Manual Scavenging in India: A Review

“Sewers are gas chambers where manual scavengers are sent to die. This is the most inhuman way to treat human beings. Despite the constitution abolishing untouchability in the country, I am asking you, people, do you shake hands with them? The answer is no. That is the way we are going on. The condition must improve. We have moved 70 years since Independence but these things are still happening.”[1]                                           

                                                                                                      – The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

The Swachh Bharat scheme launched in 2014 aims at eliminating open defecation and improving solid waste management. Under the scheme, 10.77 crore toilets have been constructed since 2 October 2014.[2] However, as the government is focusing on creation of toilets, which is indeed very important, proper emphasis also needs to be laid on the proper procedures and guidelines for the cleaning of these toilets in order for India to be completely “Swachh”. In many parts of India, cleaning of toilets is still done by a caste-based hereditary practice called manual scavenging. Manual Scavenging refers to the practice of cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta manually. Usually, the only tools used here are bare hands, bucket and broom. Various forms of manual scavenging include manual scavenging in individual and community dry latrines, in railways and in cleaning septic tanks.

It must be noted that manual scavenging is not a practice of recent origin but is something that is being practiced even before the arrival of Muslims or the British. Since ancient times, the work of cleaning filth was associated with the Sudras, which were placed at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. With colonization and urbanization, the practice was institutionalised and today, it is practiced rampantly in almost all parts of the country. Most of the people engaged in manual scavenging are ‘dalits’ (over 95%) who form the lowest rung of social hierarchy. In addition to this, tints of gender discrimination are also quite evident in the practice. Most of the manual scavengers are women who are usually engaged in cleaning dry latrines, which is a lesser paid job than cleaning of sewers, usually taken up my males.

“The manual carrying of human feces is not a form of employment, but an injustice akin to slavery. It is one of the most prominent forms of discrimination against Dalits, and it is central to the violation of their human rights.”[3]                                                              

Most of the manual scavengers are forced into doing manual scavenging and since they are powerless, they have no option but to submit to the coercion by upper castes. They are stigmatized by the society and are considered as untouchables. Most of them are trampled on so much and so many times that they lose their morale and accept manual scavenging as their only means of livelihood. The low wages paid to them and the high discrimination from society forces their children to drop out of schools, who later on, pick the job of their parents.

Moreover, manual scavenging, if performed without proper protection and tools, has several health implications. Manual scavengers risk suffering from respiratory disorders, typhoid, skin and blood infections, cholera, skeletal disorders and burns. Infact, a sewer worker dies at an average age of 32 years. [4]  Very few people survive the retirement age of 60 years.[5] The sewer and sanitation workers are exposed to dangerous gases such as hydrogen disulphide, methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia, etc. Long exposure of these gases can lead to asphyxia, which is the leading cause of death in manual scavengers.

Thus, problems associated with manual scavenging encompass domains of health and occupation, human rights and social justice, gender and caste, and human dignity and right to life. It is embarrassing how even after so many years of enacting our Constitution, which prohibits caste-based discrimination and untouchability; the menace of manual scavenging is still visible on such a wide scale.  

However, it would not be right to say that nothing has been done to eliminate the practice. Infact, the government of India took a stand on the matter as early as in 1955, when a law[6] was passed which prohibited compelling anyone to do manual scavenging. The government took a further step in 1993 by enacting Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. The act penalized the employment of manual scavengers and construction of dry toilets, with imprisonment of at least on year and/or a fine of Rs. 2000/-. However, it was only in 2013[7] when manual scavenging, in all its forms (not only dry latrines) was abolished. It is the tree legislation of all the previous laws and prohibits the employment of manual scavengers, the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment and the construction of insanitary latrines. The law also provides for rehabilitation of manual scavengers and alternative employment to them within the time bound manner. After the enactment of this act, the construction and maintenance of the insanitary latrines has become an offence, therefore, no one can be employed or engaged as a manual scavenger. The act also prescribes penalties for people who uphold the practice.

In the case of Safai Karamchari Andolan and Others vs. Union of India[8], the Supreme court, on March 27, 2014, ordered compensation of Rs. 10 lakh to be paid by the Government of India to families of all persons who died during sewage work (manholes and septic tanks) since 1993. This was in response to a writ petition filed by Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) in 2003 for implementation of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. The SKA contended that the work of manual scavenging was violative of the right to equality and right to life, and also promoted untouchability and forced labor, both abolished by the Constitution. The Apex Court treated the case as a ‘continuing mandamus’ where it could call the agencies for the non-implementation in disregard of the law. The compensation has to be awarded irrespective of whether these workers were employed by the government or not. Despite all these laws in place, the issue of manual scavenging persists.

