To stop manual scavenging, Govt to amend law, make mechanised cleaning must

Updated 20th November 2020 | 09:31 IST

AMEND THE Manual Scavenging Act to form mechanised cleaning of sewers and septic tanks mandatory, replace the word “manhole” with “machine-hole” in official usage, found out a national 24×7 helpline to report violations.

These are a number of the key measures that are being implemented by the govt with an aim to eliminate manual scavenging across the country by August 2021, consistent with senior officials.

On Thursday, as a part of this initiative, the govt launched a “challenge” for all states to form sewer-cleaning mechanised by April 2021 — if any human must enter a sewer main just in case of unavoidable emergency, proper gear and oxygen tanks, etc., are to be provided.

The challenge will offer a prize in various categories totalling Rs 52 crore. “The actual on-ground assessment of participating cities are going to be conducted in May 2021 by an agency and results are going to be declared on Assumption, 2021,” said Durga Shanker Mishra, Secretary, Ministry of Housing and concrete Affairs.

Official records show that manual scavenging has led to 376 deaths over the past five years, including 110 in 2019 alone — a jump of 61 per cent from 2018.

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“We have instructed that the word manhole isn’t to be used anymore and only machine-hole is to be used from now on,” said Mishra.

The Ministry is additionally docking with MTNL to roll out a national 24X7 helpline number where such cases are often reported.

On the challenge, officials said that urban local bodies, state capitals and smart cities are eligible to participate. They said the 243 cities that are eligible to participate are going to be split into three sub-categories supported population: up to three lakh, 3-10 lakh and over 10 lakh, with prizes starting from Rs 8-12 crore.

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With Swachh Bharat Mission identified as a top priority area by the 15th Finance Commission, and funds available for smart cities and concrete development, Union Minister of Housing and concrete Affairs Hardeep Puri said the cash needed to shift to mechanised cleaning wouldn’t be a constraint.

The Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry, meanwhile, has decided to directly provide funds to workers to get cleaning machines, rather than giving money to contractors or municipalities, said R Subrahmanyam, Secretary, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

The employment or engagement of individuals to manually clean drains, sewer tanks, septic tanks is an offence punishable by imprisonment and fine under the Manual Scavenging Act, 2013. As per the provisions of the law, manual scavengers are to be identified and rehabilitated.

However, the matter persists in urban areas, said Subrahmanyam. “The amendment within the law will make mechanised cleaning mandatory. It shouldn’t be optional…some municipalities like Hyderabad, etc., have done wonderful add mechanising the system. But it shouldn’t be a best practice, it’s to be the sole practice,” he said.

According to an assessment by the Social Justice Ministry, despite the Manual Scavenging Act and Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 being in situ, FIRs are seldom lodged in deaths caused by this practice, convictions are rare, and therefore the Supreme Court-mandated compensation of Rs 10 lakh isn’t paid altogether cases.

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