Manual Scavenging is the process of physically/manually working in the sanitation process, this includes removal of human excrement from public streets, dry latrines and cleaning septic tanks, gutters and sewers.

Manual Scavenging is a problem, India is facing since the Independence from British. Post 70 years of independence, with a literacy rate of 75%, India is doing fairly great when it comes to the quality of human capital. The increasing literacy rate in India and the impact of globalization has made a change in the mindset of the youth possible.

Despite all the advances, they are still a huge part of India, which is less talked about, unaware of the exploitation faced by them, and not socially equipped to progress, even under such great circumstances in the country, they are, the “untouchables”.

There have been numerous claims that the profession of manual scavenging, still persists in India because of the caste specific orientation of culture in the country. Allegedly, the main reason for the existence of such work still going on, is because most people in India allegedly believe that the lower classes in the caste hierarchy are entitled to do this work.

Statistics: Lives lost due to manual scavenging

Despite a number of schemes and laws passed by the Indian Government, manual scavenging still persists and its existence continues to take lives.

In 2019, India registered the highest number of deaths in the last five years, caused by manual scavenging. 110 people lost their lives while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

If talked in percentage, the death toll increased by 61% in 2019 from 2018.

In March 2014, while looking for a solution, the Supreme Court of India found out that there are approximately 9.6 million dry latrines in the country, which were being cleaned manually by people belonging to the lower castes.

According to the 2011 Census of India, there were more than 2.6 million dry latrines in the county. The census also revealed that there were approximately 13,14,652 toilets in the country where human excreta was flushed in open drains and 7,94,390 dry latrines where the excreta was being cleaned manually. 73% of these areas were a part of rural areas and 27% were in urban areas.

Another census in 2011, House listing and housing census, found out that states like Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal combined counted more than 72% of the insanitary latrines in the country.

India and untouchability- A timeline

1955 – Protection of Civil Rights Act

In 1955, the Indian constitution banned the practice of untouchability. The Protection of Civil Rights Act was passed, the same year, which was directly aimed at eradicating manual scavenging from the country. The act banned manual scavenging and prohibited demanding anybody else to indulge in such practice.

1985 – Indira Awaas Yojna

The Indira Awaas Yojna was started in 1985. It was a social welfare program introduced by the Rural Development Ministry. The Yojna aimed at providing housing for the rural poor population. Yojna started as part of the Rural Landless Employment Guarantee Program, which used subsidies and cash assistance to build independent housing for the rural poor population of the country. All the people who worked as manual scavengers were targeted in this Yojna. The Yojna helped people overcome the threat of displacement and gave them houses of their own to live in, it is alleged that due to the decision of the selection of beneficiary was given to the panchayats of each area, it gave panchayats the power to deliberately exclude people from accessing the housing scheme.

1993 – Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act

In 1993, the government passed another act namely, The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. This law prohibits the employment of “scavengers” and termed the construction of dry toilets, punishable. The punishment that was put out by the government in case of violation of the law was imprisonment for up to one year with a fine of Rs.2000 subject to increase by Rs.100 each day for continuing violations.

In April 2005, the Supreme Court directed all state governments and all ministries and corporations of the central government to file affidavits reporting the existence of manual scavenging, within a time limit of six months. The state government and all the ministries were also asked to state the use of provided funds for the purpose of ending manual scavenging. Almost all the reports that were submitted to the Supreme Court of India, denied the existence of Manual Scavenging in the concerned states.

2007 – Self-Employment and Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers Scheme (SRMS)

The central government launched The Self-Employment and Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers Scheme (SRMS) in 2007. The scheme had a budget of Rs. 7,356 million. The main objective of the scheme was to rehabilitate 342,468 people working as manual scavengers, people who were not previously assisted under the National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers. In 2010, the SRMS was taken down due to the wrong reports about the successful rehabilitation of all the manual scavengers was put forth by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

2013 – The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act

2013 was an eventful year, as former manual scavengers and Dalit Rights Activists voiced out the problem and based on the same, the Indian Parliament passed a new law, expanding the horizons of the term, manual scavenging and to also strengthen the role of responsibility among the governments. The law, namely, The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, worked towards moving the attention to end manual scavenging and not just constructing buildings and banning open defecation. The 2013 Act made manual scavengers entitled to receiving multiple benefits to stop the work they do. The government assured scholarships for their children, housing, legal assistance and one-time money assistance.

