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29 March 2023: One conviction for unsafe sewer cleaning so far, House panel raps government

Context: Despite strict provisions for the safety of manual scavengers, a number of deaths have been reported in the last two decades. In this regard, the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment presented a status report before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment.

Background: The Department of Social Justice and Empowerment made these submissions before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment, which, in a report tabled in both Houses, said that the implementation of the MS Act should be strictly followed and errant contractors held “immediately”. and guilty”. 

The central government has informed a parliamentary standing committee that FIRs have been lodged in 616 cases where contractors did not provide safety gear and equipment to sewer workers. The government said that of the cases registered under the Scavenging (Prohibition) Act, one has been convicted so far.

Why are the deaths of so many sanitation workers not counted?

  • Over the last 50 years, there have been an estimated one million deaths of sanitation workers in India. Many of the deaths occurred during the peak of the second wave of the pandemic when sanitation workers in cities such as Buxar, Ballia, Kannauj, Allahabad, and Unnao handled dead bodies in semi-urban and rural areas and along the banks of the Ganges.
  • In the past five years, more than 9,730 people have died from multiple chronic conditions resulting from their employment in the inhumane practice of manual scavenging and cleaning unhygienic latrines.
  • Over 600 people have died in the hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks, with about 18 to 20 per cent of cases in these two categories going unreported.

Is there a need for classification?

  • Rather than move on to expanding the categories of manual scavengers—from dry toilet workers, drain cleaners, septic tank cleaners, and railway sanitation workers to sanitary toilet cleaners, open faecal sludge handlers, hospital sweepers, sanitary-waste intersections employees, bone scavengers, etc.
  • On the government side, they are not realizing that sub-castes of the lower backward community are largely engaged, and this also includes manual scavenging.
  • The checks and balances imposed by the government reached only 5 per cent of the total population of manual scavengers and 20 per cent of the total area of India in its identification surveys.

What are the lapses in the implementation of the PEMSR Act?

  • Not only does the number of deaths of manual scavengers or other categories need to be estimated, but the lapses in the implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act and government interventions also need to be highlighted.

Is there any lack of a proper framework?

  • In the last eight years, many manual scavengers have appealed to both municipal authorities and panchayats for their identification.
  • In this regard, what is true of the failure of the urban bodies is also true, mutatis mutandis, of the local rural bodies.
  • This is the primary reason why states give responses like they have “no manual scavengers or no more manual scavengers left to rehabilitate”, let alone ensuring the elimination of unsanitary latrines and hazardous cleaning in the sewer and septic tanks.
  • District magistrates have also repeatedly failed to comply with the provisions of this Act, and the appointed “inspectors” have failed to exhibit appropriate lists of their examinations of sanitation infrastructure.

What are the psychological imbalances associated with the practice of manual scavenging?

  • When sanitation workers identify themselves as manual scavengers, they are often harassed by local authorities with death threats.
  • It is important to note that there is little point in seizing records if these prohibited activities are carried out in secret by major employers hired by local authorities.
  • In such cases, non-compliance is rarely punished, and the promise of compensation and one-time case assistance is provided only in about 40 per cent of “all reported cases”. 
  • Clauses like “power to remove difficulties” and “power to exempt” again dilute the core of the Act.

What is the ground reality of manual scavenging?

  • Even though the government is making use of a loophole in the Manual Scavenging Act 2013, the provision that a person employed to clear excreta with the help of such equipment using protective equipment is not a manual scavenger and shall not be considered”, remains there.
  • The question is, where is this equipment promised under the Safaimitra Safety Challenge last year? Again, like all COVID deaths, it is difficult to tell exactly how many sanitation workers have died over the past 50 years, but with modelling based on recorded cases, surveys of families of the deceased, and community health impact due to this occupation, In terms of study and symptomatic COVID-related deaths, it is possible to come up with a more precise estimate.
  • It is not just during the pandemic that deaths have gone unregistered. While the non-registration of deaths due to COVID-19 and the small scope of the survey to determine the number of Safai Karamcharis is one problem, non-compliance with the PEMSR Act is another.
  • In 2021, the government will have no accurate record of the number of sanitation workers, let alone manual scavengers, and their estimated death toll.