No deaths have been reported due to manual scavenging in the country in the last five years, the Centre claimed on Wednesday.

The Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment said this in the Rajya Sabha while replying to a question tabled by Congress MPs Mallikarjun Kharge and L Hanumanthaiah.

This was despite the fact that during the Budget Session of the Parliament in February, the government had said that 340 people had died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the five years till December 31, 2020, The Hindu reported.

In the past, the government has differentiated between deaths due to manual scavenging and those that have occurred while cleaning sewers.

Responding to a question in the Lok Sabha in March 2020, Social Justice Minister Ramdas Athawale had said that nobody died due to manual scavenging in the last three years. He, however, added that according to data from the states, 282 people died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks during the period.

Activists working for rights of manual scavengers in India have pointed out at the cracks in the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, as one of the reasons for underreporting of deaths caused due to manual scavenging.

The Act bans “hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks”. However, it defines hazardous as “manual cleaning by such employee without the employer fulfilling his obligation to provide protective gear and other cleaning devices and ensuring observance of safety precautions…”.

The activists suggest that the law goes on to perpetuate manual scavenging, instead of banning the practice, as long as “protective gear and other cleaning devices” are provided. They have also said that septic tanks are located and designed in a way that a person has to enter them manually to clear any clogging or choke-up.

As a result of these factors, among others, not a single case of a manual scavenger’s death has led to conviction since the law was passed in 2013.