With an aim to put an end to manual scavenging, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman while presenting the Union Budget 2023 on Wednesday informed that 100 per cent mechanisation will be introduced in the cleaning of septic tanks and sewers.
“All cities and towns will be enabled for 100 per cent mechanical desludging of septic tanks and sewers to transition from manhole to machine-hole mode. The enhanced focus will be provided for scientific management of dry and wet waste,” she said.
Manual scavenging, a ‘dehumanising practice’
In India, despite laws banning manuel scavenging, a practice of removing human excreta by hand from sewers or septic tanks, it continues unabated.
As many as 330 people died while undertaking “hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks” from 2017-22, Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale informed the Lok Sabha in August 2022. However, he maintained that there have been no deaths due to ‘manual scavenging’.
Laws which ban the practice of manual scavenging are: Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR). The Act recognises manual scavenging as a “dehumanizing practise” and bans the use of “any individual for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta till its disposal”.
Manual scavenging continues despite laws
However, the practice is still prevalent in many parts of India due to lack of enforcement of the Act and exploitation of unskilled labourers. An Indian Express report said that while the Mumbai civic body charges anywhere between Rs 20,000 and Rs 30,000 to clean septic tanks, labourers are quite cheaper and contractors illegally employ daily wage labourers for as low as Rs 300-500.
Budget ‘a jumla for safai karmacharis’
Following the Budget announcement, Bezwada Wilson, National Convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), an organisation working for complete eradication of manual scavenging, slammed it and called it “a farce and jumla for safai karmacharis”.
In a video, Wilson, a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee, said, “You have not said a single word about either rehabilitation, liberation or children’s education of the safai karmacharis in the whole Budget, neither of the deaths which are continuously happening.”
“Every three days, there is one death. Why can’t you mention that? This Budget is completely lacking human angle and it requires accountability,” he added.
The Supreme Court passed a landmark judgment in 2014 ordering compensation of Rs 10 lakh each to be paid by the state government to families of those who have died while cleaning sewer/septic tanks from the year 1993 onwards. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment on July 26, 2022 in a written reply in the Lok Sabha, said that out of 966 reported deaths at that time, 742 had been given Rs 10 lakh compensation, while 113 had received less than Rs 10 lakh.