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Manual Scavenging - UPSC Current Affairs

Mar 16, 2022


In today's edition of our Current Affairs Dialog box, we will discuss Manual Scavenging and its important points from the UPSC exam preparation point of view.

For Prelims: Current Events of National and International Importance.

For Mains: Government Policies & Interventions, Issues Related to SCs & STs, health.

Click here to read yesterday's edition of the Current Affairs Dialog box.

Why in the News?

Recently, three labourers in Mumbai, allegedly hired for manual scavenging, died after inhaling toxic fumes in a septic tank. 

Probable Question

Why does the dehumanizing practice of manual scavenging persist in India despite a complete ban and strict penal provisions? Examine.

About Manual Scavenging:

  • Manual scavenging is defined as the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers.
  • India banned the practice under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR). 
    • The Act bans the use of any individual for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta till its disposal.

How Serious the Issue of Manual Scavenging is?

  • According to the Socio-Economic and Caste Census, 2011, there were 167,487 households in India, engaged in Manual Scavenging.
  • According to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), in the last 10 years, a total of 631 people have died in the country while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

Why does Manual Scavenging still persist in India?

  • The lack of enforcement of the Act and exploitation of unskilled labourers are the reasons for the prevalence of this practice in India. 
  • Insanitary latrines: The continued presence of unsanitary latrines is one of the prime reasons for the prevalence of manual scavenging in India. These latrines need to be cleaned physically rather than by a machine or sewage system, leading to the demand for manual scavengers. 
  • Indifferent Attitude: A number of independent surveys have indicated towards the continued reluctance on the part of state governments to admit that the practice prevails under their watch.
  • Outsourcing through contractors: Many times, local bodies outsource sewer cleaning tasks to private contractors. However, many of them happen to be unreliable operators, who do not maintain proper rolls of sanitation workers.
    • In case, after cases of workers getting asphyxiated to death, these contractors have denied any association with the deceased.
  • Lack of the alternate source of employment: The stigma and discrimination associated with manual scavenging make it difficult for the liberated manual scavengers to secure alternative livelihoods.
  • Moreover, Manual scavengers are not an organized group and don’t have any significant voice in the political and government structures. Hence their problems are not considered as a major issue.

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Steps Taken by the Government to Curb Manual Scavenging

  • The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020: It has been introduced as a part of the Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry’s National Action Plan.
    • The Plan will focus on modernising existing sewage system and coverage of non-sewered areas; setting up of faecal sludge and septage management system for mechanised cleaning of septic tanks, transportation and treatment of faecal sludge; equipping the municipalities and setting up of Sanitation Response Units with helplines.
  • Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge: Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has launched this challenge for all states to make sewer-cleaning mechanised. 
  • According to this, if any human needs to enter a sewer line in case of an unavoidable emergency, proper gear and oxygen tanks, etc., are to be provided.
  • PEMSR ACT, 2013: The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act came into force in 2013. The law prohibits employing manual scavengers, manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment and construction of insanitary latrines.
  • Supreme Court Judgement: In 2014, the Supreme Court held that making a sanitation worker enter sewer lines without safety gear should be a crime even in emergency situations. 
    • Also, the court held that if a sanitation worker died due to the unsafe conditions, a compensation of ₹10 lakh has to be given to the family of the deceased.
  • Directives by National Commission for Scheduled Castes: It said that workers have to be fully equipped with safety apparatus and oxygen masks in case they have to clean sewers manually. 
  • A first information report has to be lodged against officials or contractors responsible for sending a worker to clean sewers manually, without proper gear.
  • The commission also made it mandatory for all municipal corporations to get an insurance policy of ₹10 lakh per worker.
  • Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act: In 1993, the Government of India enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act which prohibited the employment of manual scavengers for manually cleaning of dry latrines and also the construction of these dry toilets (which do not operate with a flush).
  • The Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989: The Act became an integrated guard for the sanitation workers; as more than90% people employed as manual scavengers belonged to the Scheduled Caste. This became an important landmark to free manual scavengers from designated traditional occupations.
  • Article 21 of the Constitution: It guarantees ‘Right to Life’ and that too with dignity.

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Way Forward

  • Proper Identification: States need to accurately recount the workers engaged in cleaning toxic sludge.
  • Empowering Local Administration: With Swachh Bharat Mission identified as a top priority area by the 15th Finance Commission, and funds available for smart cities and urban development provide for a strong case to address the problem of manual scavenging.
  • Social Sensitization: To address the social sanction behind manual scavenging, it is required first to acknowledge and then understand how and why manual scavenging continues to be rooted in the caste system.
  • Need For a Stringent Law: If a law creates a statutory obligation to provide sanitation services on the part of state agencies, it will create a situation in which the rights of these workers will not get compromised. 

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