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How Many Manual Scavengers are There In India? Official Data is Self-Contradictory

How Many Manual Scavengers are There In India? Official Data is Self-Contradictory

The government identifies just above 12,000 manual scavengers in India.


Rakhi Bose

Another man lost his life in a sewer in Delhi on Friday night after the rope tying the man snapped and he fell inside. The cause of death was said to be inhalation of toxic gases, same as the death of several such sewer cleaners.

This is the second incidence of sewer death in the capital and the tenth such death in the country in the last one week alone. On September 10, five men had lost their lives inside a sewage treatment plant (STP) in Moti Nagar in west Delhi. Their deaths were attributed to a lack of protective gear.

Despite the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, manual scavenging continues to be a foul, inhuman and deeply casteist practice prevalent in several Indian states.

A perusal of media and government reports reveals a confusion when it comes to the number of people employed in manual scavenging and the number of deaths of workers engaged in the sector.

We tried to compile the data that currently exists to make some sense out of the numbers that reveal a murky reality about the invisible sector.

How many manual scavengers are there in India?

After 2013, the government recognised 12,742 manual scavengers in 13 states, with 82% of them in Uttar Pradesh. However the number has since been criticised as a gross under-representation of the actual numbers.

The 2011 Census records the presence of 740,078 households where waste and excreta is cleared out by manual scavengers. This number does not include the septic tanks, public sewers and railway tracks which are also mostly cleaned by manual scavengers. In addition, around 21 lakh households dispose of their wastes in dry latrines or drains, which also are cleaned by manual scavengers.

The Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 counted over 1.82 lakh families that had at least one member employed in manual scavenging. In states like Uttar Pradesh, several women are employed in removing excreta from dry toilets.

In June, Indian Express reported a recent inter-ministerial survey conducted in 121 out of the 600 districts in India that has put the number of manual scavengers in these districts at 53,236, a fourfold increase from the the previous data. Out of these, only 6,650 have been accounted for by the states.

Uttar Pradesh maintains its distinction of having the highest numbers of manual scavengers at 28,796.

Manual scavenging deaths

The data on this is even more under-reported. According to official union government figures, there have been 323 deaths of manual scavengers in the country.

However, Safai Karamchari Andolan, a non-profit organisation, puts the number of deaths at over 1,500. They reported 1,340 such deaths in the last ten years.

The organistaion, led by Ramon Magsaysay Award Winner Bezwada Wilson, has recorded 356 manual scavenging deaths between 2010-17 in Delhi.

According to SKA statistics, at least a hundred deaths took place this year itself. Most of the deaths occur due to lack of proper gear or exposure to toxic gases.

What do manual scavengers earn?

Since manual scavenging is banned, it is one of the unorganized and undocumented sectors in India. There is no common average and the wages vary from place to place.

Sometimes, manual scavengers working with state cleanliness boards as sanitation workers are used for the purpose. In rural areas of Uttar Pradesh, it is common to expect anywhere between Rs 40-100 for cleaning out dry toilets.

Labourers can be paid up to Rs 1,000 (again the number varies) for cleaning septic tanks or sewage units.

The government is entitled to provide Rs 10 lakh to the families of those who die due to manual scavenging inside sewers. However, data presented by the Central Monitoring Committee in 2017 said that only seven states had paid compensation for such deaths in the last 25 years.

Those identified as manual scavengers (12,742) are also given a one-time Rs 40,000 compensation by the government.

However, the inconsistencies in counting the number of manual scavengers in the country (caused due to under-reportage by districts and states in an attempt to prove illegal manual scavenging is non-existent) ensure that thousands of these poor labourers remain aloof from state benefits.

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