The Centre on Wednesday claimed that no one died while carrying out manual scavenging in India, but 161 workers have died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the last three years.
Union minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, Virendra Kumar, in reply to a question by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Mahesh Poddar in Rajya Sabha, said, “There is no report of deaths due to manual scavenging. However, 161 persons have died due to accidents while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks during the last three year.” Poddar had asked the number of manual scavenger eeaths in the last three years.
Among the states, Tamil Nadu reported the highest number of such deaths at 27, followed by 26 in Uttar Pradesh, the data presented by the Union minister showed. Interestingly, in the case of Uttar Pradesh, all the deaths were reported in 2019, with 2020 and 2021 suddenly having zero such deaths, according to the data.
Kumar also told the Rajya Sabha that no person was currently engaged in manual scavenging. He added that 58,098 manual scavengers were identified across India in two surveys in 2013 and 2018.
Out of the Rs 100 crore allocated for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, Kumar said one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 was deposited directly into the bank accounts of all the identified and eligible 58,098 manual scavengers.
Manual scavenging, a caste based practice of cleaning human excreta by hand, is banned under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
The government sees manual scavenging as a person is employed to manually clean, carry or handle human excreta from insanitary latrines, open drain or a pit, and such other places. In 2013, the definition of manual scavengers was broadened to include people employed to clean septic tanks, ditches, or railway tracks.
However, reports point out that the government data or the criteria to record death of a sanitation worker as death due to manual scavenging may be flawed. Without strong enforcement of the 2013 Act, manual scavenging is reportedly still prevalent in the country.
In 2021, the Ramon Magsaysay Award-winning activist Bezwada Wilson, who is part of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, tweeted that 472 deaths due to manual scavenging were recorded from 2016 to 2020.