Eighty-eight people have died in the last three years while cleaning sewers and septic tanks across the country, Ramdas Athawale, minister of state for social justice and empowerment, said in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, July 3. According to the data presented by him, Delhi, where 18 people have died, registered maximum number of deaths.
However, the data presented by the minister does not match the data collated by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), the statutory body that was set up by an act of Parliament for the welfare of the sanitation workers. According to the numbers released by NCSK in September, 2018, 123 people employed in hazardous forms of manual scavenging had lost their lives while at work since January 2017 and one safai karamchari had died every five days between January, 2017 and September, 2018.
As reported by The Indian Express, the officials involved in the process of collating the data for NCSK had admitted that the number of death could be a gross under-estimation, as no official data was available for these deaths. The data collected by the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) for the same period showed that more than 180 manual scavengers had died while at work. The data obtained by SKA for the year 2017-2018 also showed that the average age of deceased safai karamcharis was around 32 years, indicating that most families lost their sole breadwinner.
In the year when Modi government came to power at the Centre for the first time in 2014, they allocated only Rs 47 crore for rehabilitating manual scavengers in the fiscal year 2014-2015, which was only 1% of the total funds allocated by the previous UPA-II government. In the following years, the NDA government spent Rs 10.01 crore (2015-2016), Rs 1 crore (2016-2017) and Rs 5 crore (2017-2018) for the welfare of manual scavengers. The budget for the previous year, which ended on March 2019 had earmarked Rs 70 crore, according to the revised estimates for 2018-19. In the interim budget of 2019, only Rs 30 crore had been set aside for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. Ironically, this was the same government that spent more than Rs 18,000 crore every year on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
The National Safai Karamchari Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), which comes under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, conducted a survey between March and September 2018. Out of over 700 districts, the survey was carried out only in 163 districts. Even among these 163 districts, complete information was gathered from only about 100 districts. The results of the official survey hence turned out to be a gross underestimation of the actual conditions. According to the survey, 20,596 people were identified as manual scavengers, while in a survey conducted in 2013, the number of scavengers was 13,368. The NSKFDC has not officially disclosed yet how many people actually registered themselves as manual scavengers during the survey.
Bezwada Wilson, national convener of SKA told NewsClick, “The central government had claimed that they will end manual scavenging by the end of 2019, but even now, the sanitation workers are being forced to go into sewers and septic tanks without any safety gears. This proves that they do not have any political will to work for our welfare.”
Also read: Misplaced Priorities of BJP and Modi, Blind Eye to Manual Scavenging Deaths