Bengaluru: Bala* does not remember at what age he started working as a pit cleaner. By the time he had turned 15, he was helping his father as a manual scavenger. "My family had been doing this work for as far as I can remember," he told IndiaSpend in Kolar, 100 km from Bengaluru, in December 2020.

For nearly five years now, Bala has been at the mercy of local government and administrative offices. He is waiting to receive Rs 40,000, an amount that he is entitled to as a one-time cash assistance (OTCA) towards rehabilitation after being identified as a manual scavenger as per the provisions of a 2013 law. A misnomer, the term 'manual scavengers' refers to those who engage in manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling human excreta in any manner from dry latrines and sewers.

The 45-year-old former manual scavenger from the Madiga community, listed as a Scheduled Caste (SC), is among the hundreds of thousands who expected their lives to change for the better after 1993 when India banned and criminalised manual scavenging.

Twenty years later, the Prohibition Of Employment As Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR Act, 2013) expanded the scope of rehabilitating manual scavengers--over 95% of whom are Dalit--and their dependents by providing for cash assistance to a member of the household, voluntary skill development training, capital subsidy and concessional loans, and scholarships for children. It also mandated the formation of central and state-level committees to monitor and coordinate the implementation of the Act.

The Department of Social Justice and Empowerment introduced the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) in 2007 to aid the rehabilitation of 'former' manual scavengers transitioning to other occupations. The Centre provides 100% funds for the scheme, which is implemented by the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), a government agency instituted to eliminate manual scavenging.

The corporation aims to help manual scavengers set themselves up in alternative professions, by providing OTCA of Rs 40,000 to one individual in a manual scavenging household. It also offers them skill development training through courses for up to two years, during which time they can avail of a monthly stipend of Rs 3,000. Further, it offers them loans of up to Rs 15 lakh at concessional rates and credit-linked capital subsidy of up to Rs 3.25 lakh, for procurement of mechanised cleaning equipment or vehicles. (For instance, for equipment cost of Rs 10-15 lakh, NSKFDC would provide a loan for Rs 6.75-11.75 lakh, and the remaining money would be disbursed as subsidy.)

The PEMSR Act and the department's rehabilitation scheme mean little for Bala who was 'identified' as a manual scavenger--a key criterion to avail of benefits under the Act--in 2016.

"I have not received any cash benefit in all these years… I am told that there is some problem with my bank account," said Bala, who lives in a village in Kolar Gold Fields, about 100 km from Bengaluru, the start-up capital of India in the southern state of Karnataka.

Despite an eight-year-old legislation, manual scavengers like Bala lack adequate support in training and suffer delays in entitlement. Data discrepancies deny them a quicker route to an alternative profession. "It is good that the government has banned this work, but what alternative are they providing?" he asked.

Vicious loop

More than 91% of 63,246 manual scavengers identified across the country (by March 2020) have been provided OTCA as of February 2021, as per data shared by the department with IndiaSpend. About one in five (13,547) have received skill development training with a stipend of Rs 3,000 per month, and just 2% (1,158) have received capital subsidy for loans under SRMS.

A September 2020 report by a Lok Sabha standing committee on social justice and empowerment expressed disappointment that OTCA had not been provided to all manual scavengers. The "OTCA must be provided to all the manual scavengers as per the commitment of the Government", the report noted, and asked the department to publicise the scheme in a "more purposeful manner" and "encourage maximum number of manual scavengers to opt for the skill training" for better employment opportunities.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has reduced the budget allocation for the SRMS in February by 9% to Rs 100 crore ($13.7 million) for 2021-22.

"Persons released from manual scavenging should not have to cross hurdles to receive what is their legitimate due under the law," the Supreme Court had noted in a 2014 judgement (Safai Karamchari Andolan and others vs Union Of India and others).

Rehabilitation is riddled with obstacles and hurdles, say former manual scavengers, activists and other stakeholders. For one, multiple data surveys and associated data discrepancy on the number of manual scavengers have complicated the process of identification and rehabilitation. Inadequate handholding support and training to move to alternate livelihoods are compounded by administrative and bureaucratic hurdles, leaving many in precarious financial situations, several former manual scavengers in Kolar district as well as activists working for them told IndiaSpend.

