Manual Scavenging in India: An Un-abating Problem

The following research has been conducted on an issue of national concern yet ignored highly, that is, on the problems faced by manual scavengers which includes the risk of their lives during the job. Their exposure to human excreta results in various forms of life taking diseases and these daily wage earners who can hardly feed their family on time have no proper access to medicinal facilities. There has been about 1000 deaths of the manual scavengers due to the nature of their work. However, the paper also lays down the common confusion which exists in the minds of people which is of mistaking manual scavenger for safai karamchari.

Various laws and enactments enforced by the Indian authorities have been given light with important sections being briefed about. The major acts passed to abolish the practice of manual scavenging were The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and The Prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. However, the Act of 2013 was more detailed and looked into the wider and minute problems of manual scavenging. The Act of 2013 was the first Act to link the problem of manual scavenging with the issue of caste hierarchy in India.

However, as we see the statistical data it shows that the number of manual scavengers has been increased since the 2014 after the implementation of Swachh Bharat Mission, which is ironical. With the aim of keeping the country clean several lower caste men and women are made to enter the gutters and put their lives at stake, getting almost negligible pay for their work.

The traditional method of cleaning sewers and septic tanks still continues to exist in the 21st century where we achieved several technological goals. It is surprising for a nation who is capable of sending 104 satellites in a single mission is unable to adopt more advanced methods of cleaning.


“In India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not.”

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

Despite many laws and provisions present with respect to the prohibition of employment of manual scavengers, there still exists manual scavenging in large percentage in various parts of India. Manual scavenging is defined as “the manual removal, cleaning, disposing of, carrying or otherwise handling of raw, untreated human excrement from public streets, gutters, dry latrines, sewers and cleaning septic tanks with the use of buckets or other containers.” The people involved in manual scavenging are known as manual scavengers. According to the Prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 manual scavenger is defined 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 human excreta from 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 constructed accordingly.[1]

This method of cleaning gutters and sewers with the use of manual force is not only degrading to human dignity but also unsafe for the lives of these humans. The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MSJE) stated that there have been 920 deaths of manual scavengers all over India between January 1993 and January 2020. The highest number of deaths, 206 recorded in Tamil Nadu followed by Gujarat which recorded 161 deaths. Uttar Pradesh and Delhi recorded 103 and 89 deaths respectively followed by Karnataka with 78 deaths whereas, Haryana recorded 73 deaths of the manual scavengers.[2]

However, while discussing about the manual scavengers we must be clear about the difference between a manual scavenger and safai karamcharis. Safai Karamcharis usually involves citizens in towns, government offices and private offices who are working as ‘Sweepers’ or ‘sanitation/cleaning workers.’ They may be direct employees of these entities (municipalities, government / private sector organisations) or independent contractors who happen to work for these organisations. Safai karamcharis, however, are not manual scavengers per se.

Manual scavengers are generally self-employed employees or contract workers. Self-employed refers to an individual who scavenges pit latrines, drains, sewers etc. of a group of households or community, for payment in cash and/or in kind, by the owners. Contract workers would usually be those employed by contractors, a municipal agency, some other entity or group of house-owners to scavenge individual or community dry latrines and open drains where soil is disposed of by night.

History of Manual Scavenging in India

Manual scavenging continues to exist since time immemorable; however, many countries have made their way to quit this form of human torture required to clean the gutters, dry latrines, etc. India, on the other hand, is still one of the countries who practices manual scavenging in large numbers. It began almost 3000 years ago; centuries have passed but we are unable to abolish this kind of practice. Even though we managed to remove caste-based discrimination from various sectors but unfortunately manual scavenging continues to exist as a source of caste-based discrimination.

During Mughal rein, women under Purdah had enclosed toilets that was required to be scavenged. Under British India, manual scavengers were hired to collect waste from the public toilets when the first municipalities were being inducted. Those toilets were fitted with the flush system within a century, but by now households had dry latrines which needed manual scavengers to clean them.

In ancient times, manual scavenging was usually done by humans as a form of caste-based discrimination and occupation based social exclusion. According to the caste system, there were four varnas in the beginning, considering the Brahmins as the superior of all, who would educate themselves and be the intellectuals, followed by the Kshatriyas, who were considered to be the warriors and protectors. Vaisyas, being the third in hierarchical structure were considered as the merchants and the administrators, who would supervise the working of the society. The Shudras, who would be the peasants or farmers, came last of all.

Such varnas then constituted hundreds and thousands of sub-groups where each had put on them their own unique occupation. The last one to exist, below all of these varnas, were those labelled to be the ‘untouchables’, they were considered different from the varnas or castes and were the ‘outcastes’ instead, which are now commonly termed as Dalits and Scheduled Castes. Even within the Dalit community, it is the lowest amongst all the sub-castes who undertake the work of scavenging. The reason why this group of people was excluded was because they handled the dirty waste and more.

