A total of 1,035 people have died while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks across India since 1993, the Social Justice Ministry informed Lok Sabha on March 14, adding that of these, compensation had been given out to the families of 948.
The government was responding to a question from West Bengal MP Mimi Chakraborty (Trinamool Congress) on the Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS).
The SRMS was envisioned as a way to identify all manual scavengers and help them transition into safer practices or alternative livelihoods, with a cash payout, capital subsidies, etc.
The Budgetary allocation for this scheme has been in decline for the last three fiscal years, as reported by The Hindu earlier this year. In the 2023-24 Union Budget, the government allocated no funds under this scheme.
Merger with NAMASTE
Significantly, the Ministry had in 2022 decided to merge the SRMS with the National Action Plan for Mechanised Sanitation Ecosystem (NAMASTE), justifying the move by saying that manual scavenging no longer takes place in the country and that the goal was now to reduce hazardous cleaning of sewers. The government allocated around ₹97 crore in the 2023-24 Budget for NAMASTE.
Under SRMS, the government had identified 58,098 manual scavengers, all of whom had been paid the one-time cash payout by 2020. However, other components of the scheme like skills training and loans for alternative livelihoods had few takers.
The government, in its response to Ms. Chakraborty, said that as of 2022-23, a total of 605 beneficiaries had been provided capital subsidies for mechanical desludging of sewer systems. The government said that it had spent a total of ₹2,165.72 lakh on capital subsidies for this from 2020-21 to 2022-23.
In this year’s Union Budget, the Finance Minister had stressed on the government’s focus to switch to 100% mechanised sewer cleaning to avoid hazardous practices of sewer and septic tank cleaning.
In a separate reply, the Ministry said that it will be enumerating the number of sewer and septic tank workers, as part of the NAMASTE scheme, as reported by The Hindu in 2022.
When asked what the government was doing to eliminate unsafe sewer and septic tank cleaning practices, the Ministry said that it had launched a National-level competition called “Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge” in November, 2020. Its objective was to ensure zero manual entry into sewers and septic tanks by encouraging mechanisation and ensuring availability of protective gear where this is not possible, the government said.
It added that the challenge also entailed ensuring a trained workforce, 24x7 helpline for citizens to reach out to and empanelment of private operators for the cleaning work.