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Govt’s Toilet Building Spree May Increase Manual Scavenging: Study

The direct handling of human excreta by sanitation workers has been banned in India since 1993

8 min read
Govt’s Toilet Building Spree May Increase Manual Scavenging: Study
Hindi Female

The demand for manual scavenging is likely to go up with the construction of millions of new toilets under Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), the national cleanliness mission, undoing the campaign to put an end to a stigmatising and hazardous practice, said a new report.

“The concerns around sanitation work seems to be growing, given the large number of toilets that have been constructed under the ongoing Swachh Bharat Mission, using technologies that would require periodic emptying and offsite treatment of faecal matter,” said the 2019 report, Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers: An Initial Assessment published by the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, the World Bank and WaterAid. This situation could expand the “undignified network of manual scavenging” and increase the “vulnerability of sanitation workers”, the report added.


The study, which covered four states, located 1,686 manual scavengers. These included 423 septic-tank cleaners, 286 open-drain cleaners, and 956 dry-latrine cleaners of whom 92.35% were women. Up to 36% of these workers reported experiencing violence, and 50% had experienced untouchability.

The direct handling of human excreta by sanitation workers has been banned in India since 1993 under the Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, which also prohibited the construction and maintenance of dry latrines. But in July 2019, a parliament response by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment put the number of manual scavengers at 54,130 across 170 districts in 18 states.

The government claims to have constructed 95 million toilets under SBM and reported that 93.1 percent of households have access to toilets. But a large number of these toilets have been constructed using technologies that would require periodic emptying and offsite treatment of faecal matter, as per the new report.


In its SBM campaign, the government promotes the ’twin-pit’ technology, which obviates the need for human handling of faecal matter by moving it to a compost chamber. “Around 90% of all toilets built last year (2017) were twin-pit toilets,” said Parameswaran Iyer, 59, secretary, ministry of drinking water and sanitation, in an October 2018 interview to IndiaSpend.

However, no more than 13% of the toilets constructed under SBM had twin pits, while 38% had septic tanks with soak pits and 20% had single pits--both needing manual scavenging--as per a analysis published in October 2019, of raw data from the National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey, 2017-18. The survey was an independent verification survey that is often cited by the government. The survey studied 92,040 households in 6,136 villages.

“He (Parameswaran Iyer) is also aware that about 85% are not twin-pit,“ countered Bezwada Wilson, 53, national convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan, a nonprofit that works to eradicate manual scavenging and rehabilitate scavengers, in an October 2019 interview to IndiaSpend. Even twin-pit toilets will not work effectively in Indian climatic conditions, he added.


Even toilets that are linked to a sewerage system need manual cleaning in the latter stages of the sanitation chain, said Sudharak Olwe, an award-winning photojournalist who has documented the lives of manual scavengers across India.

No more than 56.4% of India’s urban homes--where 377 million people live--are connected to sewer lines while only 36.7% of rural areas--where 833 million people live--have drainage, according to a 2017 report of the National Sample Survey Office, the latest data available. Further, India has the capacity to treat only 37% of the sewage generated in urban areas.

“I think we are still far from eradication of manual scavenging and transforming lives through rehabilitation,” Olwe said, “We don’t need to create another generation of manual scavengers to be engaged in the cleaning of toilets made through SBM.”


Faceless And Neglected

A vast majority of the manual scavengers surveyed for the 2019 study reported limited access to government schemes. They missed out on benefits related to rehabilitation, alternative employment, and education of children because their names were not included in government surveys, the report said.

In 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act (PEMSR) replaced the 1993 legislation and expanded the definition of manual scavengers to include most categories of hazardous sanitation work. It also mandated the state with the task of identifying persons engaged in manual scavenging and ensuring their liberation and rehabilitation.

A year later, in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that manual scavenging violates international human rights commitments. “Over 95% are Dalits (persons belonging to the scheduled castes), who are compelled to undertake this denigrating task under the garb of ‘traditional occupation’,” the court said.


In 2018, the government introduced a standard operating procedure (SOP) for the cleaning of sewers and septic tanks, with clear directives for urban local bodies on engaging sanitation workers. In August 2019, an emergency response sanitation unit (ERSU) was set up specifying systems for immediate responses to emergencies. But the strategy has yet to be implemented.

Despite these campaigns, manual scavengers continue to work putting their lives at risk, as several ground reports (such as here, here and here) confirm, but their existence is denied by many states. “One of the striking challenges that the sanitation workers face in the country, in addition to the various vulnerabilities and hazards that they face in their day-to-day work, is the fact that various levels of governments are not even counting them,” said the report.

Available data on manual scavenging and casualties caused by the job are conflicting. Up to 5 million sanitation workers are employed in various urban locations across India, said a 2018 study conducted by strategy and policy advisory firm Dalberg Associates and cited by the report.


A slew of measures had been initiated to ensure better living and working conditions for sanitation workers and these involve their rehabilitation, family welfare and payment of compensation in the event of death while at work. But the lack of reliable data affects their implementation.

