To prevent deaths due to manual scavenging, the government is moving entirely to the mechanical desludging of sewers. This was announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman when she presented the Union Budget 2023 in Parliament on Wednesday.
As a part of the Urban Sanitation announcement, she said, “All cities and towns will be enabled for 100 per cent mechanical desludging of septic tanks and sewers to transition from manhole to machine-hole mode. The enhanced focus will be provided for scientific management of dry and wet waste.”
“This is the first budget in Amrit Kaal,” she said.
The announcement is significant since, despite laws banning manual scavenging, the practice continues unabated, with contractors often outsourcing work to daily wagers for as little as a few hundred rupees a day.
Governments — both Central and state — have attempted various measures to curb the practice.
In 2018, for instance, the Delhi government and the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry started work on a project proposal to introduce smaller machines to clean sewers, which could enter narrow streets, on an ownership model with guaranteed work for kin of those who died while cleaning sewer lines in the city. There are close to 200 such machines operating in the city at present.
The Delhi Jal Board guarantees a minimum number of work days to machine owners, who are able to pay off loans with the income and run their households. The owners are also allowed to work for private players on a contractual basis.
With Sitharaman’s announcement, states are likely to enforce the laws more stringently, and also give a fresh push to procurement and rolling out of machines.
According to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), a body under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, 1,054 people have died till December 31, 2022, due to hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks.
NCSK claims this data is from 1993, but this is a very conservative figure as the commission itself says: “The data is based on the information received from states/UTs/print & electronic media and complaints received by the commission directly, etc.”
This is dynamic data which keeps changing or is updated on receipt of fresh information on the commission.
The highest number of such deaths have been reported from Tamil Nadu, where 231 persons have died during sewer cleaning. Gujarat comes next, where 153 safai karamacharis have died. Then come Uttar Pradesh (117), Delhi (103), Haryana (100), Karnataka (86), Maharashtra (47), Punjab (41), Rajasthan (38), Andhra Pradesh (24) and West Bengal (22).
Manual scavenging is completely prohibited under the ‘Prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their rehabilitation Act 2013”.
As per the section 2(1)(g) of the Act, “Manual scavenger means a person engaged or employed for manual cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta…”
To provide relief to families whose members died while cleaning sewers, in 2014, the Supreme Court passed a landmark judgement and ordered that compensation of Rs 10 lakh each must be paid by the state government to families of those who have died while cleaning sewer/septic tanks from the year 1993 onwards.
According to a written reply by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment on July 26, 2022 in the Lok Sabha, out of 966 reported deaths at that time, 742 had been given Rs 10 lakh compensation, while 113 had received less than Rs 10 lakh.