On March 27, 2014, the Supreme Court of India passed the verdict that the help of the state government was required for achieving the aim of ending manual scavenging. In the same month, the Supreme Court also prohibited manual scavenging in India according to multiple international laws like, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW),the International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

International efforts to end the scavenging

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) filed a report in 2014 about the manual scavenging problem in India. The report concluded that India has over 792 million people who have little to no access to improved sanitation. It also presented that India is home to at least 597 million people who practice open defecation on a daily basis. According to the report, India lagged behind majorly when it came to meeting its Millennium Development Goal relating to sanitation.

To read the full 2014 report by UNICEF and WHO, click on the link below.

Human Rights Watch in an article, Cleaning Human Waste, quoted, “India is also a party to other international conventions that reinforce obligations to end manual scavenging, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). During India’s most recent review for compliance with the ICESCR, ICERD, and the CRC, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR Committee), Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD Committee),  and the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC Committee) all issued concluding observations calling upon India to end manual scavenging.”

UNICEF viewed manual scavenging as a water and sanitation issue whereas the World Health Organisation prompted the matter as a health issue.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) includes a special group of people who work for the position and justice for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

The United Nations Women’s Council (UNWC) addressed manual scavenging with the statistics, stating that 95% population of manual scavengers who work to clean open defecation and dry toilets are women.

The International Labour Organization chooses to focus mainly on eradicating the practice of manual scavenging. It views cleaning of septic tanks, cleaning gutters and sewers and lastly, removal of human excrement from public streets and dry latrines as three different parts of manual scavenging.

The Role of MNREGA Against Manual Scavenging

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, passed in 2005, is focused mainly on the accessibility of immediate livelihood security in rural areas. To achieve this goal, according to the act, a household is guaranteed a 100-day employment plan. The projects in which the employee is provided are drought proofing, flood protection, road construction, water conservation, and land development.

According to MNREGA, family members who are above the age of 18 are entitled to work on-demand with a job card. The process to acquire a job card is to register with the panchayat in writing or orally. The card holds a time-bound work guarantee and comes with the assurance that the work will be given to the individual within 15 days of submitting the application for work. If the individual does not get a job, they become entitled to a daily unemployment allowance. The institution has to make sure that the applicant gets a job under a five-kilometre area from their residence and get at least minimum wages set by the government while working there.

Budget schemes to fight the issue

The Finance Minister of India, Nirmala Sitharaman, presented the Budget on February 01, 2019. While presenting the budget, she mentioned the government’s plan to employ technology for changing the methods of the sewer system and the septic tanks, with the use of technology, which would further eliminate the need of manual scavenging in the country.

In her speech, she said, Our government is determined that there shall be no manual cleaning of sewer systems or septic tanks. Suitable technologies for such tasks have been identified by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. The Ministry is working with urban local bodies for the adoption of these technologies. We will now take this to its logical conclusion through legislative and institutional changes. Financial support for the wider acceptance of such technologies will be provided.”

Quoting IndiaSpend, “More than 100 million toilets have been constructed under SBM-Gramin, but a large number of these toilets have been constructed using technologies that would require periodic emptying and offsite treatment of faecal matter.”

Health hazards and manual scavengers

Continuously dealing with human excreta without any protection can have dire consequences to human health. Apart from the toll, it takes on the physical health or a person, what manual scavenging does to a person mentally is far worse. Due to the work they do, manual scavengers face discrimination, as they are considered “untouchables” and even their children are treated as outsiders in the community, depriving them of basic education. This mostly leaves little choice for the children to grow up and indulge in other work, so they mostly continue with the same work of manual scavenging.

There is a dire need for more studies into the situation, but one of the conducted studies by Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan submitted a report to the United Nations, concluding that there can be severe health consequences, mainly including diarrhoea, jaundice, trachoma, anaemia, skin diseases, respiratory issues, constant nausea, headaches and carbon monoxide poisoning.

To read the full report by Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, visit the following link: