”.

Reasons for the Prevalence of Manual Scavenging-

  • Indifferent Attitude- As per a number of independent surveys, state governments continue to be reluctant to admit that the practice prevails under their watch. 
  • Outsourcing Issues- Usually local bodies outsource sewer cleaning tasks to private contractors. However, many of them fly-by-night operators that do not maintain appropriate rolls of sanitation workers.
  • If after case of workers being asphyxiated to death, these contractors have denied any link with the deceased.
  • Social Issue- The practice is driven by caste, class and income divides.
  • It is associated to India’s caste system where so called lower castes are expected to perform this job.
  • In 1993, the employment of people as manual scavengers was banned in India under The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, however, the stigma and discrimination linked with it still linger on.
  • This makes it difficult for liberated manual scavengers to secure an alternative livelihood.

Steps taken to tackle the Menace of Manual Scavenging-

  • The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020- It proposes to entirely mechanise sewer cleaning, introduce ways for ‘on-site’ protection and give compensation to manual scavengers in case of sewer deaths.
  • It will be an amendment to The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. It is still awaiting cabinet approval.
  • The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013- Replacing the 1993 Act, the 2013 Act goes beyond prohibitions on dry latrines and disallow all manual excrement cleaning of insanitary latrines, open drains, or pits.
  • The Building and Maintenance of Insanitary Latrines Act of 2013- The act outlaws construction or maintenance of unsanitary toilets and the hiring of anybody for their manual scavenging, along with of hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.
  • It also provides a constitutional responsibility to give alternative jobs and other assistance to manual scavenging communities, as reparation for historical injustice and indignity.
  • Prevention of Atrocities Act-
  • The Prevention of Atrocities Act became an integrated guard for sanitation workers in 1989, more than 90% people engaged as manual scavengers belonged to the Scheduled Caste (SC). This became a vital landmark to free manual scavengers from designated traditional occupations.
  • Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge-
  • Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge was launched by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs on World Toilet Day (19th November) in 2020.
  • The Government introduced this “challenge” for all states to make sewer-cleaning mechanised by April 2021, if any human needs to enter a sewer line due to unavoidable emergency, proper gear and oxygen tanks, etc. are to be provided.
  • ‘Swachhta Abhiyan App’-
  • This app was developed to identify and geotag the data of insanitary latrines and manual scavengers so that the insanitary latrines can be replaced with sanitary latrines and rehabilitate all the manual scavengers to provide dignity of life to them.
  • SC Judgment- In 2014, a Supreme Court order made it compulsory for the government to identify all those who died in sewage work since 1993 and give Rs. 10 lakh each as compensation to their families.

Way Forward-

  • Empowering Local Administration- With Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) distinguished as a top priority area by the 15th Finance Commission and funds available for smart cities and urban development providing for a strong case to tackle the problem of manual scavenging.
  • Social Sentisitation- To address the social sanction behind manual scavenging, it is necessary to first acknowledge and then understand how and why manual scavenging remains to be embedded in the caste system.
  • The state and society needs to take active interest in the issue and look into all possible options to accurately evaluate and subsequently eradicate this practice.

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