The practice of manual scavenging was first criminalised in 1993 Since then, it has been replaced by a new act in 2013, which is wider in scope as it provides for rehabilitation and compensation, and imposes stricter penalties.
Rehabilitation measures under Sec. 13 of the Act are applicable to a person identified as a manual scavenger under Sec. 12 of the Act. Since identification is the first step towards rehabilitating them, state agencies are required to collect reliable data on the total number of dry latrines (that require manual cleaning) and the number of people engaged in manual scavenging within their jurisdiction. However, it has been 6 years since the introduction of the Act, and the survey and identification of manual scavengers is still not carried out well in many Indian states and there is a mismatch between the number of insanitary latrines and manual scavengers identified.
This blog post reviews the data on survey and identification of manual scavengers nationally and in four Southern States – Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu.
Discrepancy in data
The data provided reflects a disproportionately low number of manual scavengers, in comparison to the number of insanitary latrines. For instance, as per the National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation’s 20th Annual Report (2016-2017) there are 26 lakh insanitary latrines in the country, of which 13.29 lakh are in urban areas and 12.71 lakh in rural areas. The report states that as of 31st March 2017, 12,742 manual scavengers have been identified in 13 states, which is prima facie disproportionate. It is inconceivable that 13,000 manual scavengers can excavate 26 lakh insanitary latrines.
An inter-ministerial task force has released figures on manual scavengers and has counted up to 53,236 people involved in manual scavenging in India, a four-fold rise from the 13,000-odd such workers accounted for in official records until 2017.
The Indian government’s statistics on manual scavengers are grossly inadequate. There is a mismatch between independent studies which have surveyed the number of manual scavengers and the number of manual scavengers identified by State Governments. The National Crime Records Bureau does not publish distinct data on manual scavenging due to ‘low numbers of cases reported’.
In Andhra Pradesh, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) Survey on manual scavengers in statutory towns reported that there are 6,77,8225 urban households and a total of 1,73,690 insanitary latrines. However, they identified only 124 manual scavengers. In Tamil Nadu, the State Government identified only 363 manual scavengers, but as per the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis 2013 survey, there were 3032 manual scavengers in eight districts of the state alone.
In Karnataka, the State Government submitted an affidavit before the Supreme Court in 2018 claiming that manual scavenging had been eradicated in the State. However, the National Safai Karamchari Ayog (NSKA) said that it had identified as many as 1,720 manual scavengers in 6 of the 30 districts of Karnataka and suggested that the count might have been over 10,000 if the survey to be conducted as per the Act had been conducted in all districts.
The MSJE has released survey guidelines but it seems like the State Governments follow no uniform clear methodology in place and added to that is the culture of denial by state and other government authorities. The official numbers vastly under-represent reality.
Migrated manual scavengers
The Act mandates surveys if any municipality or panchayat has a reason to believe that some persons are engaged in manual scavenging within its jurisdiction. The Act bestows responsibility on the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Municipality in case of urban areas and CEO of the Panchayat in case of rural areas to carry out the survey as per the procedure prescribed under Sec. 11 and 14 of the MS Act, 2013 and MS Rules, 2013. In addition, any person working as a manual scavenger can make a request under Sec. 12(1) of the MS Act, 2013 in urban areas and under Sec. 15(1) in rural areas to the concerned CEO for identification. The CEO will look into such request within 15 days to ascertain whether the applicant is a manual scavenger.
The provisions in the statute relating to surveying of insanitary latrines and identification of manual scavengers have been worded precisely, are detailed and most importantly, carry a time limit. However, the State Governments have only partially complied with these provisions.
Another reason for flawed surveys and incorrect numbers is that the Act does not specify any procedure for identification of manual scavengers who migrate to other states and engage in scavenging. Manual scavengers who migrated years ago are not identified as manual scavengers in their home state or in the migrated state. This demands rules of procedure to be framed and put in place.
Newspaper reports in Andhra Pradesh state that villagers from different districts in AP are still scavengers in some of India’s biggest cities. For example, about 80% of the male population of Palavalasa work as scavengers across the country.
In Kerala’s Kollam district, the Chakliyan community has been working as manual scavengers for centuries but are denied recognition by the State Government, which claims that they are migrants from Tamil Nadu. Further, persons from the Arunthathiyar caste, who also work as manual scavengers, are also denied recognition.
The first step towards tackling manual scavenging is to accurately locate the areas where it is common and identify and rehabilitate individuals who are being employed as scavengers as stipulated in the Act. The discrepancy in the data, in terms of disproportionality between number of manual scavengers and number of insanitary latrines, reluctance to disclose complete data, or denial of the existence of manual scavenging, suggest that surveying and identification has not been properly carried out and therefore more time and effort must be invested into fulfilling this obligation meaningfully. Also, when manual scavengers migrate to other parts of the country, they face language and cultural barriers and it becomes highly difficult for them to self-identify as manual scavengers as they are mostly unaware of the schemes and measures in place. Therefore, civil societies and state governments ought to carry out awareness programmes to enable them to receive their due. In addition to relief and rehabilitation measures, reparations ought to be paid to the manual scavengers to address the structural inequalities affecting them.