Consider the problems in payment of compensation to manual scavengers who die at work. In India, three sanitation workers die at work every five days. In a 2014 judgment, the Supreme Court ordered state governments to identify all manual scavengers who died at work since 1993 and pay the family of each a compensation of Rs 10 lakh.

Death rate of sanitation worker in India
(Photo Courtesy:India Spend)

The National Safai Karamchari Commission, a statutory body that deals with the grievances of manual scavengers, then asked state governments for data on the deaths of manual scavengers. These data were to include the names of the deceased, the date and place of their deaths, the name of the person to whom the compensation had been paid, the amount of compensation and the mode of payment. Despite several reminders, states have not shared these data in their entirety, according to the commission.

Only 20 states have partially shared these data, while others did not respond at all, said a response to a Right to Information application filed by news website The Wire, and reported on November 18, 2019. The number of manual-scavenger deaths claimed by state governments is also disputed by activists who allege that several such deaths are not properly registered. Even the states which have paid compensation, as per the Supreme Court order, have paid less than the mandated Rs 10 lakh.


Low Life Expectancy, Risk Of Disease And Death

Sanitation workers have their lives cut short by the everyday risks of the job and they have a lower life expectancy than the average population. Few of them live beyond 60 and there is a rapid decline in the number of those who are over 50, according to a study conducted by the Centre for Education and Communication (CEC) in 2005 in Delhi featuring 200 sewage workers.

Up to 69.1% of conservancy workers of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) interviewed for a 2015 study by the Tata Institute Of Social Sciences (TISS) reported receiving safety gear including masks and hand gloves. But most of them did not use the gear because they found it of poor quality and not user-friendly.

Sewers and septic tanks are chambers of toxic gases such as ammonia, carbon monoxide, and sulphur dioxide and coming in direct contact with these results in the loss of consciousness or death. Countless more are reported to suffer repeated infections and injuries. Manual scavengers also risk cardiovascular degeneration, musculoskeletal disorders, infections, leptospirosis, skin problems, and respiratory system problems.


“In no country, people are sent to gas chambers to die,” the Supreme Court stated on September 18, 2019. “Every month four to five persons are losing their lives in manual scavenging.”

The struggle of a manual scavenger is not limited to the individual; their families struggle too due to the stigma associated with sanitation work, its health consequences and the losses suffered by the family in the event of death.

“Initially, I used to feel nauseated,” said Meenadevi, 58, who cleans dry latrines in Dehri-on-Sone, a city in southern Bihar’s Rohtas district. Her mother-in-law too cleaned dry latrines and died doing the job. “I wasn’t ready and felt ashamed to work because of the stigma attached to it. But now I’m used to the foul smells. Poverty leaves you with no option. With the amount of discrimination we face, what else can we do to feed our stomach? Give us another job and we will leave this one immediately.”

There has been a significant decline in the central budget allocations under the Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) between 2013-14 and 2018-19, the study found. Even the available annual budget was under-spent and not optimally utilized.


An allocation of Rs 5 crore was made to SRMS in 2017-18 from the total budget of Rs 6,908 crore for the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE), a 93% decrease in allocation from Rs 70 crore in 2013-14, said a study by Accountability initiative which is run by policy think-tank Centre for Policy Research.

Along with decreasing fund allocation, expenditure has also been low with only Rs 56.12 crore being spent between 2014-15 and 2017-18 under the scheme. As of December 2017, 323 deaths due to sewer cleaning were reported, with complete compensation of Rs 10 lakh paid in only 63%, or 204, cases.

complete compensation is  not always paid for death of sanitation workers
(Photo Courtesy: India Spend)

In the study, India is listed among the nine countries where sanitation workers face the worst working conditions. Others included in the list are Bangladesh, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, and Uganda.

On several parameters, India is the worst amongst these countries. Manual sanitation work is not even acknowledged in the policies or strategies of the Indian government, while it is in Bangladesh and South Africa, the report pointed out. Legal protection for sanitation workers is not available in the case of third-party subcontracting in India, while it is available in South Africa.

In India, the report could not find any evidence to prove the existence of standard operating procedures or guidelines specific to sanitation, while these exist in several countries including South Africa and partially in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Haiti, and Kenya.

  India Among 9 Countries With Worst Working Conditions For Sanitation Workers  
(Photo Courtesy: IndiaSpend)

Only 45% of the world’s population has access to a private toilet where human waste can be safely disposed of. Up to 2 billion people still lack access to even a basic sanitation service and they resort to open defecation, use pits or hanging latrines that empty into rivers or lakes, or share their toilet with multiple households, said the collaborative report.

Between 2000 and 2017, 2.1 billion people gained access to a basic sanitation service and as a result the global population practicing open defecation halved. The numbers have been improving but this pace of improvement will not be enough. “At current rates of progress, everyone in Sub-Saharan Africa will not have access to safely managed sanitation until 2403--a shocking 373 years behind schedule,” said the report.

(Published in an arrangement with IndiaSpend)

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