The Central Monitoring Committee of the Union social justice ministry concluded on Wednesday that the issue of manual scavenging has been eliminated.

The ministry made the claim in its eighth meeting despite noting that only 520 of the 766 districts districts across the country are free of manual scavenging. The figure stood at 508 last month.

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 have been recorded due to manual scavenging. The ministry, however, has also said that 330 persons 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 that technically, manual scavengers are those who have been appointed by local bodies such as panchayats and municipalities.

The social justice ministry in a statement on Wednesday said there is no evidence of any insanitary latrines. The ministry said it had come to conclusion after investigating alleged instances of insanitary latrines and manual scavenging reported through the Swachhata Abhiyaan app.

“The committee was informed that the main focus now would be on ensuring that all activities related to the cleaning sewers or septic tanks are done by using protective gear and mechanical cleaning devices while ensuring the observance of the requisite safety precautions,” the statement said.

Also read: What it takes for a city to end manual scavenging

The social justice ministry also said that it has developed a scheme named NAMASTE in collaboration with the housing ministry to focus on eliminating hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks and to stop deaths due to such practice.

It said that 58,098 manual scavengers were identified in two surveys in 2013 and 2018 and they have been given cash assistance of Rs 40,000. Of these, 22,294 have been given skill development training while 2,313 were given capital subsidy as they took loans for self-employment projects.

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.

The NAMASTE initiative has been merged with the rehabilitation scheme. Due to this, no allocation was made to the rehabilitation scheme in this year’s Budget.

Wednesday’s meeting was attended by the Union Minister of State for the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale, National Commission for Safai Karamcharis chairperson M Venkatesan, ministry officials and representatives from other Central ministries.

Also read: How to cover up manual scavenging: Dhule municipality gives cash to workers but denies they exist