The socio—economic caste census of 2011 recorded over 1.82 lakh families that had at least one member employed as a manual scavenger. As per a recent survey conducted by an NGO[9], there are about 42,303 manual scavengers. It has to be noted that this figure is only for some districts of merely 18 states of India. It is of great concern that our country still does not have complete data on the number of manual scavengers in India. As many as 928 sewage works and manual scavengers have been reported dead (sewer deaths) since 1993.[10] Moreover, almost 50% of the workers who have died cleaning did not receive compensation of Rs. 10 lakh. In several cases, only partial compensation was paid, i.e., the compensation amount was less than Rs. 10 lakh.[11] According to the data collected by the commission, out of 928 deaths that were reported in 2019, full compensation was granted only in 575 cases. Some other statistics reveal that only 2% of the people entitled to the benefit actually received the compensation. In 2018, families of only 455 out of 814 were given compensation. These statistics are indeed shocking and are proof that the menace of manual scavenging, even after enactment of so many laws, is still rampant in the country. Nonetheless, this is only official data. The real picture is much bigger and far worse. It compels us to revisit the policies in place for the manual scavengers and make sincere and serious efforts to eradicate manual scavenging.

Thus, the condition of manual scavengers is in need of immediate attention and intervention. It is shocking that after so many years of enacting our constitution and thereby abolishing untouchability, the inhuman treatment of manual scavengers continues.

Following are the few steps that can be taken to make India manual scavenging free:-

  • Introduction of Mechanization system: Complete revolution in the area is needed if we are to abolish manual scavenging. Adoption of new technological innovations to curb the human intervention is need of the hour. A carefully designed mechanized system of cleaning must be made mandatory.  Inspiration can be taken from Malaysia who also have done away with manual scavenging by replacing manual labor with mechanized robots, which do not require any human interference to operate. The 2020 bill[12] introduced by the parliament also provides for eradication of manual scavenging by complete mechanization of cleaning process.

A recent example of this could be the ‘Bandicoot’ robot developed by a Kerala based startup company ‘GenRobotics’. The robot costs about 32 lakhs and can clean up to 10 manholes per day. The company has already collaborated with around 20 municipal corporations in 10 states all over India. However, there is still a need for a more detailed system and implementation all over India.

  • Conversion of insanitary to sanitary toilets

According to the 2011 census, about 26 million insanitary latrines are there in India. Insanitary latrines are the primary cause of the need of the practice of manual scavenging.  Twin-pit toilets should be constructed as they obviate the need for manual cleaning of fecal matter by moving it to a compost chamber. No more than 56.4% of India’s urban homes–where 377 million people live–are connected to sewer lines while only 36.7% of rural areas–where 833 million people live–have drainage[13]. Further, India has the capacity to treat only 37% of the sewage generated in urban areas.

This is largely true for the Indian Railways, The Indian Railways is where the maximum number of manual scavengers are engaged. But since they are not officially employed by the railways and given work on contractual basis, their presence is off records. However, it is very important that substantial changes are made to improve the conditions of manual scavengers with respect to Indian railways. More and more bio-toilets must be made (and not just few coaches) and the workers should be replaced with mechanized system for cleaning.

  • Rehabilitation

Effective ways should be searched for proper rehabilitation of these manual scavengers. The process of taking loans should be made simpler for them. Apart from this, they should be provided training for skill development for alternate occupations. Skill development training is very important for sustainable rehabilitation of manual scavengers. Therefore, a well-defined strategy should be developed which identifies sectors, the transition to which is easy for them and for providing adequate skill training free of cost.