Legislative Acts and Recent Policies

There are several laws and Acts provided in the Indian Legal System regarding the abolition of employment of manual scavengers. The first Act was passed 27 years ago “The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993” which prohibited the construction or continuances of dry latrines and practice of manual scavenging as well as its employment. In the first instance, the Act was supposed to apply to the States of Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tripura, and West Bengal and all the Union Territories. Other states might adopt the Act as per the resolution passed by the governing authorities.[3] The Act also stated down the need for regulation, construction, and maintenance of water-seal latrines.

The Act was enacted keeping in mind the environmental conditions. Also, as per Article 47 of the Constitution which provides that the State shall consider raising the standard of living of its citizens and people and the improvement of public health as one of its primary duties.[4] It made provisions regarding fundraising, its implementations by the state governments, and administrative functions such as the formation of committees. The Act also dealt with punitive penalties such as penalties, which may extend up to imprisonment for a year or fines of Rs. 2000.

However, the Act was not as successful in its implementation as thought by the authorities. At first, the number went down drastically but later, after the year 2013 the numbers of manual scavengers kept rising. As a result of this failure, a new Act came into force “The Prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013”. It was the first legislation to define the ties between scavenging as an occupation and hierarchy of social castes. In the previous Act first, it imposed on the owners the responsibility of removal of dry latrines and of constructing proper toilets.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was enacted in 2013, 20 years after The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Unlike the previous Act, conceived from the standpoint of hygiene and sanitation, the current legislation stresses the preservation of human dignity and the rights of manual scavengers. Unlike the earlier Act, the Act of 2013 also provides for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers.   

This Act came into effect in December 2013 in India except for Jammu and Kashmir. The law banned the recruitment of manual scavengers, the manual cleaning of septic tanks and sewers without safety equipment, and restricted the construction of insanitary latrines. The law also rehabilitates manual scavengers and provides them with alternative employment within the time-constrained manner. It is now an offense to build and preserve the insanitary latrines, and no one can be hired or engaged as the manual scavenger.

This Act also took into consideration the lives of manual scavengers covered under Article 42 of the Constitution quoting just and humane conditions of work[5] and their fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 14 and Article 17 states the right to equality[6] and the abolition of untouchability[7] enshrined upon Part III of the Constitution of India. Moreover, it extended to Article 46 of the Indian Constitution which states that the State shall protect the weaker sections, and, particularly, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.[8]

The Act lays down the construction or maintenance of insanitary latrines as a punishable offence with punishment extending to imprisonment up to one year or with the fine up to fifty thousand or both. Any subsequent contravention of the same nature would result in imprisonment up to two years or with the fine up to rupees five lakh or both. The engagement or employment of persons for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or septic tank is punishable with imprisonment up to two years or with a fine up to two lakh rupees or with both. Any subsequent contravention of similar nature might result in imprisonment up to five years or with fine up to five lakh rupees or with both. The offences laid down in the Act are cognizable and non-bailable offences. It is made necessary for the states to conduct a survey of manual scavengers in urban and rural localities with a time-bound framework. It is also made mandatory to provide comprehensive rehabilitation of the manual scavengers within a time-bound framework. Various vigilance and monitoring committees had been set up at district, sub-division, state, and central levels in order to abolish the practice of manual scavenging in the country.

In addition to legislative remedies, several interventions have been pursued by the former and current central governments for the rehabilitation of the manual scavengers. Various schemes were proposed to include alternative work routes. The National Rural Livelihood Mission established several self-help groups consisting mainly of women who would form the link between scavengers and authorities to assist with the process of rehabilitation.

Results and Discussions

Despite many stringent laws and provisions present in the Indian legal system regarding the prohibition of employment of manual scavengers, discontinuance of the construction of dry latrines, and promotion of rehabilitation of the manual scavengers it remains to continue its practice in the country. However, the number of manual scavengers in India had come down from nearly eight lakhs in 2003 to about thirteen thousand in the year 2013. Later, in the year 2018, the number rose to 42,303.

