Only 508 districts out of the 766 districts in the country have declared themselves to be manual scavenging free, the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has said in an official document, The Hindu reported on Tuesday.

The numbers mean that manual scavenging continues to be prevalent in nearly 34% of the districts in India even though the practice is banned under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act.

In the last two years, the social justice ministry has repeatedly told Parliament that no deaths due to manual scavenging have been recorded. The ministry had, however, said that 330 persons had died in accidents while clearing sewers and septic tanks between 2017 and 2021.

On why these 330 persons who died in four years cannot be described as manual scavengers, Karnataka Safai Karmachari Commission chairperson M Shivanna Kote had told The Hindu last year that technically, manual scavengers are those who have been appointed by local bodies such as panchayats and municipalities.

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

The social justice ministry listed the figure of manual scavenging-free districts in a booklet released to highlight the achievements of the Narendra Modi government since 2014, The Hindu reported.

In response to the newspaper’s question on why the other districts did not declare that they were free from manual scavenging, Social Justice Minister Virendra Kumar said: “Whatever information has been received from the states, municipal bodies – all have said manual scavenging does not take place anymore. They have all identified collectively over 58,000 manual scavengers…Whoever has decided to do something else on their own, we are connecting them to skills training centres.”

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The initiative to put manual scavengers in skill training centres to make them fit for alternative livelihood was introduced under the Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers scheme in 2007.

A reply to Parliament from the social justice ministry in March showed that budgetary allocation for the scheme has declined since 2019.

In the Union Budget for 2019-’20, the government had allocated Rs 110 crore for the scheme, but the revised estimate stood at Rs 99.93 crore, Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale said in his reply. For 2020-’21, the Budget estimate was Rs 110 crore and the revised estimate was Rs 30 crore.

Meanwhile, in the 2021-’22 Budget, the government had initially allocated Rs 100 crore, but the revised estimate came to Rs 43.31 crore.

In this year’s Budget, no allocation was made under the scheme as the government merged it with the National Action Plan for Mechanised Sanitation Ecosystem, or NAMASTE, initiative, in 2022, claiming that manual scavenging no longer takes place in the country.

Under the previous Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers, the government had identified 58,098 manual scavengers, who had been given a one-time cash payout by 2020.

Also read: Ignoring the lives of thousands of Dalits, Centre wants to declare India free of manual scavenging