A Forgotten Tale of the Unseen Scavengers

The blog is inscribed by Sanighdha.

“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Neck deep in the sewage from the most industrialised areas of the city; stripped off of his underpants in the garbage of the privileged; swimming across a deadly pool of his broken dreams; cast aside for his caste in the debris of filth and dirt; engulfing the remains of someone else’s excreta; succeeding but still failing on the balance of discrimination and prejudice; holding on to his hard-earned livelihood for his family but unwillingly loosing on all the breaths of his life; masking and unmasking what is profitable and what’s not; taking away your waste and making it his own- here’s a manual scavenger for you, cleaning your waste to earn a scratch for himself in haste. But mind you, it’s not just he, it’s she as well.


With 920 manual scavengers deaths[i] between 1993 and 2010 while cleaning sewers and septic tanks, India’s manual scavengers lead a life of uncertainty and continuous toil. Forgotten by the society, marginalised by customs and beliefs and unseen by the usual hawking eyes of Homo sapiens; the plight of manual scavengers is more oblivion in the present challenging times of COVID19. According to the latest survey[ii], with 206 deaths, Tamil Nadu leads the way in sewer and septic tanks deaths; followed by Gujarat (161), Uttar Pradesh (103), Delhi (89), Karnataka (78) and Haryana (73). However, these are only the reported deaths. Unaware of the actual number, we cannot gauge the ground effect that this centuries-old bias and inequality is having on those alienated from society.

The United Nations [iii] defines Manual Scavenging as, “Manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. It often involves using the most basic of tools such as buckets, brooms, and baskets. The practice of manual scavenging is linked to India’s caste system where the so-called lower castes were expected to perform this job. Manual scavengers are amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in India.”

The harsh effects of getting engaged in manual scavenging are manifold, which include; psychological, physical, economic, and social repercussions.

Historical Perspective

“The day everyone in India gets a toilet to use, I shall know that our country has reached the pinnacle of progress”

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru

However, it still seems a far cry. And because of the same, the practice of manual scavenging exists. Like most kings used to inherit the throne of their forefathers, most manual scavengers used to forcefully get recruited in sewer and septic tanks. This inheritance of occupation led to communities getting demarcated and branded as the ‘exclusive communities of manual scavengers.’ The irony is that even after 70 years of independence and successive changes in the governments, both at State and Central levels- the tethering and shackling of the deprived few, is the cost of the freedom of the rest. Economic, social, and political deprivations have seldom led to revolt but in vain, and steady fear of social ostracization along with survival battles, thrashings, and criminal intimidation for returning to work.

Medieval and British Period:

During the medieval times[iv], the women in purdah used to have enclosed toilets, which were manually scavenged. Even under the British Rule, many public toilets were handed over to the manual scavengers for cleaning and flushing the waste out. Even when, toilets started getting flush systems, the outhouses were cleaned by manual scavengers only. This resulted in severe impoverishment and hardship, leading to economic and social distress.

Today, manual scavengers [v] are known as Bhangis in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, Phakis in Andhra Pradesh, Balmiki in Haryana, Sikkaliars in Tamil Nadu; with the term Bhangi meaning ‘a broken identity’.

Legal Perspective

·       Present Scenario:

After noticing the plight and the sorry state of the manual scavengers across the country, the Indian government decided to take a slew of applaudable steps to cure this social evil. According to the 2011 Census Report, there are 2.6 million dry latrines in the country; 13,14,652 toilets flushing human excreta in open, and out of that 7 lakh toilets are such, which require the engagement of manual scavengers for cleaning and flushing purposes.[vi] 27% of these are in urban areas whereas the majority of 73% are in rural areas.[vii] According to the House Listing and Housing Census 2011[viii], Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal account for 72% of the insanitary latrines.

·       Government Initiatives:

It was in 1993 that the Government finally banned the employment of manual scavengers and eliminated dry latrines (via prohibiting the construction of toilets without a flush), through enacting the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. For non-conformation with the rules, and imprisonment of one year and a fine were put as a punishment in place. But the employment continued in absence of any stringent law in place in the country. Rehabilitation was not made the primal objective of the Act, thus leaving the destitute hanging in the lurch. The Act also lacked any future job opportunities that were to be made available to the unemployed manual scavengers, since they lacked training in any other sphere.

