Despite stating over the last few years that manual scavenging had been eliminated in the country, and that the only remaining threat was hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks, the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has now said that only 508 districts out of the total 766 districts in the country have declared themselves manual-scavenging free.
The data was revealed in a booklet the Ministry has prepared to outline its achievements under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi since 2014.
The Social Justice Ministry has maintained in almost every Parliament session in the last two years that there are no manual scavenging deaths taking place across the country. These deaths have been attributed to “hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks”.
Senior officials in the Ministry have differentiated manual scavenging from hazardous cleaning of sewers, maintaining that the surveys conducted in 2013 and 2018 had identified all existing manual scavengers (about 58,000) and hence, manual scavenging no longer existed in the country.
However, while releasing the booklet of achievements of the Ministry, the Social Justice Ministry listed this as one of them: “508 districts have reported themselves as manual scavenging free.”
Responding to a direct question on why the other districts had not reported themselves as manual scavenging-free, Social Justice Minister Virendra Kumar said: “Whatever information has been received from the States, municipal bodies — all have said manual scavenging does not take place anymore. They have all identified collectively over 58,000 manual scavengers… whoever has decided to do something else on their own, we are connecting them to skills training centres.”
According to the scheme for rehabilitation of manual scavengers, the 58,000 identified sewer workers have been given a one-time cash pay-out of ₹40,000 each. In addition, around 22,000 of them (less than half) have been connected to skills training programmes. Subsidies and loans are available to any of them wishing to set up their own business, Dr. Kumar has said, adding, “We want to make manual scavenging deaths zero.”
However, the scheme for rehabilitation of manual scavengers has now been merged with the NAMASTE scheme for 100% mechanisation of sewer work. The FY 2023-24 Union Budget showed no allocation for the rehabilitation scheme and ₹100 crore allocation for the NAMASTE scheme.
On this scheme for mechanisation, Dr. Kumar said that collaboration was ongoing with other Ministries, and that the Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry was doing the bulk of work in the current phase.
The guidelines for this scheme are yet to be finalised, according to the Ministry. The scheme will require over 4,800 urban local bodies across the country to identify and profile all septic tank/sewer workers in their respective areas, provide them occupational training and safety equipment, and sign them up for health insurance under the Ayushmaan Bharat scheme, among other interventions.
To incentivise mechanisation, the scheme also provides for capital subsidies for sewer workers willing to mechanise their work and become empanelled with the concerned local body.
Dr. Kumar said that the Narendra Modi government had brought benefits to all sections of society that had been deprived before 2014. Among other things, the Ministry, in its report on achievements, cited the continuing increase in scholarship disbursements, and the introduction of the Economically Weaker Sections quota.
Moreover, the Union government, which has often been criticised by Opposition parties for allegedly disregarding federalism, asserted its commitment to the principle of federalism by citing the 105th Constitutional Amendment as another achievement. The 2021 Amendment had reaffirmed the right of State governments to declare their own lists of Socially and Educationally Backward Classes.