Manual Scavenging

Hazardous, Unsafe, Unsanitary, Undignified, Legally Banned but Still Prevailing

Manual Scavenging in India
Manual Scavenging in India

In the rising tide of nationalism, various narratives are presented to glorify the Indian society. From having invented all the present technologies in the ancient times to giving spirituality to the world, self adoration is what defines the Indian society in 21st century. However, the advocates of these narratives try to ignore the most “disgraceful, disgusting and disturbing” tradition entrenched in the Indian society- Manual Scavenging. The communities involved in manual scavenging are probably the most ostracised and oppressed in this subcontinent. Their families are publicly shamed, men beaten up, women heckled and children not allowed to mix with the general population. The above outline is visible even in slums where other people themselves live in pathetic condition. And, they do not relish the work (as cited occasionally by eminent personalities), they are forced to do it, a cloak of hereditary occupation forced put by the society.

Manual scavenging involves cleaning of human excreta from dry latrines and clearing of sewers and septic tanks by manual process including hands, brooms and scrappers. While women scavengers collect nightsoil (euphemism for human excreta) and dump it outside the villages, men are supposed to do the more demanding jobs such as entering the sewers and septic tanks to remove blockages. Entering choked sewers and septic tanks require hanging from ropes for hours and scooping up filth with bare hands and bearing the stench. According to the NGO- Safai Karamchari Andolan, there are about 2.6 million insanitary dry latrines in the country which needs cleaning by hand.

Across India, manual scavenging and its allied forms are widely prevalent, given the name of “cultural occupation” attached to the lower castes- Hindu Dalits (Valmiki or Hela), few Muslim Dalits and converted Dalit Christians. However, manual scavenging is not only caste based but also gender based with 90 percent involved being women. There are some cases where, village Panchayats and municipalities have relocated these castes in order to carry out the lowly jobs

For doing this unsanitary and undignified work the workers are not always paid in cash. In villages they are provided with leftover food, grains and used clothes. The leftover food, grains or clothes are not handed directly to them but are thrown towards them which indicates the prevalence of untouchability. Sometimes nothing is paid for days. When the workers refuse to work in such conditions they are threatened by the upper castes of consequences like refusing them to use village lands for grazing animals and of physical violence.

The workers involved in manual scavenging work in hazardous and unhygienic conditions. The average age of deceased sewer workers is 40 years. The sewer workers are unaware of the diseases harboured in faeces and urine. The chances of getting infected by Hepatitis A, E. Coli, Rotovirus, Norovirus and Pinworms are very high, which explains why sewer workers die at a young age by hepatitis, meningitis, cholera, typhoid and cardio vascular diseases. Hair loss and skin diseases are quite common among the manual scavengers.

Some facts and figures…

The National Commission of Safai Karamchari (NSK) revealed in 2019 that a manual scavenger dies in sewer, septic tank or manhole every 5 days, by analysing patterns for the time between January 2017 and September 2018. The Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) collected more reliable data for the same time and the revelations were more horrific than before. The SKA recorded 180 deaths which when extrapolated showed one manual scavenger dying every two days.

The same data by SKA shows that more than 67 percent of the reported deaths were in metros highlighting that despite of having sanitation infrastructure the sheer negligence of the people forced the sewer workers to go deep into the filthy cess pits. Further, 28 percent of the deaths were in towns and cities with population 1 lakh and above.

Most shocking, is that 82 percent of the incidents involved multiple deaths. This indicates that they are not just accidents but also failure of structural execution. Workers die while trying to help their trapped colleagues, battling toxic fumes of the septic tanks at the same time.

Nevertheless the numbers given by the states seems to be much larger than what is reported. For example according to Gujarat Safai Kamdar Corporation no sewers were manually cleaned, but 4 deaths were reported in Vadodara while cleaning a sewer. 54000 manual scavengers have been identified in 11 states so far. The survey was carried out in 170 districts in 18 states in regions which were believed to have prevalence of manual scavengers. However the number is severely under-reported.

Toothless Legislations

Since caste is embedded with manual scavenging, untouchability is equally prevalent as discussed before. Untouchability was abolished by the Indian Constitution under Article 17. The Government of India passed the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 to enforce the abolition of untouchability. The Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 was probably the first Act that had addressed scavenging and called for punishment to those who compelled anyone to do any scavenging or sweeping and shall deemed to have enforced a disability arising out of untouchability.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 declared employment of manual scavengers as unlawful and a cognizable offence. The Act defined Manual scavengers for the first time as – “a person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.”

This act was replaced by the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. The 2013 increased the ambit of the definition of manual scavengers. The Act defined it as- “a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.”

The 2013 Act prohibits manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks without the use of protective gears and construction of insanitary toilets. The Act seeks to rehabilitate manual scavengers and provide alternative employment opportunities. The local authorities, cantonment board and railway authorities are required to conduct survey of insanitary toilets under their jurisdiction and construct sanitary community toilets. The occupier of insanitary latrines is required to demolish and convert the same in its place. It the occupier fails to do the local authority would do it and recover the cost from the occupier. Similar to the 1993 Act, offences under the 2013 Act are also cognizable and non-bailable.

The facts and figures which were discussed earlier clearly indicate that the Act has failed in its compliance. The Act is silent on critical aspects such as rehabilitation of manuals scavengers who were liberated before passing of the 2013 Act or who had themselves given up scavenging.