According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, there are currently about 1,329,748 insanitary latrines in urban India with the highest number of insanitary latrines in the state of Uttar Pradesh ranging up to 223,274 followed by Andhra Pradesh with the counting of 173,690. Then come Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu with 171,688 and 164,364 number of insanitary disposals respectively.[9] As per the census conducted in the year 2011, the total number of humans involved in the scavenging of insanitary latrines manually was about 676,009. The highest number of manual scavengers were recorded in the state of Uttar Pradesh of about 149,202.[10]

The data mentioned, however, is of the year 2011 the number would surely have changed in these 9 years. Also, one of the reasons for the increased numbers would be the Swachh Bharat Mission taking place on a large scale in the country to promote hygiene and cleanliness. As there was no sanitation scheme up until the year 2014, under the Swachh Bharat Mission, millions of septic tanks are being installed in rural areas. Nevertheless, the problem persists that who will clean such tanks, because there is no emphasis on fecal management. There is always a lot of fanfare involved in both household and public construction of toilets. Unfortunately, there is little commitment to consistency due to the enormous speed of these programs. There is also a great possibility that members of the lowest classes of society will once again be called upon to clean u if the current sewage systems break down or even in the absence of water supplies. Additionally, a blanket ban on dry latrine construction was not properly implemented. It should be noticed that such sanitation schemes often seek to de-link sanitation concerns with caste prejudices.

The complexities of caste supremacy, gender inequality, untouchability, and deprivation of a person’s human dignity are fundamental aspects of the issue of manual scavenging. The upper castes in many parts of the world genuinely assume that Dalits live for the very purpose of scavenging. Often freed scavengers will also find no substitute jobs like kitchen helpers or cooks, since, they are considered unclean. Lack of educational opportunities leaves them inadequate for semi-white-collar positions and existing societal stereotypes ensure entrepreneurial initiatives such as operating tea shops as a failure. Ultimately, scavenging by hand doesn’t require any special abilities or training. Therefore, it is a simple vocation for people, particularly women, who have done it for years to come back to for all seasons in case other jobs are rejected, although it is not the most appealing. Sanitation programs barely dig beneath the surface of these multi-layered issues.

Many of the manual scavengers die due to suffocation and other inevitable accidents caused to them during the course of their employment. But their deaths are of minimal importance and are often ignored. The scavengers are exposed to the human faeces and urine which come in contact with their skin and become the cause of very severe hazardous diseases, such as Hepatitis A, rotavirus, pinworms. The dirty water into the sewers and gutters might expose these people to diseases like cholera, hepatitis, typhoid, tuberculosis, and be the host of other diseases. Many of them get addicted to tobacco and alcohol in order to get over the plight and the repugnant nature of their occupation.

Apart from the inhumane and hostile working conditions, the remuneration provided to the workers is almost negligible which makes the entire system of sanitation and hygiene look like an ancient practice of slavery. A manual scavenger earns hardly between Rs.40 and Rs.100 a day for cleaning out about fifty dry latrines. There is no monetary compensation provided to the scavengers’ families if they die while carrying out their job.


In order to get over the issue of manual scavenging, technical interventions will play a major role that would replace the human labour force with technical equipment and machines and humans would no longer be required to enter into hazardous and stinking septic tanks. For instance, the Water Supply and Sewage Board of Hyderabad has been using mini jetting machines for cleaning choked water pipes. In Kerala, robots have been designed by engineers to clean the septic tanks.  In Delhi, the Delhi Jal Board brought 200 sewer cleaning machines into practice.

In addition to technological developments, there is a need for a more systematic approach to the design of rehabilitation programs, such as keeping women in mind as men in the family are likely not to encourage women to do other sorts of works. Converging current government job programs, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 with the Prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 is a feasible choice for released scavengers to be guaranteed jobs for at least 100 days per year. Continuous auditing of the measures taken pursuant to the Prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 such as offering financial aid, housing assistance, and scholarships, is required not just to rehabilitate scavengers but also to ensure that this release is permanent.

To eradicate manual scavenging, there should be good cooperation between the Centre and the State governments. A social analysis of the 2013 legislation that will illustrate all challenges along the way that sanitary soldiers are guaranteed a safe and healthy life. It is only by integrating the efforts of individuals, institutions, and governments that we will make a meaningful difference to uplift their lives. There have come and gone various laws and manual scavenging has still not been completely banned. There are still countless deaths and massively abused fundamental rights. Therefore, it is imperative that this national issue, which acts as a hindrance in the progress of the country in the field of human rights, be dealt with effectively as soon as possible.

The National Cleanliness Day (January 30) is just another insignificant day for the lakhs who wake up every morning to extract excreta manually. This problem still leaves a persistent legacy on India’s social, civic, and economic structure.

  • [1] Prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, § 2, Cl. g (2013).
  • [2] The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Survey of Manual Scavengers (2020).
  • [3] The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, § 1, Cl. 2 (1993).
  • [4] Indian Const. Art. 46.
  • [5] Indian Const. Art. 42.
  • [6] Id. Art. 14.
  • [7] Id. Art. 17.
  • [8] Id. Art. 41.
  • [9] Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment Survey of Manual Scavengers in Statutory Towns, Report (2018).
  • [10] National Sample Survey Office 47th Report.

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