The Union government is set to amend the rules of the legislation that outlaws manual scavenging so as to make it mandatory for contractors as well as private individuals, who engage workers for manual handling of human excreta, to pay Rs 10 lakh each to families of those who die while cleaning sewers or septic tanks. This would be in addition to the Rs 10 lakh that state governments have to pay in all such cases.
Moreover, following severe under-reporting of the extent of the caste-based practice by states, the Centre is set to undertake a nationwide survey by a third-party to account for the numbers. The decisions were taken by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment at a meeting chaired by Minister Thaawarchand Gehlot on Tuesday. States have accounted for merely 13,000-odd manual scavengers — with 80 per cent in Uttar Pradesh and most others maintaining that they have none at all.
Manual scavenging, with its definition limited to manual cleaning of dry latrines, was outlawed in India in 1993. It was only in 2013 that the amended ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act’ recognised more hazardous forms of the practice including the work of sewer and septic tank cleaners, whose deaths were entirely unaccounted for until then. In 2014, the Supreme Court ordered that state governments have to pay Rs 10 lakh compensation each to families of all deceased workers since 1993.
“Over and above this amount, the ministry has now proposed to amend rules under the Act so that contractors and private persons, who are responsible for hiring the victims, will also have to pay an equal amount to their families,” said a ministry official.
As per data presented at Tuesday’s meeting of the Central Monitoring Committee formed under the Act, only seven states have reported paying compensation for deaths in the last 25 years. Members concede that even these states — Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu — have identified only around 270 cases of deaths and paid compensation in just a fraction of identified cases, with many paying only half of the amount due to each victim’s family. Conservative estimates by the organisation Safai Karmachari Andolan put the body count at 1,560 since 1993.
According to the Act, a survey of those engaged in all forms of manual scavenging was to be completed within two months. However, even four years since the Act came into force, several states including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi have reported the numbers as zero.
Noting that “the response of the states has been very unsatisfactory”, the ministry has pointed out that until there is complete mechanisation of handling septage, states cannot pretend that manual scavengers do not exist. The ministry will involve a third-party surveyor to determine the number of workers manually cleaning dry latrines, open drains, pits, railway tracks, septic tanks and sewers. The survey, covering 15 major states, will be completed within six months.
The only data available now is the Socio Economic Caste Census, which excludes sewer and septic tank cleaners as well as those employed in cities. The SECC data shows that in villages alone, 1.82 lakh households have at least one member cleaning dry latrines.
SKA convenor, Bezwada Wilson, who was part of the meeting, said that it was proposed the survey would be undertaken through the National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation (NSKFDC). “However, the agency would still be dependent on those very states that have until now denied the existence of this practice. Also, the NSKFDC has no mandate to demand data from the Railways, which is one of the largest employers of manual scavengers but refuses to acknowledge a single case,” he said.
Wilson added that while it was proposed to fine contractors and persons engaging the victims, prosecution happens only in cases of death. “The law provides for prosecuting anyone even engaging people for manually handling human waste but there is not a single prosecution till date,” he said.