However, since manual scavenging is a practice that is deep rooted in our societal structure, it is not possible for it to end very quickly. Therefore, there are some immediate steps should be taken to improve the condition of manual scavengers. These steps are:

  • Providing compensation: According to the apex court directions, the government of India is liable to pay Rs. 10 lakhs as compensation to the family of a person died while cleaning sewers (after 1993). However, as seen above, the ratio of people granted full compensation and those who died is very low. The main reason for that is that people are still unaware of the provision. Adding to the plight of the manual scavengers is the fact that, most of the contractors who hire these workers, usually deny having been associated with them. In many cases, deaths are not even reported. Therefore, providing work to manual scavengers via contract should be prohibited or strict guidelines should be laid down and provisions must be made for penalizing the offenders of the rules set. In addition to this, more and more efforts must be made to spread awareness.
  • Proper training, tools and protection: Though the cleaning of sewers should not be done manually, if it is imperative, proper training should be given to Safai Karamcharis and services of only trained persons should be utilized for this specific purpose under the supervision and guidance of the concerned Engineer. Additional safety measures should be taken since nature of their occupation is most risky. Necessary safety gadgets like gumboots, gloves, facemask etc. must be provided to the Safai Karamcharis.
  • Minimum wages: The code on wages, 2019 was introduced on 08.08.2019 by the Union Govt., which extends to the whole of India. The Central Government had envisaged the national floor rate for wages after taking into account the minimum living standards of workers varying across geographical area. As per the code, where existing minimum wages are higher than the floor wages, the same shall be retained. The State government will ix the minimum wages for their region which cannot be lower than the national floor rate wages. The code also provides that there would be a review/revision of minimum wages at intervals not exceeding five years. It should be ensured that the Safai Karamcharis are paid in accordance with the Code and all violations are strictly dealt with. Authorities should be asked to check that no Safai Karamchari, appointed as a daily wager through tender on annual contract, is paid lower than the prescribed wages.
  • Collection of data: Any measure can only be taken if we know the extent of the problem. Thus, it is of immense importance that comprehensive and pan-India data is collected if we are to implement the policies of the government. NSKFDC conducted a survey during March – September 2018, and identified 42303 people as manual scavengers as on 20.8.2019. In this regard, it is also stated that only 18 states were selected for survey and have admitted that they have manual scavengers. There are 718 districts in the country but the survey was carried out in 170 districts only. The real picture may emerge only after a nationwide survey.
  • Stringent laws: It is also felt that the existing laws were not stringent enough to eliminate these evil practices. In view of the above, there is a need to make comprehensive and stringent provisions for the prohibition of insanitary latrines and employment of persons as manual scavengers, rehabilitation of manual scavengers and their families and to discontinue the hazardous manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks by the use of technology and for matters connected therewith. It should be made sure that provisions for penalty by offenders are incorporated in the laws and that the law is implemented rigorously.
  • Efforts should be made to provide education to the children of such people and considering the dangerous nature of the work, manual scavengers should be given free access to healthcare or medical facilities. They should be provided regular check-up.
  • Spreading awareness: District Nodal Officers, NGOs and health officers should educate the community on devastating effects of dry latrines. The society should be informed of the legal implications of a practice as derogatory and dehumanizing as manual scavenging.

India has been listed among the nine countries where sanitation workers face the worst working conditions.[14] It is high time that we realize the implications of manual scavenging and make serious efforts to eliminate the inhuman treatment of manual scavengers who are as human as we are. This is only possible with the continuous efforts of not only the government but also of the society. India is a welfare state believing on the ideology of “sabka saath sabka vikaas” But only when this downtrodden and marginalized section of our society is uplifted and manual scavenging is eradicated, can we call ourselves a welfare state in true sense.

Author: Riya Garg


[1] Supreme Court on Sept 18, 2019 while hearing Centre’s review petition challenging its order from last year on the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, when the question of deaths due to manual scavenging was raised.

[2] As of April 2021; SBM-G at a glance, Dept. of Drinking water and Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti

[3] Ashif Shaikh, founder of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a grassroots campaign to end manual scavenging, May 2014.

[4] As per data obtained by Safai Karamchari Andolan for 2017-18.

[5] ‘The hole to hell’ by Centre of Education and Communication (2006).

[6] The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955.

[7] The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013

[8] 2014(4) SCALE165; WP (C) No. 583 of 2003

[9] The survey was conducted from Mar 2018-Sept 2018 by National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), an NGO working under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

[10] As on 31/03/2020: official data.

[11] According to information released by National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK).

[12] The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020.

[13] 2017 report of the National Sample Survey Office.

[14] World Bank, ILO, WaterAid, and WHO. 2019. “Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers: An Initial Assessment.” World Bank, Washington, DC.

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