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In times of Swachh Bharat, existence of manual scavengers paints a dirty picture

A fresh survey to be conducted in 18 states will clear the haze over the exact number of manual scavengers. The profession was outlawed in 2013. Every year, several workers die from noxious gases in places like sewers, which they enter without protective gear.

india Updated: Mar 27, 2018 15:34 IST
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Smriti Kak Ramachandran
Hindustan Times, New Delhi/Patiala
Manual scavenging,Swachh bharat,Manual scavenger
For years, the Centre has alleged that states have found ways to deny the existence of manual scavengers.(Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

The pictures on the wall are hazy, but the trophies lining the shelves still sparkle. They are as well preserved as the memories Kuku Ram has of his days as a body building champion.

In a modest neighbourhood in Punjab’s Patiala, largely avoided by the so-called upper castes, Kuku Ram’s trophies are the only proof of his glorious past. “He was very famous and won many titles, but eventually his poverty and his caste came in the way,” said his wife Meenu.

A Scheduled Caste, from the Valmiki community, Kuku Ram, the award-winning wrestler and body-builder from Patiala, swapped the gym for the broom, a bucket and scrapping tools, spending nearly a decade cleaning dry toilets and sewers.

“He could not find sponsors or a coach. There was no money, so he had to take up the job (manual scavenging). But we are happy that the dirty work is behind us now,” she said.

Two years ago Kuku Ram became eligible for a bank loan of Rs. one lakh. Under the union government’s scheme to rehabilitate manual scavengers -- enforced after the practice was outlawed in 2013 -- Kuku Ram was given financial assistance to start a new vocation.

He used the money to start a small business selling clothes.

“We only owe the bank Rs 33,000 now, the rest has been repaid,” Meenu told HT.

While the couple is happy to have left the dehumanising profession, the money they make is just about enough to run their household.

A little distance from their home, lives 26-year old Gagan Kumar, who till two years ago was a manual scavenger too. A class 10-drop out, Kumar followed in the footsteps of his father who spent years flushing out excreta, and was ostracised for his profession.

Intervention by a non government organisation, the Safai Karamchari Aandolan (SKA) helped Kumar and five of his colleagues get loans of a lakh each, under the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) scheme of rehabilitation for manual scavengers.

A part of the ministry of social justice and empowerment, NSKFDC is the agency for implementation of the self employment scheme through grants and loan based schemes.

Women manual scavengers go door-to-door in Uttarakhand villages, cleaning dry latrines. (HT File Photo)

Not all are so lucky

While Kuku Ram and Kumar are the poster boys for the NSKFDC’s scheme of rehabilitation for manual scavengers, there are hundreds of others who are yet to get any help.

The primary reason, say NSKFDC officials, is the state administration’s failure to identify manual scavengers. As on January, the total number of identified manual scavengers is 13,639, of which 12, 771 have been offered the one-time cash compensation, according to government data.

For years, the centre has alleged that states have found ways to deny the existence of manual scavengers, even though with every mishap and death, the best worst-kept secret is exposed. Penal provisions, strictures to follow the process of identifying and compensating those involved in the high-risk and dehumanizing job notwithstanding; there is still no validated list of how many exist and how many join the profession compelled by poverty and lack of opportunity.

Fresh Survey

“It is for this reason, we have decided to conduct a fresh survey in particular districts that will count those who clean night soil and pit latrines. In the next stage, we will count people involved in cleaning septic tanks, sewers, railways tracks and platforms,” said an official of the ministry of social justice and empowerment that has the mandate to implement policies for rehabilitation of these workers.

The fresh survey to be conducted with assistance from the government think tank NITI Aayog, is expected to clear the haze over the exact numbers. It will register those who continue to be in the profession after the practice was outlawed in 2013.

There is no clarity on whether the government will revisit the amount sanctioned as one time assistance or hike the loan amount.

Not so swachh
Manual scavenging is prohibited in the country but, with more than one lakh ‘safai karamcharis’, govt data does not seem to complement reality
A manual scavenger is engaged by a contractor in the Sagar Cantonment, MP. (MUJEEB FARUQUI/HT)
11,10,24,917
homes without toilets in India, according to the Baseline Survey, 2012
Rs 19,134 crore
spent on SBM (Gramin) by the centre from October 2, 2014 to March 2, 2017 for construction of 3.49 crore latrines
Rs 12,000
the amount with which beneficiaries are incentivised under SBM (Gramin). 60% money is provided by the Centre and 40% by the state
MANUAL SCAVENGERS
  • The Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 puts the number of manual scavengers in India at 1.68 lakhs
  • Under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 offences are cognizable
  • For employing scavengers or constructing dry (non-flush) latrines can invite imprisonment up to one year and/or a fine of Rs 2,000

Assistance not enough

“We have received complaints from some people about the loans being inadequate, but the banks have their own system of assessment, despite the subsidy offered by the government,” said another official in the ministry.

Satypal, a former manual scavenger from Ludhiana, was given a one-time cash assistance to help him purchase pigs but says the money is woefully inadequate.

“I barely managed to purchase two sows and a hog with that money (given two years ago) and since then have only managed to get a couple more. I have to look for odd jobs to supplement the income,” he said.

Most rehabilitated manual scavengers are offered one time cash assistance to start ventures such as a meat or vegetable shop, pig or dairy farming. In some instances loans have been offered for purchase of auto rickshaws.

Most of the former manual scavengers complained that while bank loans are seen as a means of their socio-economic empowerment; they are the hardest to secure.

Subhash Deshawar of the SKA cited the case of five former manual scavengers, in Patiala, who have been waiting for the past two years to get their loans sanctioned. The district magistrate’s office has been dutifully writing to the banks to release the amount, but the sanction seems to be caught in the proverbial red tape.

“The rules are simple; there is no need for a collateral or complicated paper work. Yet, the banks cling to the perception that these people will not repay the loans. A quick look of the accounts of those who have been given the loans could help disabuse them of the notion, but they classify manual scavengers and safai karamcharis as a ‘negative category’,” said Deshawar.

India outlawed manual scavenging in 2013 but the practice is commonplace with no accurate picture of how prevalent it is. (HT Photo)

Bezwada Wilson, the national convenor of SKA frowns on the practice of rehabilitation through loans. He says, instead of loans, the government must give compensation, which would have been “reparation” for the years of discrimination.

“Most people are scared of taking loans because they are scared they might not be able to repay them if their business does not take off. For big corporate and industrialist houses, the government finds a way, but for these it has created a herculean problem,” he said.

His views are echoed by Bhalchandra Mungekar, a former MP and planning commission member who said lack of education and adequate financial help are reasons why the banned practice still continues.

“The cash assistance and the loans are not sufficient. They should ensure that the sum of money is at least Rs 10 lakh so that they can set up businesses that can help them sustain their families. The government’s work does not end with identification and rehabilitation alone. They have to ensure that no one is forced to replace the ones who have been rescued [from the work],”he said.

His assertion that rehabilitation schemes need to focus more on women, who form the bulk of the workforce is buttressed by the government’s admission that they constitute 80% of the total numbers.

Union minister for social justice and empowerment recently informed Parliament that of the 11,044 women identified as manual scavengers, 798 have been provided onetime cash assistance of Rs.40, 000 each till January.

Eradicating manual scavenging and dry latrines are core to the government’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) initiative, which eyes a 2019 target to eradicate open defecation and build toilets across the country.

First Published: Mar 27, 2018 09:32 IST