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Rehabilitation efforts for manual scavengers languish

There is gross underestimation of the numbers falling under the manual scavenging umbrella in India, as well as gross neglect in the way efforts to help this marginalised community have been handled, Bharat Dogra’s calculations show

If the poorest of the poor are to get the highest priority in terms of welfare programmes, then surely those employed in manual scavenging (MS) work in India should top the list. The scheme for self-employment-based rehabilitation of those employed in MS is considered high priority. Yet, tragically, and most unjustly, most of the funds allocated for this scheme have not been utilised.

As per the Union Budget announcements, from 2014-15 to 2021-22, a sum of Rs 1255 crore was allocated. While the sum itself was not adequate, only Rs 236 crore was actually spent – only about 19 per cent of the allocation. Thus, over a period of eight years, Rs 1019 crore that was rightfully theirs was denied to the poorest households. This works out to around Rs 127 crore per year. At the rate of Rs 2 lakh per household, about 6000 households could have been satisfactorily rehabilitated every year (or over 48000 families in eight years), had the allocated amount been properly spent.

The annual allocation of around Rs 156 crore was not high, but in the latest year, the allocation for the scheme was just Rs 70 crore, less than half of the average, worsening the existing uncertainty surrounding it. Due to uncertainties, even the basic task of identifying beneficiaries has left much to be desired. Two important laws prohibiting manual scavenging and rehabilitation were enacted in 1993 and 2013. The definition of manual scavenging was very restricted in the first legislation and so efforts were made to broaden it in the second. However, the definition is still not wide enough to identify all forms of manual scavenging, as the procedures for identification laid down in the 2013 law have not been followed properly.

A recent study by the Centre for Equity Studies, supported by WaterAid India and the Association for Rural and Urban Needy, found that in many places identification work was left to the whims of the local authorities. If they felt there was no one engaged in manual scavenging in their area, no survey was taken up. Even when surveys were conducted, pre-survey training and sensitisation were generally neglected, affecting the efficacy of those conducting the surveys. Community leaders and those working for the community’s welfare were mandated to be involved in the survey work, but this too was often ignored.

There was provision for self-identification, and for taking into account lists provided by independent sources as well as the objections filed to official lists, but these were frequently neglected too. In addition, lists from various places had to be consolidated district-wise, and in this, lacunae were noticed.

After 2013 the government recognized 12742 manual scavengers in 13 states, 82 per cent of them in Uttar Pradesh alone, but this was widely criticised as a substantial underestimation. To place matters in perspective, the 2011 census had recorded 740078 households where waste and excreta are cleared by manuals scavenging. This did not include septic tanks, public sewers and railway tracks which also involve manual scavenging.

The Socio-Economic Caste Census counted over 1.82 lakh families that had at least one member employed in manual scavenging. In the most recent survey conducted in 2018-19, the government identified 54130 persons in 170 districts of 18 states as being employed in manual scavenging. Hence, the government estimates themselves differ widely from each other besides tending towards underestimation, leading to problems in rehabilitation.

One part of the rehabilitation consists of a grant of Rs 40000. The government claims that it has provided this grant to almost all the identified persons, but the issue is that most eligible people have not been identified and therefore the support has not reached the deserving beneficiaries. What is more, there are serious questions as to whether a sum of Rs 40000 is adequate, when the aim is not just some relief but proper rehabilitation based on self-employment, which could involve the purchase of income-generating assets, and expenses to learn new skills and make other arrangements.

The failure to generate alternative livelihoods supported by bank credit for entrepreneurial work and equipment is even more glaring. Banks have been releasing very little credit for this and even Union Government allocations have been very inconsistent.

Rehabilitation based on self-employment efforts is not easy due to the discrimination that families engaged in MS face in society, which may take time to overcome. These households need more help than what is now available, to survive during the initial difficult days and to persist with their self-employment efforts. Much higher investment is needed to find safer technologies and equipment for sanitation work suitable for Indian conditions too.

Also, efforts for rehabilitation and to procure safer technology should involve community members and workers (as well as those working for their welfare) to ensure that the most pressing problems can be resolved in the near future.

Note: Manual scavenging is a term used mainly in India for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or sewer or in a septic tank or a pit. 

July – September 2022