UP reported the highest number of manual scavengers in two surveys. Finding another job seems like a lost battle to many of them.
“Kya hi badla?...we dealt with latrines earlier, and we do the same even now,” said Kallu, a 51-year-old resident of Lucknow who has been working as a manual scavenger for nearly three decades.
Kallu had quit cleaning up dry latrines in 2021 in the hope of finding an alternate job under the SRMS, the centre’s self-employment scheme for rehabilitation of scavengers. But after his application was rejected by the local civic agency responsible for verification, he resumed cleaning toilets at a school and houses in the city’s Thakurganj area to make ends meet.
Under the SRMS, which was launched in 2007, shut in 2009, and revived in 2013, all identified manual scavengers are entitled to one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000, credit-linked capital subsidies of up to Rs 3.25 lakh, concessional loans for projects costing up to Rs 15 lakh, skill development training of up to two years with a stipend of Rs 3,000 per month, and subsidies on loans for sanitation-related projects. It also enables the inclusion of manual scavengers in Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana health insurance coverage, behavioural skill development training, health camps, and workshops on hazardous cleaning.
However, many like Kallu remain deprived of its benefits.
Kallu, 51, a resident of Lucknow who has been working as a manual scavenger for nearly three decades.
The National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation is the nodal agency implementing the scheme, and the verification of applications is done by local authorities – either through surveys or self-declaration.
Newslaundry sent queries to the Lucknow Nagar Nigam officials on the rejection of Kallu’s application. This report will be updated if a response is received.
Efforts to rehabilitate manual scavengers
The central government had allocated Rs 39 crore and Rs 70 crore under the scheme in fiscal years 2022 and 2021, respectively, but no budgetary allocation has been made so far under the SRMS scheme in the current fiscal.
An official at NSKFDC told Newslaundry that the allocation will now be included under the centre’s flagship Namaste scheme. “The priority of the government has shifted to deaths in sewers. However, training and subsidised loans for rehabilitation of manual scavengers will continue.”
As per law, the local authority is entrusted with the responsibility to identify manual scavengers through surveys and self-declaration forms, with the help of community leaders or non-governmental organisations, who are then compensated under the SRMS scheme.
The verification of the claims is done at various levels before the local authorities prepare a provisional list of identified manual scavengers. The list is then subject to the approval of the district level survey committee and finally the state-level survey committee.
While those currently involved in manual scavenging can submit a self-identification form to get officially identified, the application window for the people who have already discontinued manual scavenging work was opened in 2013 for three years, and again in 2018 for two-and-a-half years. At present, the application window for the latter remains shut.
Pending applications for identification
In official surveys conducted in 2013 and 2018, a total of 14,812 and 45,628 manual scavengers were identified by the government across the country, respectively.
Uttar Pradesh reported the highest number of manual scavengers in both the surveys.
Out of the 35,472 manual scavengers identified in Uttar Pradesh in 2018, only 32,473 workers were recognised as eligible and paid the one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000, and 15,000 workers had received skill training until March 2023, as per the progress report released by the NSKFDC. Meanwhile, the number of manual scavengers who received the capital subsidy was even smaller at 802.
But the actual number of manual scavengers could be larger across districts – battling high pendency.
In Jalaun district, just 200 kilometres from the state’s capital city Lucknow, activists claimed that as per documents, 629 people were officially identified as manual scavengers in 2018, while 1,130 applications are still pending for identification.
Newslaundry contacted the Jalaun district magistrate office to enquire about the pending applications. This report will be updated if a response is received.
Kuldeep Boudh, a lawyer and activist working to rehabilitate manual scavengers in Jalaun, maintained that the irregularities in the identification and rehabilitation of manual scavengers is because the government is hesitant to accept that manual scavenging is still being practised.
“Before the 2018 survey, no one was willing to accept the fact that this work still exists. However, our consistent efforts made the government undertake a survey, resulting in the identification of 629 manual scavengers in Jalaun. This number could be much higher as we had earlier identified 276 manual scavengers in our own survey in two out of nine blocks in Jalaun,” Boudh said.
However, an official at NSKFDC said pendency in claims related to identification of manual scavengers means that the applications have been rejected.
The official said, “Perhaps, the claims which are pending were not found correct during verification. The window for application for those who were earlier involved in manual scavenging was open for two-and-a-half years till 2020. At present, only the workers who are still engaged in manual scavenging can submit their application.”
He claimed that many workers who were engaged in manual scavenging earlier did not apply for the scheme over either “fear” of former employers or unawareness. “Now, after they saw that some people have received government aid of Rs 40,000, they are coming out. But it is difficult to verify such claims, some of which could be bogus.”
Caste, social stigma barrier to new jobs
Even for those who have been officially identified as manual scavengers, less has changed. In Jalaun, most of the 629 people identified as manual scavengers have received the one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000.
However, in the absence of any skills training, many of them continue to perform sanitation work of cleaning public toilets and septic tanks, and disposing of dead animals and sanitary napkins.
“Earlier we used to clean sewage tanks, now the work entails disposing of dead animals, sanitary napkins and cleaning toilets,” said Sunita, a member of the Valmiki community, who was also identified as a manual scavenger in Jalaun.
Newslaundry met at least eight women in Jalaun district who said that they were involved in manual scavenging until two years ago. While all of them had received the one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000, most of them spent that money on their children’s education and eventually took up jobs involving sanitation work to earn a living.
“We don’t get any work other than the ‘dirty ones’,” Sunita said, emphasising that many people perceive members of the Valmiki community as “impure”.
A woman who worked as a manual scavenger at Jalaun in Uttar Pradesh.
The stigma attached to the marginalised communities hinders their ability to pursue alternative employment. Kallu from Lucknow also reiterated that even if he set up a shop of his own, people in his locality knew that he “belonged to the Dalit caste and thus, they would buy nothing”. “Nobody even allows us to enter their house if it is not about cleaning.”
Rajashree Gautam, a ward member of Etora Akbarpura gram panchayat in Jalaun, said that only four individuals from the village have managed to leave manual scavenging for better opportunities. “For the rest, the nature of their work may have changed, but it remains equally derogatory. Cleaning drains, septic tanks, public toilets, and disposing of sanitary pads – these tasks are still marked by indignity. Is this truly rehabilitation.”
The plight of manual scavengers living on the periphery of villages is compounded by discrimination against caste identity. This makes skill training and loans to create an alternative source of earning crucial for manual scavengers, said lawyer Kuldeep Boudh. “But the government is merely taking the responsibility off its shoulders by giving one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000.”
However, the NSKFDC official quoted above blamed reluctance towards learning a new skill. “We conduct training at various places, but they don't take it seriously. They only attend it to get a monthly stipend of Rs 3,000. Training for beauticians and other such professions is given on a priority basis.”
Newslaundry reached out to NSKFDC managing director Prabhat Kumar Singh for comment. This report will be updated if a response is received.
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