·       Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and the Rehabilitation Act, 2013[ix]:

The latest law dealing with manual scavenging in India focuses equally on rehabilitation and the personal hygienic condition of a manual scavenger. It also prevents the construction of insanitary latrines. All manual scavengers are required to be provided with protective gear before getting employed for cleaning sewers or septic tanks. Job opportunities to the manual scavengers in a time-bound manner is the main highlight of the Act. However, engaging or employing a person for hazardous cleaning is completely prohibited; contravening which, five-year imprisonment, and five lakh Rupees as fine is provided as a punishment.

All the offenses under the Act have been made cognizable and non-bailable. Provision for conducting a time-bound survey in rural and urban areas for gauging the figures of the manual scavengers has also been made. Along with it, the constitution of Vigilance/Monitoring Commissions at State, Centre, Divisional, and Sub Divisional level has been made mandatory. The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) shall also strive to eliminate the open defecation and manual scavenging in India. However, the Act still does not put a complete ban on manual scavenging, if it is done with protective gear, thus extinguishing the basic purpose of the Act. The definition of hazardous activities is non-inclusive of certain aspects leading to ambiguity in the Act.

Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955:

It prohibited the compelling of any person to be forcefully engaged in manual scavenging based on his/her untouchability.

·       Constitutional Provisions:

Article 14 providing for equality, Article 21 providing for the right to life with dignity and personal liberty, Article 19(1)(g) providing for carrying on a trade, occupation, the business of one’s own choice and Article 17 providing for the abolition of untouchability in all its forms; are contravened when manual scavenging is allowed to persist.

·       Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948[x]:

The employment of manual scavengers violates UDHR in totality. Article 1 providing for equal rights and dignity to all persons, Article 2 prohibiting discrimination or racism of any kind, Article 3 providing for liberty a person is the major rights which are infringed. Along with its Articles 4,5,7, 23, 24, 25 are also transgressed.

The Supreme Court  [xi]in a scathing remark in 2019 observed that ‘No country sends its people to gas chambers to die’ and directed the government to look into the rehabilitation of the manual scavengers.

Issues and Challenges:

Governmental indifference to the intensity of the problem and social prejudice are the driving factors of the problem. The deeply-entrenched caste system must be made flexible enough to be inclusive of the marginalized sections. The building of insanitary latrines is the root cause of the problem. It continues both in urban as well as rural areas. Converting of insanitary latrines into a proper toilet with a flush system is also a challenge in a country where most of the population is rural. However, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has till now proven to be daylight in the darkness of the abyss.


It is imperative to note that even in the presence of the twin Acts and constitutional provisions, the practice continues unabated. The Government must look into the loopholes and strive for generating acceptance for the deprived community. Adequate compensation to the families of dead manual scavengers must be provided at the earliest. Awareness is the key to killing ignorance and the same can be cured by organizing community interactions between the manual scavengers and others. Implementation of the laws must be effective. Conclusively, it is we, the society as a whole must build up an inclusive atmosphere for the excluded and marginalized, to lead India on the path of Sustainable Development and not just mechanic growth.

[i] Sanjay Keelery, Number of Manual Scavenger Deaths in the Indian States between January 1993 and January 2020 (Mar. 30,2020)  https://www.statista.com/statistics/1103629/india-manual-scavenger-deaths-number/.

[ii] id.

[iii] Breaking Free-Rehabilitating Manual Scavengers, https://in.one.un.org/page/breaking-free-rehabilitating-manual-scavengers/.

[iv] Ajay Mathur, Manual Scavenging in India-A National Scourge, Terrace Green, http://terragreen.teriin.org/terragreen/TGJan19/TG_CoverStory/files/downloads/TG%20January_2019_Cover_Story_LS.pdf.


[vi] Cleaning Human Waste, HRW (Aug. 25, 2014) https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/08/25/cleaning-human-waste/manual-scavenging-caste-and-discrimination-india.

[vii] Supra iii

[viii] Breaking Free- Rehabilitating Former Manual Scavengers in India, http://4dj7dt2ychlw3310xlowzop2.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Brochure-manual-scavengers_08-08-14.pdf.

[ix]Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act,2013.

[x] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

[xi] Supreme Court on  Manual Scavenging, “No country sends its people to gas chambers to die.”(Sep. 18, 2019, 14:41 IST) https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/sc-on-manual-scavenging-no-country-sends-its-people-to-gas-chambers-to-die/article29447848.ece.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *