No one in the country is engaged in manual scavenging, but 330 persons died in accidents while cleaning sewers and septic tanks between 2017 and 2021, the Centre told the Lok Sabha on Tuesday.

Manual scavenging – or the practice of removing human excreta by hand from sewer lines or septic tanks – is banned under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. But the practice remains prevalent in many parts of India.

Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale shared the data on manual scavenging in response to a question raised by Girish Chandra, a Bahujan Samaj Party MP .

Chandra had sought details on whether manual scavengers in the country are working as contract, migrant and casual labourers or as bonded labourers, and the action taken by the government to solve this problem.

He also asked if over 20% of manual scavengers were not registered under the Prohibition of Employment and Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers Act. Chandra sought state-wise data on the number of manual scavengers who died during the hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks in the last five years.

“No sir, there is no report of people currently engaged in manual scavenging as defined under Section 2(1)(g) of the Prohibition of Employment and Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers Act, 2013,” Athawale said in response. “Manual scavenging is prohibited with effect from December 6, 2013. No person or agency can engage or employ any person for manual scavenging from the said date.”

On July 26, however, Athawale had told the Lok Sabha that the government had identified 58,098 manual scavengers in the country in the last three years. On July 19, the government had told the Lok Sabha that 347 sanitation workers have died across India since 2017 while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

People who often die due to manual scavenging are daily wage workers.

“Technically, they cannot be labelled as manual scavengers,” Karnataka Safai Karmachari Commission chairperson M Shivanna Kote had told The Hindu last year. “Manual scavengers or safai karmacharis or scavengers or pourakarmikas are those who have been appointed specifically by local bodies, such as panchayats, municipalities.”

On Tuesday, Athawale maintained that no deaths were reported due to manual scavenging in the country from 2017 till 2021.

“However, 330 persons have died due to accidents while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks during the last five years,” the minister added.

Forty-seven such fatalities were reported in Uttar Pradesh between 2017 and 2021, the government said. The toll in Tamil Nadu is 43 and 42 in Delhi. Haryana reported 36 deaths and Maharashtra 30.

‘Swachh Bharat Mission ended manual scavenging,’ says Athawale

On Tuesday, Athawale told the Lok Sabha that since October 2014, more than 10.99 crore sanitary toilets were constructed in rural areas and 62.65 lakh in urban areas under the Swachh Bharat Mission.

“This work made a huge contribution towards ending the practice of manual scavenging,” he said. “After receiving reports from the social institutions working in this field, about continuation of this practice, the ministry of social justice and empowerment has launched a mobile app ‘Swachhata Abhiyaan’ on December 24, 2020 to capture the data of insanitary latrines still existing and manual scavengers associated with them.”

However, not a single insanitary latrine has been confirmed so far, he added.

Also read:

  1. Why India needs a new law to combat the deaths of workers in sewers and septic tanks
  2. ‘The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a complete flop on the objective of eradication of manual scavenging’