Over the last five years, 321 people in India have died while cleaning sewers or septic tanks, the Centre told Lok Sabha on Tuesday.

Manual scavenging has been banned in India. A law passed in 1993 prevents an individual or a local body from employing a person to clean human excreta from insanitary latrines, open drains, pits, railway tracks, or any other such spaces.

However, the government in its Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Act distinguishes between manual scavenging involving dealing with feaces and the practice of cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

On Tuesday, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale was responding to a question by Bahujan Samaj Party member Girish Chandra during the ongoing Winter Session of Parliament on the status of manual scavenging in India.

“No deaths have been reported due to engaging in Manual Scavenging [which is lifting of human excreta from insanitary latrines as defined in Section 2(1)(g) of the Manual Scavenging Act 2013],” Athawale said. “However, 321 people have died due to accidents while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks during the last five years.”

Activists working for rights of manual scavengers in India have pointed at the loopholes 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.

Apart from deaths related to manual scavenging, Chandra also sought to know the number of people engaged in cleaning sewers and septic tanks and the government’s efforts to rehabilitate such persons.

Athawale said India has 58,098 manual scavengers currently of which the maximum – 32,473 – were in Uttar Pradesh. Meanwhile, there were only three manual scavengers in Chhattisgarh, the lowest in India.

The Union minister said that the government has implemented the Central Sector Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers to rehabilitate individuals involved in cleaning drains and septic tanks.

The rehabilitation programme involves one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 to each manual scavenger, skill development training and cash subsidy up to Rs 5 lakh for those who avail loans for self-employment projects.

The families of the manual scavengers have been provided with health insurance under the Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana.