👤 Author : Shikhar Sarangi

🗓️ Date Published : 12th August, 2022

Power-Washing away the Menace of Manual Scavenging

1. Small Scale Solutions to the Problem

Manual scavenging, by its inherent nature, is necessary for the daily functioning of sewage and sanitation systems. Due to this reason, despite the best efforts of public and private players, manual scavenging can most irreversibly be eradicated if it is made redundant for the task it is meant for. There are two dimensions involved in this eradication – the workers (and their means of survival) and the employers (and their requirement for scavenging). Any long-term sustainable solution for manual scavenging must take into account the corresponding effects on both sides of the coin, without which the system so established runs the risk of collapsing. There exists one obvious solution to manual scavenging and that is ‘automated scavenging’, wherein the process of handling of human excreta and its subsequent disposal can be fully or partially automated. In order to achieve the same, a thorough analysis is required of the location and condition of dry latrines. The following graphs indicate the presence of dry latrines in certain states and the number of the manual scavengers (registered) and a logical implication is the case for budget allocation accordingly:

Figure 2: Number of Dry Latrines in Certain States

                                                                                       Source: Factly

                                                                                   Source: Factly

Figure 3: Number of Manual Scavengers in Certain States

                                                                                           Souce: Factly

                                                                                       Souce: Factly

A simple mechanism to eradicate manual scavenging is the construction of water-sealed latrines, which dispose of excreta through a linear system involving fast-flowing water. An emphasis on the construction of the same has been made in the Act itself$^1$. The proposed measures deal with one of the two dimensions previously mentioned, that of the employer whose demands for cleaning and sanitation are met by virtue of the aforementioned solutions. However, the manual scavenger stands to lose from this arrangement given that these measures ultimately remove their only source of income, no matter how meagre it may be.

2. The Rehabilitation Conundrum

From the perspective of the manual scavenger, the Act that bans the profession does not truly emancipate them for emancipation is not simply the breaking the shackles holding an individual, but also giving them a crutch to support themselves on until they can find the strength in their legs again. Recognizing this, the Act lays down provisions for the rehabilitation of workers$^2$. In pursuance of the same, the most comprehensive scheme launched by the government has been the Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), monitored by the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC)$^3$. The scheme is an effective way to provide employment by providing loans, subsidy and training to former scavengers who can then run small-scale business to sustain themselves. The outlay for the same has been indicated as follows.

Figure 4: Outlays for SRMS

                                                             Source: Indiaspend, Budget Numbers

                                                         Source: Indiaspend, Budget Numbers

The numbers indicate that the problems don’t lie with the money, but rather its dispersion and application at the ground-level. During the course of the research, it was observed that the following aspects of government action (or lack thereof) contribute to the gap between the provisions of the Act and their intended effect and the actual realities faced by manual scavengers in the case of rehabilitation.

The Data Void:

As mentioned before, the government’s data collection machinery has been below par due to the lack of enthusiasm, training, awareness and infrastructure in the smallest of governance units on the part of both the authorities as well as workers. The municipal and panchayat bodies have so far been unable to create exhaustive lists and hence, government authorities have neither been able to penalize employers or rehabilitate workers in an adequate capacity. Interestingly enough, there has been no lack of surveys conducted. Multiple data surveys done by several different organizations have led to discrepancies cropping up in these lists$^4$. However, these organizations must contend with the same, aforementioned barriers to data collection and this leads to their lists being inaccurate.

Government Apathy:

On more than one occasion during the research, a commentator has accused the government of wilfully ignoring the plight of the manual scavengers. This has been true across states and has led to the exclusion of many who continue to remain in the vicious cycle. This apathy has been the result of long-standing, established practices which conveniently place the burden of scavenging on a select group of people, and those that do not belong to such group are either ambivalent or in denial of the indignity and pestilence associated with this profession.

The Social Status: