Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of manual scavengers. Has their rehabilitation worked? A ground report
Of the total 58,098 manual scavengers identified across India, Uttar Pradesh alone accounts for 32,473. The state government has spent Rs 1,305.4 million on rehabilitating these people by providing one-time cash assistance, and skill building and training. As part of The Gaon Postcard series, Gaon Connection met Dalit Valmiki women, who for decades have lifted 'latrine' with their hands, and complain that none of the election results have made any difference in their lives.
Shivani Gupta 18 Feb 2022 7:44 AM GMT
Kanpur Dehat and Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh
Usha remembered that she was only twelve years old when she first picked up human excreta with her hands. For days after that, the girl from the Dalit Valmiki community, could not eat. Usha is 42 years old now and she said she still cannot eat food cooked with haldi (turmeric). "I hate yellow colour," Usha, who had just returned home after cleaning toilets in her basti, told Gaon Connection. Her two-room mud-plastered house in Bhognipur village of Kanpur Dehat district is painted blue with not a speck of yellow.
"I have spent twenty years picking up 'latrine'. It's been only two years since I stopped. Now I collect other wastes such as dirty cloth pads, clean toilets in the basti, unclog sewers and drains," the former manual scavenger narrated as she settled down on the charpoy in her house, about 150 kilometres from the state capital Lucknow.
Kanti, from Saintha village in Kanpur Dehat was eleven years old when she started cleaning human excreta. The 60-year-old was born into a Valmiki family, and now she cleans toilets.
"After five decades of cleaning people's 'latrine', I quit. Now, every week I go to clean toilets at people's homes. For this, I get teen paseri galla [15 kgs of wheat] every six months," Kanti told Gaon Connection.
Officially, cleaning of dry latrines and manually cleaning human excreta was banned in India in 1993 when the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed. Anyone who employs manual scavengers or constructs dry latrines attracts imprisonment and a fine of Rs 2,000.
Also, manual scavengers like Usha and Kanti are eligible for rehabilitation, including a one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 from the Indian government under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. But these members of the Valmiki community complain that no political party has addressed their caste-specific woes and discrimination. Rehabilitation of manual scavengers is few and far between, they say.
Manual scavengers in Uttar Pradesh
In Uttar Pradesh, where assembly elections are underway, the population of manual scavengers is the highest in the country. Of the total 58,098 manual scavengers identified across 17 states and Union Territories by the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment (December 2021 data), Uttar Pradesh alone accounts for 32,473.
The state also has a large chunk of Scheduled Caste (SC) population – 35,148,377 – which constitutes 21.1 per cent of the state's total population (166,197,921), as per the 2011 census. Usha and Kanti who belong to the Dalit Valmiki community fall in the SC category. These scheduled castes are predominantly rural as 87.7 per cent of them live in villages.
A 2019 article published by Oxfam India notes that nearly 99 per cent of all manual scavengers are Dalits and 90-95 per cent of them are women.
According to official data, in Uttar Pradesh, one time cash assistance has been given to 32,636 manual scavengers. About Rs 1,305.4 million has been spent for rehabilitation purposes of these people, Pramod Dwivedi, accountant, Scheduled Caste Finance and Development Corporation, Government of Uttar Pradesh, told Gaon Connection.
"Most manual scavengers are in debt. Even if they get rehabilitation fund [one-time Rs 40,000], it goes in repaying loans taken from money lenders," Kuldeep Kumar Bauddh, convener of Bundelkhand Dalit Adhikar Manch, told Gaon Connection. "Training and skill development of these people is only on paper. We need to rethink on how we can pull out this community from this vicious circle of inhuman practice," the activist added.
However, members of the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh claim the state government has brought about a significant change in the lives of manual scavengers. "Our government ensured that manual scavenging is banned. You must have seen how Prime Minister Narendra Modi cleaned the feet of Dalits in Kumbh. Manual scavenging is no longer practised thanks to the toilets constructed in UP under Swachh Bharat," Sameer Singh, a Lucknow-based, Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson, told Gaon Connection.
Opposition parties say otherwise. "Manual scavenging has not been eradicated in UP. Nobody has got this forty thousand amount. Dalits were given respect only when behen ji [Mayawati] became the chief minister [2007-2012]," MH Khan, BSP national spokesperson, said.
Wither the rehabilitation of manual scavengers?
Usha of Bhognipur village was teary-eyed when she said: "When I came to my husband's home as a bride, I was not given a saree or suit. Instead, my mother-in-law handed me a basket [to carry excreta]. Itta bado gift milo tho yeh latrine kamaan ko [This was the gift I was given to make a living from latrine]."
Usha said working with cleaning acids has weakened her eyes. The 42-year-old also said she had no information on the rehabilitation scheme of manual scavengers and neither had she received any money from the government. The only change in her life has been going from a manual scavenger to a toilet cleaner.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, defines a manual scavenger as "a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act, or thereafter by an individual or a local authority, contractor or an agency for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of or otherwise handling in any manner human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open-drain pit".
Manual scavengers are rehabilitated in three ways – one-time cash assistance, imparting skill development and providing limited loan subsidies.
Under the 2007 Self Employment Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers, every manual scavenger who gave up scavenging, was promised a sum of Rs 40,000 to help her/him with expenses for six months. Manual scavengers are considered rehabilitated when they are employed after being trained in some skill. Skill development training is provided to such individuals for two years with a stipend of Rs 3,000 a month. Easy loans up to the sum of Rs one million are promised to them.
