Data on the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s mobile app ‘Swachhata Abhiyaan’ identifies 6,253 cases of manual scavenging in the country. But the Ministry is not sure if the numbers are authentic.
A note prepared for the Ministry in the Supreme Court said the mobile app was launched on December 24, 2020 to capture the data of insanitary latrines still existing and manual scavengers associated with them. The technology was meant to provide precise data in a cost-effective manner. Physical survey would have been expensive and time-consuming, the Ministry told the court. Anyone could upload data of insanitary latrines and manual scavengers on the mobile app. Thereafter, the data would be verified by the district administration concerned.
“As per the data collected on the app, the total identified cases of manual scavenging come up to 6,253. A physical verification was carried out by the Programme Monitoring Unit (PMU) team of the Ministry to validate the authenticity of this data. However, not a single insanitary latrine has been confirmed so far. Uploaded photographs on the portal show that the people have uploaded other details but not regarding insanitary latrine or practice of manual scavenging,” the July 27 note said.
The eighth meeting of the Central Monitoring Committee of the Ministry has confirmed that “majority of the data uploaded on the mobile app have been verified by the National PMU and none of them has been found to be correct”. It said, so far, “none of the districts has either confirmed or discarded the data uploaded on the portal”.
Ministry convenes meeting on Monday
The Centre has said it has already written to Chief Secretaries of States to review the status of manual scavenging in the districts. The Ministry has scheduled a meeting on July 31.
The Ministry is still working to identify manual scavengers even a decade after the Parliament enacted the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 to end manual scavenging. Section 2(1)(g) of the Act defines ‘manual scavenging’ as the act of “lifting human excreta from insanitary latrines’. Seven months after the Act came into existence, the Supreme Court, in March 2014, had called for State intervention to rehabilitate those engaged in the practice and provide them alternative employment.
National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) data shows that so far 58,098 manual scavengers have been identified in the country.
But the government maintains that the number of manual scavengers does not reflect the number of manual scavengers currently engaged in the practice.
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“The identification of manual scavengers, ie, the number reported, is for the extension of rehabilitation benefits and is not to be construed to mean that the increased identified number indicates an increase in active manual scavenging activity. The identification of manual scavengers was always an occupation-based identification and not a caste-based one,” the Ministry clarified.
In fact, the government said that 551 districts out of 766 districts in the country had reported as “manual scavenging-free”. Confirmation is still awaited from the remaining 215 districts. Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Puducherry, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Ladakh, Tripura are among those which have reported all their districts free of manual scavenging.
‘17 crore sanitary toilets built’
The Ministry said over 17 crore sanitary toilets were built from October 2014 under the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin) scheme. Under Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban), 62.81 lakh sanitary toilets had been constructed. “This work made a huge contribution towards ending the practice of manual scavenging,” the note said.
However, neither the Act nor the Supreme Court was able to stop the 663 deaths which occurred after 2013 during the hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. Out of them 631 were paid compensation and First Information Reports were lodged in 648 cases.
Besides, the government has opined that a recommendation made by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) for a national-level census of manual scavengers would not be “feasible”.
“The basis of identification of the manual scavengers should be verification with reference to their workplace/employer and not merely self declaration alone. In census operations, such verifications are generally not done,” a government action taken report responded to the NCSK.