The Act fails to mention a single provision related to deaths of manual scavengers. While the Act mentions protective gear and technologies, it fails to specify what qualifies for the same. While the Act puts the onus of converting an insanitary latrine on the occupier, taking the responsibility off the central and state government has adversely impacted the implementation of the provisions of the bill.

Moreover when the government itself is the biggest employer of manual scavengers, any legislation addressing the problem is bound to fail. The Indian Railways is the biggest employer of manual scavengers hiring at rates as low as Rs. 250 per day. The double standards of the government are visible here.

Swachh Bharat Mission and Manual Scavenging

The entire country hopped onto the bandwagon of Swachh Bharat Mission, when the Prime Minister in his previous term announced the scheme to clean the roads, streets and infrastructure of the country. Building toilets was emphasised over building temples. The aim of the scheme was to maximise sanitation coverage by the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. So, when it was announced that more than 2 crore toilets will be built many manual scavengers had hoped that better infrastructure and better designed toilets would bring an end to their miserable lives. However, not much has changed since then.

While the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) lays stress on compost toilets, bio-toilets and leach pits, people prefer building septic tanks as they consider the other types as unhygienic. Now, consider 10 million toilets which have been built in rural and urban India.  One of the objectives of SBM was eradication of manual scavenging, which hardly seems achievable with millions of toilets built with septic tank.

The SBM is more of a photo op day than being a cleanliness drive. Corporate big shots, bureaucrats, politicians, famous personalities and the new middle class with the nationalist consciousness come out of their comfortable and cosy habitats once a year for pictures for their social networking sites. What else could explain the recently elected Parliamentarians cleaning the pristine Parliament complex!

The present government spends close to Rs. 18000 crore on SBM every year, allocated Rs. 47 crore for rehabilitation of manual scavengers in 2014-2015 which was just 1 percent of the previous government. The amount has reduced in subsequent years to Rs. 10.01 crore in 2015-16, Rs. 1 crore in 2016-17, increasing only marginally to Rs. 5 crore in 2017-18. Surprisingly Rs. 530 crore was spent for the publicity of SBM on TV and print media in the same years. And, hardly anything has been spent on those protective gears and technologies.

The message is clear here, the government has no intention of rehabilitating rather trapping them in a web of manual scavenging. The proof is the marathon drive to construct millions of septic tank toilets, reinventing manual scavenging from dry latrines to septic tanks.

Steps Taken and Steps Should Be Taken

The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) was setup in 1994 as a statutory body under the 1993 Act. The NCSK deals with the grievances, interests and safeguards rights of the safai karamchari and manual scavengers and works for their welfare. The NCSK is mandated towards removal of inequalities in status and opportunities. It plays an important role in rehabilitation of manual scavengers in a time bound manner. The 2013 Act mandates NCSK to

  1. Monitor the implementation of the Act
  2. To enquire into complaints of contravention of the Act.
  3. Advice central and state government in proper implementation of the Act.
  4. Take suomotu notice of non-implementation of the Act.

In 2007 the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) was launched to rehabilitate the remaining manual scavengers and their dependents to alternative occupations by 2009. The scheme extended by a year since the target date was not achieved. The SRMS was revised after the 2013 Act was enacted. As per the revised scheme, a onetime cash assistance of Rs 40000 is provided to one member of the family. The manual scavengers and their dependents are provided with a project based back-ended capital subsidy of Rs. 325,000 and concessional loans for self-employment ventures. Beneficiaries are also provided with skill development for two years with a stipend of Rs. 3000 per month.

In addition to the above some important steps that have been taken so far:

  1. NGOs like Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, Safai Karamchari Andolan and Sulabh International are working with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.
  2. 4000 is provided by Ministry of Housing and development for conversion of insanitary latrines.
  3. The ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment implemented the Pre-Matric Scholarship to the Children of those engaged in Occupations involving cleaning and prone to health hazards, awards the children of manual scavengers scholarship of Rs. 110 to Rs. 700 per month

There are many steps that have been taken by individual state governments, the effectivity is questionable in the absence of reliable data. Further there is a serious need to regulate the private contractors who frequently flout the rule.

Steps that should be taken for future includes, technological advancement for sewer and septic tank cleaning. Lessons must be learnt from examples of the Hope Machine and Bandicoot.  The Hope machine was launched by Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International. The Hope Machine injects high pressure into tunnel and tanks and collects waste with mechanical buckets. Gas-detectors, high-resolution camera and protective equipments come with the machine. Bandicoot is 4-legged robot attached to a bucket system which can be used to clean manholes, collect wastes and remove clogs. It is a fully connected robot with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth modules. The Kerala government is planning to use this robot in its cities.

Too early to conclude

Fraternity as a principle is embedded in the Preamble and right to life with dignity is implicit in the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Article 46 directs the state to protect the weaker sections and further the Constitution in Article 47 puts the onus on the state to provide for raising the standard of living and improvement of public health by making it a primary duty of the state. These provisions make the governments responsible towards the interests and rights of manual scavengers.

Technological advancement can be a solution for abolishing manual scavenging but it cannot be the only solution. The problem of manual scavenging encompasses socio-economic and political aspects. Moreover it is more of an injustice meted out towards a section of people in a very dehumanizing way.

Cleanliness drives and schemes should centre on those who have a role to play in it and not those who want to publicise themselves. Recognising the contribution of manual scavengers and sanitation workers in an off public event would not bring them dignity, ending the practice completely certainly would.


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