Why are states and Union Territories failing to provide information on the number of manual scavengers to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK)? Why are the number of deaths of manual scavengers not being provided to the central authorities as they’re supposed to be?
And why is a Supreme Court order directing government authorities to provide information on these issues being ignored by pretty much everyone for 8 months and counting?
It has been 26 years since India passed a law prohibiting manual scavenging – the cleaning of human excreta from insanitary latrines (ie toilets where the waste has to be manually removed rather than removed with water or machines), pits and drains. It has been 6 years since a second law was brought in to shore up the gaps in the old one and ensure rehabilitation of those who have been forced into this work.
Five years ago, the Supreme Court of India passed a clear judgment emphasising the need to adhere to the 2013 law, including monitoring of manual scavenging across the country and effective rehabilitation of manual scavengers with payment of proper compensation.
No Response to Feb 2019 SC Order by Central Authorities, 30 States & UTs
You would think this means that the authorities would now be fully aware of how many manual scavengers have been identified across the country, how many have died in this dangerous line of work, what steps have been taken to rehabilitate them, and how the system of manual scavenging is being eradicated.
Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case.
On 8 February, the Supreme Court issued notice in a petition on these issues filed by the Criminal Justice Society of India (an NGO whose president is senior advocate and MP, KTS Tulsi), and directed the Central government, Central ministries and commissions, the Railways and all States and UTs to respond to it within four weeks.
Four weeks have come and gone and as of 28 October, only two affidavits have been submitted by central authorities, and only five States and UTs have offered up affidavits.
This means that 30 States and UTs have failed to respond to the apex court’s order. The Railways, the Ministry of Law & Justice, the Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes have also not submitted any responses.
The Central government asked for two more weeks to provide its response to the petition on 29 July, and eventually submitted a reply seven weeks later through the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (SJE Ministry).
The delay could perhaps have been understood if there had been no obligation to collect this information till this time, but the 1993 and 2013 laws already require monitoring, and all these respondents have been required to submit such information to the NCSK. From a perusal of NCSK reports and answers to Lok Sabha questions, it also appears that this information is available with some if not all of the States and UTs which have not responded.
Of course, what makes all this even worse, is that the affidavits which have been submitted in response, leave a lot to be desired.
India’s Unreliable Data on Manual Scavenging
The petition by Criminal Justice Society of India, by advocates Ashima Mandla and Fuzail Ahmed Ayyubi, uses information available in the public domain, including UNDP reports, NCSK reports, as well as numerous news articles and research papers, to argue that the laws prohibiting manual scavenging are not being implemented properly across the country.
Number of Manual Scavengers
The petitioners point out the confusion over something as basic as how many manual scavengers there are in the country, something which was supposed to be monitored under the 1993 law, as well as the 2013 one. The Indian Express reported on 20 June 2018 that an inter-ministerial taskforce survey found there were nearly 53,000 manual scavengers in the country but States only reported some 6,600 of these.
The Quint found that the NCSK’s latest annual report says there were 13,169 manual scavengers in the country as of 13 January 2018 – but that this only includes data from 13 states and UTs.
Deaths of Manual Scavengers
The PIL also notes the lack of clear data regarding the number of deaths of manual scavengers in the country.
It notes that in an answer provided by the SJE Ministry in December 2017 in the Lok Sabha, it said 323 manual scavengers had died while cleaning septic tanks and sewers. The Quint found another answer by the Ministry on 9 July 2019, in which it says 620 have died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks as of 30 June 2019 (a rather drastic jump in less than two years).
News18 reported in September 2018 that the NCSK’s data shows 123 people have died cleaning sewers and septic tanks since January 2017. But the National Safai Karamchari Andolan found over 400 deaths had taken place from manual scavenging in the same period.
Speaking to The Quint, the Andolan’s national convenor, Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson, said they have documentary evidence of 1,090 deaths of manual scavengers since 1993 (most of them since the turn of the century). Their own surveys indicate the total number of deaths in this time period to be closer to 1,870.
To set the record straight, the petition asked the Supreme Court to issue writs for the following:
- Status reports from states, UTs and the Railways on the number of manual scavengers engaged or employed either directly or indirectly since 1993 as well as the number of insanitary/dry latrines;
- Reports from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as well as all states and UTs on the number of manual scavenger deaths which have occurred since 1993; and
- Investigations by states, UTs and the Railways into the deaths of manual scavengers and criminal proceedings against those responsible for these deaths.
In issuing notice, the court has not expressly asked for the data to be submitted yet, but the respondents do need to address whether or not this information is being collected, which is why the affidavits which have been submitted have mentioned what data is in the authorities’ possession.
State/UT Affidavits Submitted: Ostrich Syndrome?
