Swachh Bharat: Undocumented manual scavengers nix govt’s success story

Updated on Apr 24, 2017 12:21 PM IST

An HT investigation reveals that manual scavenging still exists in places which the government has declared as having household latrines.

Women manual scavengers in the villages go door-to-door in Uttarakhand, cleaning dry latrines.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
Women manual scavengers in the villages go door-to-door in Uttarakhand, cleaning dry latrines.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
Haridwar/ Udham Singh Nagar / Sagar | BySarika Malhotra

Fifty-year-old Kunta Devi has her job cut out. At the crack of dawn, she is already out in the alleys of her sleepy village in Uttarakhand, carrying a basket, to clean its underbelly.

Devi is a manual scavenger who makes a living by removing human excreta from dry latrines in Jorassi Jabardastpur village in Haridwar district.

Paradoxically, the hill state has been ranked as one of the best performing states under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programme, the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). The SBM dashboard declares, along with Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Sikkim, the state has achieved 100% Individual Household Latrine (IHHL) coverage.

Presence of Devi and her ilk in the village-- with their faces obscured with dupattas perched on heads and wrapped around shoulders-- however, exposes the mismatch between the government’s data and the ground reality, and how farcical these rankings are.

Raj Dulari, 45, of the same village rues she has to remove human excreta from 20 houses everyday and can’t even afford to take a day off.

Just for the record, manual scavenging is prohibited in the country by law. Manual scavengers are paid an appalling Rs 150 for six months, or 10kg wheat for the same period and a chapati (roti) a day by every household.

Block development officer of the area, Pawan Saini, refuses to accept their existence, claiming there is no dry latrine in the area and no ‘mahila karmi’ removes human excreta. Even Somanth Saini, programme manager of Swajal, the implementing authority of the sanitation programme endorsed the BDO’s claim: No manual scavengers and no dry latrines in the district.

But panchayat pradhan Abdul Rahim spills the beans, putting the number of dry latrines in the areas under his jurisdiction to around 500.

The Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 had enumerated just 12 manual scavengers in the entire district of Haridwar. But the HT came across eight persons who are doing the job in one village alone.

Jorassi residents said government officials dismantled dry latrines last year without constructing new flush toilets. “As nothing was done for months, we were compelled to construct the dry latrines again as building flush toilets is beyond our means,” said Mohammad Irfan, a villager.

As HT traversed through Uttarakhand, it’s next port of call was Mahua Dabra Haripura in Udham Singh Nagar district. Here, every third household lacks a toilet. There is also no community toilet in the village. Villagers say most of them go to the ‘jungle’ to defecate.

Government records, however, give a different picture. According to the data collected from the panchayat bhawan, in the seven wards under it only 150 houses do not have a latrine. A whopping 1726 households have one.

A manual scavenger is engaged by a contractor in the Sagar Cantonment, MP. (MUJEEB FARUQUI/HT)
A manual scavenger is engaged by a contractor in the Sagar Cantonment, MP. (MUJEEB FARUQUI/HT)

The SBM dashboard proclaims Udham Singh Nagar district as an open-defecation-free (ODF) district with 100% IHHL coverage.

Local residents and sanitation activists, however, contradict the official claims. They point out that amid a mad rush among the districts to declare them as ODF, facts often are the casualty.

Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson said there are 1.6 lakh safai karmacharis who clean dry latrines in India. “If as many flush toilets have been built under the SBM, then how come as many people are still cleaning dry latrines?” he said.

The 2011 caste census puts the number of manual scavengers in India at 1.68 lakh whereas 3.49 crore latrines have been built under the SBM.

The most startling revelation came from Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar district, another place HT visited to do the reality check. We found out that manual scavengers have been hired even by the government, albeit via contractors.

Thirty-year-old Ajay Karotia is one such manual scavenger engaged by a contractor to clean four dry and non functional sanitary community latrines in the Sagar Cantonment. Karotia said he has to manually scoop out excreta using a discarded mudguard of a motorcycle as and when drains get choked.

But as per government data, all the 39,362 insanitary latrines in the state have already been converted into sanitary toilets.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 fixes responsibility on each local authority, cantonment board and railway authority to survey insanitary latrines within its jurisdiction and construct sanitary community latrines.

Offences under the act are non-bailable. But it has been brazenly violated. “Even the government is indirectly engaging scavengers for cleaning community dry latrines, railway tracks, government hospitals,” said Wilson.

Avani Kapur, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, explains that the discrepancy is the outcome of frantic efforts to meet the SBM targets by any means and the absence of infrastructural capacity to meet those goals.

The government officials responsible for the implementation of the flagship scheme, however, remain steadfast in their claim about the success of the project. “The SBM has become a Jan Aandolan (mass movement). We have a robust mechanism to monitor its progress on the ground. If any aberration occurs, we instruct the state governments to address them immediately, since the primary responsibility of its implementation lies with the states,” said Parameswaran Iyer, secretary in the ministry of drinking water and sanitation.

On the ground there are very few takers of the government’s so-called success story.

Findings of survey on SBM conducted by Centre for Policy research, New Delhi in December 2015
  • Tracked households which had built a toilet in the last 2 years according to the SBM-MIS. As many as 1/3rd households reported to have toilet in the government database, didn’t actually have them.
  • Despite ad blitzkrieg through big billboards and fancy advertisements, awareness about the scheme was missing on the ground. Only 60% of households that requested for financial assistance received it and the main reason for a large section not placing request was lack of awareness.
  • Only 6% of the households surveyed were aware of the Swachhta Doots and only 10% reported any awareness programmes on sanitation conducted in their village.
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