According to a new survey being conducted by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment across 18 states, 20,500 people have been identified as involved in manual scavenging in India.
An earlier survey conducted over a period of three years (2014-17), based on figures provided by states, had estimated there were 13,770 manual scavengers in the country, officials said.
Some states like Gujarat, Kerala and Maharashtra had even denied the existence of persons engaged in manual scavenging in their territories, however, the latest ongoing survey has revealed that manual scavenging was prevalent even in these states.
The recent survey, which started in February and is ongoing, will cover 170 districts across the 18 states, the officials said.
The latest survey has so far identified 20,596 manual scavengers across the 18 states with UP accounting for 6,126 followed by Maharashtra with 5,269 and Karnataka with 1744, said a senior official from the National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation (NSKFDC), which is coordinating the survey.
The findings of the ongoing survey were discussed at a 'Pan-India Workshop on Prevention of Hazardous Cleaning of Sewers and Septic Tanks' inaugurated by Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Thaawarchand Gehlot as part of year-long commemoration of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi from October 2, 2018 to October 2, 2019.
Gehlot said that over a century ago Gandhi ji wanted to make sanitation a priority for India.
"While the nation will be holding year-long celebrations in the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, it is apt that we maximise our interventions for sanitation and for those who do this important work," he said.
The ministry has planned various activities in this regard, through the NSKFDC during this period, which includes survey of manual scavengers and their rehabilitation, organising workshops and skill upgradation of sanitation workers and waste pickers through conducting 5 day training programmes.
Gehlot said that recent deaths of sanitation workers in and around Delhi have disappointed him.
"While we can control the operations of cleaning of sewers by bringing mechanization and taking due precautions, it is suggested that each municipality should take action to regulate the cleaning of septic tanks also as many deaths are taking place while cleaning the septic tanks," Gehlot said.
The workshops will be organised all over the country to sensitise the municipal officers, sanitation inspectors, senior sanitation workers and contractors.
The Minister hoped that through this initiative the sanitation workers, officers of urban local bodies etc., would, directly and indirectly, gain valuable insight into the hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks and the scenario of accidents and deaths during their cleaning would get changed comprehensively.
Manual scavenging (cleaning sewers and clearing human excreta from open-pit toilets) is prohibited under the 'Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013'.
"The 170 districts were identified based on two parameters -- firstly the inputs we received from the agencies working for the community of sanitation workers like Safai Karamchari Andolan and others and those districts where larger number of conversion of insanitary toilets have been reported by the ministry of drinking water and sanitation," the NSKFDC official said.
The District Coordinators of NSKFDC and the district Nodal Officers are conducting the survey by holding camps, he added.