The deficiencies in the affidavits submitted by the governments of Lakshadweep, Tripura, and Himachal Pradesh can be best summed up in the NCSK’s own words from its 2017-18 annual report:
“The biggest problem in addressing the issue of manual scavengers is the lack of Central and state governments to accept that the practice still exists and declare actual figures related to the number of manual scavengers. Many states claim that they have zero manual scavengers, which is entirely untrue. India still has vast number of dry latrines. How are these cleaned if not by manual scavengers?”
Each of the responses by these States and UTs says steps have been taken to implement the legislations and the Supreme Court judgment. And yet they fail to indicate, as the NCSK has plaintively asked, how the dry latrines within their borders (which still exist) are cleaned.
Chhattisgarh’s affidavit makes for interesting reading. On page 2, it says the 2013 law has been “implemented in letter and in spirit”. On page 3, it says three manual scavengers have been identified, given new jobs as sweepers, and given the one-time statutory compensation of Rs 40,000.
Of course, to ensure it truly complies with the letter of the law, the State also needs to give their children a scholarship, allot them a residential plot and financial assistance to build a house, provide a member of their family training and a monthly stipend, and provide an adult member of their family a subsidy and concessional loan.
None of which is indicated in the affidavit.
What makes the response even more problematic is that it claims that machines are being used to clean septic tanks and sewers and that these are not happening manually. No deaths are reported from this in the state.
And yet, the SJE Ministry’s Lok Sabha answer in July 2019 shows that four people died while cleaning septic tanks and sewers in Chhattisgarh – for which the state paid compensation, as can be seen in the table below.
The government of Goa provided an affidavit which acknowledged deaths due to manual scavenging, but also somehow asserted that there are no manual scavengers in the state. Goa also failed to provide information on these deaths to the SJE Ministry for inclusion in the answer in the Lok Sabha.
Affidavits by Central Authorities: Confusion Compounded
The affidavit by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis provides us with yet another figure for how many people have died while cleaning sewers/septic tanks (only for this, nothing else): 728 from 1993 till 27 February 2019.
Strangely, it does not provide any data on the number of manual scavengers identified in the country till this date – even though its own annual reports clearly show it is getting this information from at least some States/UTs.
The strangest affidavit, in terms of consistency, however, comes from the Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment. On the number of manual scavengers, it says 53,398 manual scavengers have been identified since the 2013 law came into force till 30 June 2019 (according to the numbers provided on page 9, this should actually be 53,598).
However, when it comes to how many insanitary latrines are present across the country, no such precise figures are provided, and it only says that “Most of the insanitary latrines in the country have been converted into sanitary latrines under the Swachh Bharat Mission.” This no doubt indicates the numbers are available with the ministry, but it has decided not to share this information at this time.
It then throws out a brand new figure of how many people have died while engaged in the hazardous cleaning of septic tanks/sewers: 20 states/UTs reportedly informed the NCSK of 776 deaths prior to February 2019 – which is different from the figures provided by the NCSK in its own affidavit.
It also includes an argument on page 12 about how the answer by the Ministry in December 2017 was only with regard to deaths due to hazardous cleaning in septic tanks/sewers, not due to manual scavenging. This is a rather bizarre point as the definition of manual scavenging does include this, as Bezwada Wilson confirmed to The Quint.
In fact, the 2013 law specifically expanded the definition of manual scavenging to ensure such activities also fell within its scope. The Supreme Court’s 2014 judgment also specifically says that if the practice of manual scavenging is to end, cleaning of sewers without proper equipment needs to be made a crime.
“The Central government has not taken the 2014 Supreme Court judgment seriously,” says Wilson, adding that according to it “no human being is supposed to enter sewer lines or septic tanks.” The government was supposed to take concrete steps towards this, but they have not, which may explain this line of argument.
It should also be noted that the question the government responded to in December 2017 specifically asked for the “ number of cases of death of manual scavengers reported during the said period while cleaning septic tanks and sewers”. No such qualification was forthcoming in the ministry’s answer at the time.
Wilson believes that the Swachh Bharat Mission “does not deal with eradication of manual scavenging at all” because of its focus on toilets rather than the scavengers themselves. In his opinion, the petition filed in the Supreme Court tells us a lot about how badly implementation of the manual scavenging law has lagged behind its passing:
“The Central government’s attitude on issues of Dalits and particularly safai karamcharis has got exposed through this case. They have not touched even one point.”
He notes that no governments since 1993 have taken the issue seriously, but is hopeful that this case will help shine a light on this issue, and that the Supreme Court will be able to make it a priority issue going forward.
The next hearing in the case will take place on 2 December, before Justices Bobde and Gavai.