For instance, over 3,000 manual scavengers have been identified in Karnataka since the passage of the PEMSR Act, said K.B. Obalesh, a member of Karnataka's manual scavenging monitoring committee and the state convener of Safaikaramchari Kavalu Samithi (SKKS), an initiative that strives to eradicate manual scavenging. "None have received proper rehabilitation, including OTCA, training for alternative employment, financial assistance for employment, educational support for children or housing."

The COVID-19 period has made the transition an insurmountable one for Bala and his ilk. The 45-year-old who kept his family afloat doing odd-jobs as a cobbler, painter and cleaner in the pre-COVID days is now unable to find consistent work. "I will take up pit cleaning if someone offers it as a job…," said Bala, "Otherwise I will not be able to feed my family."

There are no compelling circumstances for any person to undertake unfavourable work, said Yogita Swaroop, an economic advisor to the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment. "The question of falling back to old profession of manual scavenging does not arise as manual scavenging is prohibited," said Swaroop, who holds additional charge as the managing director of NSKFDC.

SKKS member Siddharth K. J. disagreed. "If the money [cash assistance] does not come, they will fall back to doing scavenging work," he said, implying that if rehabilitation support including the OTCA is not timely, it may increase the probability of them falling back into manual scavenging. "There is no agency that will tell you how many people have stopped doing this work after rehabilitation."

No reliable statistics

Rehabilitation of existing and former manual scavengers cannot be completed unless the government has reliable information on the number of people who engage in manual scavenging. The enumeration of manual scavengers in different surveys has led to data discrepancy as can be seen in the variation in data over the years.

The present number of total 63,246 manual scavengers has been arrived at after two countrywide surveys were conducted: one in 2013 and the most recent one in 2018. The latter was carried out in 194 districts in 18 states.

Considering that the 2018 survey was not conducted in all states, its numbers could be underestimated, Bezwada Wilson, national convener of sanitation workers movement Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), told IndiaSpend in an October 2019 interview. "We are claiming that 160,000 women carry human excreta in India," he said. "The first priority under the Swachh Bharat mission must go to [emancipating] dry latrine cleaners, who have been waiting for their liberty for many years. This has not happened."

The 2011 census showed that there were 2.6 million insanitary latrines in India of which nearly a third were serviced manually. The Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC) 2011 identified 168,066 rural manual scavenger households across the country. But the government told parliament in February 2016 that there were 167,487 manual scavenging households. In July 2016, it reported 182,505 manual scavenging households.

Then 2011 SECC-Rural reported more than 100,000 insanitary latrines with 15,000 manual scavengers in rural Karnataka, said SKKS member Siddharth. "A verification exercise by the state's department of rural development and panchayat raj in 2016 brought it down to 434. Tumkur reported 3,000 in SECC-Rural and was brought down to zero in 2016."

The SECC data are not verified and cannot be considered authentic, said NSKFDC's Swaroop. "The data compiled under the SECC is based on the declaration made by the household to the enumerator at the time of the census. The veracity of such claims has not been verified," Swaroop told IndiaSpend. "If somebody claims to be a manual scavenger, the minimum verification required is to check from the households in which that person has claimed to have performed the work of manual scavenging. In a census, no such verification is done. The statement made by the person is accepted without verification. On the other hand, in a survey, the claim is verified by the supervisor of the survey team. Hence the variation. Only data collected after thorough survey with proper verification can be taken as authentic."

The lack of enthusiasm to enumerate the number of manual scavengers/households in the country has not gone well with the National Human Rights Commission. It noted in January 2021 that many states "make tall claim[s]" that they have no manual scavengers and insanitary latrines, but such claims are "far from [the] truth". It recommended that "accountability be fixed in case of wrong reporting by the concerned authorities", and that the definition should be broadened to include other hazardous cleaning.

Bureaucracy and rehabilitation in Karnataka

Rehabilitation and support of former and existing manual scavengers in Karnataka is riddled with bureaucratic hurdles, according to rights workers and agencies involved in their rehabilitation. Among the hurdles is a lack of leadership and personnel at agencies responsible for disbursing the OTCA, delays in disbursing the entitlement as well as the state's lax supervisory attitude.

