The civic bodies in cities with population above 1 lakh may be required to mechanically clear the septic tanks and sewers, proposes the draft National Plan for Elimination of Manual Scavenging. Reports suggest that the changes will be introduced by amending The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act.
Among the changes, the plan proposes to file First Information Report against the Municipal Commissioner or District Magistrate or Sanitation Inspector in case of any death in sewers. Under the plan, the local bodies will have to ascertain the number of machines required for cleaning the sewers. The machines can be hired by sanitation workers and private households.
The plan has been prepared by Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment along with Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation in the Jal Shakti Ministry and Ministry of Rural Development. This is the first such venture where four different ministries came together to chalk out the plan. The plan also makes a departure from the traditional means for funding sanitation workers or their self help groups to buy the machines for cleaning the sewers and septic tanks.
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“There can’t be prevention of hazardous cleaning and sewer deaths unless we push the mechanisation drive. Until now, the NSKFDC [National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation] was giving loans directly to people engaged as manual scavengers or their self-help groups so that they could be rehabilitated in alternative occupations. But it was found that it was beyond the capacity of the workers to take a loan up to Rs 20 lakh. Therefore, the money will now be given as loans to urban local bodies for procuring machines,” Indian Express quoted an official of NSKFDC as saying. NSKFDC is a Government of India undertaking which runs several schemes for sanitation workers for their rehabilitation.
The new plan comes after a slew of agitations from dalit and human rights groups, who demanded an immediate ban over the practice, and rehabilitation of the displaced sanitation workers. Safai Karamchari Andolan headed by Bejwada Wilson estimates that at least 1,800 workers have lost their lives in sewers in the past 10 years.
A major criticism from the groups suggest that the government authorities continue to employ contractors who consistently deny the safety equipments to workers. However, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 prohibits manual cleaning of toilets, sewers, and septic tanks without safety gear and mechanised equipments. Interestingly, there has been no conviction in the deaths of sanitation workers.
However, the provision of the new plan does not convince Wilson. Talking to NewsClick, he said, "First, let me clearly put it that these are all proposals which were suggested during a workshop of Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in Vigyan Bhawan. Second, the plan fails to address two basic questions; one, identifying the manual scavengers and two, their rehabilitation. I have been talking about technological solutions to it. What are the concrete plans? The ministries involved do not have any specialisation with technological development. But above all these, this government wants to solve it through business model and experience tells us that this is not going to be resolved through this process. So, the proposal is nothing but an eyewash."