However, little has translated into action on ground, say activists and researchers.
"When manual scavengers quit this work, most of them got no rehabilitation money, no training, nor loans," VR Raman, head of policy, WaterAid India, told Gaon Connection. "There has been pressure on governments to claim that there is no manual scavenging in their areas," Raman, who is based in Delhi, added. Once they claim that there are no manual scavengers anymore in the state, they will not be able to use the rehabilitation funds, he explained.
According to him, the governments need to acknowledge that there is still a large number of Dalit families involved in manual scavenging, who need that one time cash assistance, skill development so that they can start afresh.
'Not received financial assistance from the government'
"I have not received any money from the government. All I get from the homes where I clean toilets is twenty five rupees a month. Sometimes chapatis and pudiya [tobacco] are thrown at us from far away," insisted Usha from Bhognipur village.
"I was poor then, I am poor now," Chanda in Saintha village of Kanpur Dehat told Gaon Connection. Chanda is employed as a cleaner of a community toilet for which she is entitled to Rs 6,000 a month. However, she said, for the six months of work she has already put in cleaning the toilet, she has only received Rs 13,000 instead of Rs 36,000 she is entitled to.
"My husband works as a band baja wala and earns once in six months. Payt ke liye karna padtaa hai yeh ganda kaam [We have to do this work to feed our stomach]," Chanda, a mother of four, added.
Kanti, or baleharin chachi as she is known, also told Gaon Connection that she had not received any rehabilitation money from the government. "We don't know anything about the forty thousand rupees," she said. Twenty years ago, Kanti's son, a sanitation worker, died.
"It was seven in the morning when he left to clean the sewer. Two hours later, villagers told me that my Milan died after falling into the sewer. I got no financial help even when my son died," she complained.
Replying to a question in the Lok Sabha on February 2, 2021, Ramdas Athawale, minister of state for social justice and empowerment, said that till December 31, 2020, about 340 sanitation workers have died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks across 19 states.
The highest number of such deaths – 52 – were reported in Uttar Pradesh, while 43 died in Tamil Nadu, 36 in Delhi, 34 in Maharashtra, 31 in Gujarat and 24 in Karnataka.
Rehabilitation of manual scavengers and finding them alternative occupation has been an area of 'high priority' of the government, the minister said in response to a question by KR Suresh Reddy in the Rajya Sabha. He added that more than 108.8 million sanitary toilets have been constructed in rural areas under the Swachh Bharat Mission since October 2, 2014, which, he said, had ended manual scavenging.
However, sector experts disagree. "For instance, in Karnataka, rehabilitation for manual scavengers, who were identified in 2013, is still going on. Meanwhile, they continue to do this work," Siddharth Joshi, who works with Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samithi, an organisation working for the rehabilitation of persons engaged in manual scavenging in Karnataka, told Gaon Connection.
The definition and the number game
According to an August 2019 survey by the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), an organisation working under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, in the 170 districts across 18 states surveyed, 87,913 people had registered themselves as manual scavengers. Of these, only 42,303 people were 'acknowledged' by the state governments as manual scavengers.
"We get many applications daily, but when surveys happen at the district level we find that they were never engaged in this practice," Pramod Dwivedi from the Scheduled Caste Finance and Development Corporation told Gaon Connection.
How is a manual scavenger identified? "At the village level we form a team that includes the gram pradhan, secretary, lekhpal [village revenue accountant], ASHA and anganwadi workers. They conduct a door to door survey to identify manual scavengers," explained Namita Sharan, district panchayat raj officer, Kanpur Dehat.
According to a government document for Kanpur Dehat, there are no manual scavengers in the district. The government's 2013 survey data shows 19 manual scavengers in the district have been provided one time cash assistance.
"In 2017, the government started a scheme under which forty thousand rupees were to be given to each family. But at that time we did not find any such families in our district and so no such amount was distributed," said Sharan.
"The government is not ready to accept manual scavengers in UP. Surveys are just a formality. Even after showing videos, governments do not accept them as manual scavengers, and hence there is no rehabilitation," said activist Baudhh.
The state government officials insist there are no dry latrines in Uttar Pradesh and the state has been declared open defecation free in 2018.
But, Rashtriya Safai Karamchari Andolan, a movement to eliminate manual scavenging, claims there are still 558,000 dry latrines in the state. In Kanpur Dehat alone, there are 2,271 dry latrines.
Budget cuts for manual scavengers' rehabilitation scheme
The Union Budget 2022-23 has allocated Rs 700 million for the rehabilitation of those involved in manual scavenging under the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers. This is 30 per cent less than the last budget's allocation of Rs 1,000 million (which was revised to Rs 433.1 million). This has upset the activists.
"The governments are undercounting, they are not recognising manual scavengers in the country, they are denying funds. As a result, the numbers are not as high as they should have been," said Joshi.
"Uttar Pradesh has the maximum number of manual scavengers," Badan Singh, convenor, Sanyogi Gramin Vikas Evam Sodh Sansthan, a non-profit which works for health, women safety, employment issues of marginalised communities, told Gaon Connection.
Meanwhile, Valmiki women like Usha, Kanti, Chanda, who for decades have worked as manual scavengers, now clean toilets and continue to face caste-based discrimination.
Read this story in Hindi.