For instance, there has been no clarity on which state entity is the Karnataka State Safai Karmachari Development Corporation (KSSKDC) channelising agency to implement the PEMSR Act. NSKFDC was channelising OTCAs in the state through the B.R. Ambedkar Development Corporation until 2017-18. The NSKFDC and the social justice department then took up the matter of nominating the KSSKDC as a channelising agency, but "so far [the] state government has not conveyed its decision in this regard", Swaroop told IndiaSpend.

A KSSKDC official, who did not want to be identified, said that, as of February 12, there was no official order stating that KSSKDC is a state channelising agency. The corporation had been listed as a channelising agency on NSKFDC's website as on February 12, 2021. On February 13, a day after IndiaSpend sought clarification from NSKFDC, the website again listed B.R. Ambedkar Development Corporation as its channelising agency.

"A chairperson was appointed [at KSSKDC] in December, after two years. This [delay in appointment] led to delays in processing applications and rehabilitation," said Obalesh.

Karnataka is estimated to have 65,505 manual scavengers engaged in cleaning latrines with pits and septic tanks, according to a January 2020 SKKS report. The number of people was estimated to be 75,000 to 80,000 if those cleaning open defecation sites, public latrines and manholes were to be included, it noted.

"An online process [for rehabilitation] was started in March 2020 in Karnataka, but the [COVID-19-induced] lockdown led to a delay. Applications were filed till September but none have been sanctioned," said Siddharth. "Not a single person received a loan from KSSKDC. It is defunct."

The KSSKDC received 1,063 online and offline applications in 2019-20 and 2020-21 (as of January 2021) for schemes, according to data accessed by IndiaSpend. The KSSKDC official said they did not immediately have any information on the number of applications approved. "I really do not know why they [former manual scavengers] have said that they have not found support," the official said.

The state's monitoring committee, mandated under the PEMSR Act, 2013 to meet every six months to look into the implementation of the provisions of the Act and coordinate the functions of various agencies, has met on three occasions since 2016--on December 14, 2016; June 20, 2017 and August 28, 2020--according to a state government affidavit accessed by IndiaSpend. Holding a meeting is not a priority for the government or the committee members, and there is no provision under the Act for action against committee members for non-performance and lack of meetings, activists said.

In "the period of last seven years, there is hardly any implementation in the State of Karnataka with the provisions of the Manual Scavengers Act," the High Court of Karnataka noted in an order on February 2. The order was in connection to petitions in which the court had sought compliance details such as steps taken for rehabilitation of manual scavengers, final list of manual scavengers at the district and state level, comprehensive survey of insanitary latrines in the state and monitoring committee meetings held among others directions. The court gave the state an extension until March 1 to file a fresh affidavit before "issuing a drastic order of taking action for noncompliance of the directions issued" in an earlier order.

Unmet training needs

Manual scavengers can opt for work under the rural employment guarantee scheme if they are unskilled or undergo skill training with stipend and get employment or start small ventures with financial assistance provided at concessional rates and subsidy, said Swaroop of NSKFDC.

NSKFDC has empanelled 22 training institutions and identified a variety of skill training like beauty and wellness, textiles, small business and entrepreneurship, footwear design, etc in an attempt to boost alternative employment and encourage entrepreneurship.

There have been few takers for the training. The uptake could get a boost if there is a needs assessment of the individuals or households. "This process of needs assessment of the family or the person never really happened [in Karnataka]. The agencies have not had the inclination or the human resources to do a needs assessment," said Siddharth.

"It is lack of willingness on the part of the target group [manual scavengers] due to socio, economic and cultural background that the efforts to provide skill training to maximum numbers could not be achieved as intended," said Swaroop.

For a person like Bala, the skill training does not ensure a sustained income in the long term. "There is some training for footwear [design], but I would have to depend on people to produce and ensure a market for it," he told IndiaSpend. "Instead, I would like to own some land where I can grow horticultural produce and be self dependent."

*Names of individuals have been changed to protect their identity

(Asha N. helped with translations. Editing by Marisha Karwa.)

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