Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale, told the Rajya Sabha on July 28, 2021 that no manual scavenger had died in the country in the last five years.
When asked about "the number of people engaged in manual scavenging who have died during the last five years", Athawale responded, "No such deaths have been reported due to manual scavenging."
This claim is falsified by another response Athawale gave in the Lok Sabha on February 2, 2021. He presented data that showed that 340 people (reported from just 19 states/UTs) have lost their lives while "cleaning sewers and septic tanks during the last five years". Of these, most deaths occurred in Uttar Pradesh (52) and least in Chhattisgarh (1).
Other than the number of deaths, the difference between these two responses is deaths of those engaged in manual scavenging and those engaged in cleaning sewers and septic tanks. So, is there any difference? FactChecker spoke to manual scavengers, experts and officials to clarify.
Is There Any Difference?
Anil Vaid, 32, and father of two, has been cleaning sewers in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh for more than six years now. "At first, there was no gear and equipment provided but since 2019, there has been the provision of jetting machines and other machines which cut through a lot of the sludge. But there are still areas which can be reached and cleaned only manually, and sometimes there's depth of over 6 feet," Vaid told FactChecker.
According to a study conducted by WaterAid India, "One manual scavenger dies every five days in India since January 2017." This study is based on data from the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), a statutory body created for the welfare of sanitation workers under the Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment.
Since it's a matter of defining the term, according to The Prohibition Of Employment As Manual Scavenger And Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR Act, 2013), the term manual scavenger means "a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the expression 'manual scavenging' shall be construed accordingly".
FactChecker also spoke to an NCSK official, who maintained that manual scavengers are primarily those who clean surfaces. "Manual scavengers are primarily those engaged in cleaning [excreta] manually, with their hands, on the surface. There are no deaths that happen in such cases. When it comes to cleaning sewers, deaths are continuously occurring. There was a death [of a safai karmachari] in a sewer 3-4 days ago in Noida as well. Many deaths happen during the current [monsoon] season where many sewers overflow," said the NCSK official, who didn't wish to be named.
But union workers and activists working for the rights of manual scavengers believe there is no difference between the two. "There's essentially no difference. Sewage and septic tank cleaners are also manual scavengers," Bezwada Wilson, National Convener, Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), told FactChecker. "The statement made in the Rajya Sabha is inhuman and manipulated because instead of manual scavengers, different words have been used to describe those engaging in such work. This is very cruel."
Pragya Akhilesh, secretary of Bhim Safai Karmachari Trade Union, echoed Wilson's views when she said, "The statement made in the Rajya Sabha is factually incorrect and very irresponsible on the part of the minister. Denying the fact that manual scavenging and related problems exist, gives a free pass to contractors and administrations to continue exploiting manual scavengers."
"There are many categories of manual scavengers also missing from the [PEMSR] Act, like domestic sanitation workers who work in residential and commercial areas, and more who are completely ignored," Akhilesh added.
Wilson, in fact, said the data presented in the Lok Sabha in February under reports the number of deaths. SKA collates and maintains data of deaths of manual scavengers. While the LS response says 340 people died cleaning sewers and septic tanks, Wilson claims that it did not include 132 more deaths that happened over the past five years of those engaged in different forms of manual scavenging. "Manual scavengers, as many as 472, have died over the past five years, and since then [February 2021], 26 more have died. This brings the total to 498," Wilson told FactChecker.
According to NCSK's 2019-20 Annual Report, many state/UT governments lack sincere efforts towards implementation of the [PEMSR] Act. The report mentions that manual scavenging still survives in India and lists a total of 42,303 manual scavengers in 18 states/UTs. "The fact that this survey was just done in selective states shows that this was not a nationwide survey. The number of manual scavengers in the whole country needs to be enumerated clearly," said Akhilesh.
The survey was not just conducted in select states, but also in select districts of those states. The annual report also highlights that officials in state and district levels are not fully aware of the provisions of the PEMSR Act, 2013. As a result, the NCSK found that hundreds of deaths occur every year due to unprotected entry into sewers and a large number of these go unreported as they are mostly contractual workers or someone who is simply picked up by private individuals to get their septic tank cleaned, according to the report.
How is the pay?
"I have not been paid for three months now. My monthly salary, as promised, is Rs. 12,000 but sometimes I end up getting Rs 10,500 and I do not understand why my salary is cut. This time, I've been told that I'll receive the payment between August 3 and August 5. But I am in need right now as I have two kids to feed," said Vaid.
According to a judgement by the Supreme Court in 2014, the families of those who died cleaning sewers, manholes or septic tanks since 1993, are to be paid a compensation of Rs 10 lakh. But, until February 2020, out of the total 920 such officially recorded deaths, the full compensation was given to 558, with 161 receiving less than Rs 10 lakh and 164 falling under the category of 'no payment/payment not yet confirmed', according to data presented in the Lok Sabha.
"Many families of deceased manual scavengers are not compensated in full. They keep going to government offices to collect what they deserve, but are denied and asked to come later. In this way, they [the government] are neither dignifying the family members or the manual scavengers, even after death," said Akhilesh.
In addition to this, the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers implemented by the National Safai Karamharis Finance Development Corporation has provided a one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 to 58,098 identified manual scavengers (one in a family), according to the data presented in the Lok Sabha on July 27, 2021.
The NCSK official too said payment is a major issue despite it being an essential job for many. "This work has to be carried out, but due to the existing privatisation in this line of work, the sanitation workers face many troubles. For example, cheques given to many sanitation workers employed by private companies for the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar this year, fell through and bounced," said the official.
"They have no insurance and families don't get compensated in cases of accidental deaths on the job as deaths go unreported," the official concluded.