The recently published article ‘Govt’s Toilet Building Spree Could Increase Manual Scavenging: Report’, dated 12 December 2019 on IndiaSpend makes factually incorrect and misleading statements with reference to the sanitation sector in India by misquoting a 2019 report titled Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers: An Initial Assessment published by the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization, the World Bank and WaterAid.
Misrepresentation, and outright lies
The extent of bias and attempt to misrepresent facts by this article can be gauged from the fact that it bases its entire premise on a fictitious quotes and data from the Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers: An Initial Assessment report. The article says that the report was based on a study that covered four states and located 1,686 manual scavengers, and makes some other claims on violence and untouchability experienced by them. It also quotes the report, saying “The concerns around sanitation work seems to be growing, given the large number of toilets that has been constructed under the ongoing Swachh Bharat Mission, using technologies that would require periodic emptying and offsite treatment of faecal matter”.
In reality, the said report makes no mention of 1686 manual scavengers in four Indian States, and does not have the said quote either. The report, in fact, is about cases from 9 different countries to put forth analysis for future policy development, and it acknowledges the protections set in place for sanitation workers at a national level by the Government of India on the subjects of: protection of occupational health of sanitation workers by law; trainings on sanitation worker occupational health and hazard; safeguarding of sanitation worker health; unions or associations for sanitation workers; and initiatives specifically advocating for sanitation worker rights.
It is shocking that in her quest for a headlines and sensationalism, the author has attributed false information to several international agencies.
On the correlation between Swachh Bharat toilets and manual scavenging
The article seems to be based on a lack of understanding of toilet technologies and makes several idiosyncratic accusations. At one point it speaks of a low proportion of drains in rural areas and attempts to equate this to manual scavenging. This is a fundamentally flawed logic as the toilet technologies used in rural India are predominantly on-site technologies, and mainly the twin-pit system, which obviate the need for human handling of fecal matter as they are not mere containment structures, but are, in a sense, self-contained treatment plants. In fact, this is a classic example of waste to wealth.
It must also be clarified that for the toilets which presently have only a single pit system are being retro-fitted to convert them to a twin-pit system, under the SBM-G’s ODF (Open Defecation Free) – Sustainability component. For those households with existing septic tanks and non-leech pit systems, mechanized fecal sludge management (FSM) is being undertaken and planned in coordination with urban local bodies for treatment through Fecal Sludge Treatment Plants. For all of these toilets, which have been built only in the past few years, the single pits or the septic tanks will only start filling up a few years in the future, and by then the retrofitting and FSM activities will have been completed. It is therefore incorrect to hastily reach the conclusion that a rise in rural toilets will lead to increased manual scavenging, without proper and unbiased research.
Given the glaring gaps in the aforementioned reporting of the situation, the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation would like to stress that articles written with such erroneous, inconsistent and biased information are solely an attempt to mislead readers, and they violate journalistic integrity. Media houses are advised to perform a basic quality and fact check of the information that they publish.