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Author: Umang Dudeja

IMS Unison University, Dehradun


The term 'manual scavenging' refers to the act of carrying human excreta by hand. During the past, this applied to the method of extracting excreta from dry latrines but, during addition, modern sanitation techniques introduced new ways of manual scavenging work, including manual and hazardous drain cleaning, sewage pipes, septic tanks, and latrine pits. The government survey reported 54,130 people engaged in this job as of July 2019, following a 2013 law banning the employment of manual scavengers. The figure is understated, because the survey was conducted only in areas where "there are reasons to assume that manual scavengers exist." The survey was carried out in 170 districts in 18 Member States.[1]

Activists have used the word ‘Safai Karmachari’ to mean manual scavenging as an occupation rather than an ethnicity, but the term ‘safai karmachari’ refers to employees that work as sweepers and sanitation employees, as well as to those who clean excrement manually. In the report we refer to "manual scavenging," because this is the term used in the 2013 Act.

KEYWORDS: Manual Scavenging, Human Rights, Human waste, India’s manual scavenging.


In many parts of South Asia, the tradition of manually cleaning excrements from private and public dry toilets and open drains continues. Throughout most of the part of India, keeping with centuries-old colonial and caste-based practice, women from societies historically employed as "manual scavengers" still gather human waste on a regular basis, load it into cane baskets or metal troughs and bring it away on their heads for disposal at the outskirts of the town.

After independence in 1947, India's central government has adopted legislative and policy efforts to end manual scavenging. They include efforts to modernize sanitation in recent years, such that no more need is made for the manual disposal of feces, and prohibitions on employing others to do this work. Since these policies are not properly enforced, however, people remain unsure of their right to refuse this position, and those who refuse may face extreme social pressure, including violence and threats and expulsion from their village, often with the involvement of local government officers.

Manual scavengers are typically relegated to the bottom of the caste hierarchy from caste classes and restricted to livelihood tasks regarded by higher caste classes as deplorable or considered too menial. A caste-designated profession strengthens the social stigma of being unclean or "untouchable," and continues widespread discrimination. People typically clean dry toilets, women and men clean excrement from open sites of ejaculation, gutters, and drains, and are required to do the more physically demanding sewage cleaning and sewerage systems job.

There are constitutional and statutory prohibitions in India on "untouchability" and “manual scavenging”. Women and men have to manually clean up human excrements from private and public dry toilets, open defecation areas, septic tanks and open and closed canals and sewers. They typically embark on manual scavenging due to conventional caste-based positions that leave them with few, if any, alternative job choices, a condition perpetuated by weak laws and policies that ban this activity.


Women engaged in manual scavenging face community and family pressure to continue this profession, since their households have few other livelihood options. These are also India's poorest and most disadvantaged societies, where even food security is a big challenge. Although men can work as day labourers from manual scavenger societies, their income is unreliable. Without access to consistent income, families rely on women's daily food handouts for survival.[2]

Women and men working by local government panchayats and Municipal Corporations as sanitation workers have said that; they are doing this job because they have no other means of subsistence. [3]

Women who practice manual scavenging have told Human Rights Watch that because dry toilets are cleaned regularly, when they miss even a day, they face pressure from the group. Anita, who cleans dry toilets in the village of Kasela in the district of Etah, Uttar Pradesh, said there has been no intervention to stop manual scavenging and prevailing castes are forcing her to continue the practice:

“I did not clean the toilets for just one day. They came to my house and told me, if you do not come, we will throw you out of the village. You will have nowhere to go”.[4]

Human Rights Watch interviewed women around Madhya Pradesh who had abandoned scavenging manuals between 2002 and 2009. Most indicated that people would come to their homes regularly after they left, threatening them, and demanding that the work be resumed. Yashodabai, from Dharia Khedi village in Mandsaur district, Madhya Pradesh said, “For a year after I stopped doing this work, everyday people would come to my home and demand that I clean their toilets.


The number of people killed when sewers and septic tanks were being cleaned has risen in recent years. 2019 saw the largest number of deaths from manual scavenging in the last 5 years. 110 Employees were killed when sewage and septic tanks were being washed. It is a rise of 61 per cent compared to 2018, which has seen 68 cases of related deaths. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act placed an end to any sort of manual waste cleaning, transport, disposal, or handling operation in 2013.

Nevertheless, according to a National survey carried out in 18 States, more than 50,000 manual scavengers were reported until 31 January 2020 and according to data obtained in 2018, 29,923 people are involved in manual scavenging in Uttar Pradesh, making it the maximum in any state in India.[5]

Deaths of 814 manual scavengers engaged in sewer and septic tank cleaning were recorded in 20 states and UTs in India from 1993 to July 2019. Of these 20 States, only 11 States have details of the compensation received by the family of the deceased. This suggests the likelihood of under reporting in the number of known manual scavengers and the number of fatalities. Tamil Nadu had reported 206 deaths of manual scavengers who cleaned sewers and septic tanks between 1993 and July 2019 out of the total deaths. It was the best of all Countries. Gujarat reported 156 deaths of that sort, the second highest.

Six people died in Sriperumbudur in March from asphyxiation after inhaling poisonous fumes while cleaning a septic tank. Similarly, seven people died of asphyxiation in February 2018 when they were cleaning a private septic tank in Chittoor. Five people lost their lives in a septic tank in a remote village of Chhattisgarh, and five others died the same month while cleaning a sewer near DLF flats in Delhi's Moti Nagar area.[6]

This trend is not new. This is, the on-ground reality right from the start, in truth.

There are multiple deaths in more than 82 percent of such events, suggesting that they are not simply accidents but instances of lack of systematic execution. They are refused access to the equipment required by the Supreme Court, during their suffocating work. Workers lose their lives attempting to help their stuck colleagues while fighting the toxic fumes in the gas chambers themselves which are septic tanks. Their contributions only underscore the State's indifference.


This legislation made the use of "scavengers" or the building of dry toilets punishable with imprisonment for up to a year and a fine of Rs.2000 subject to an increase of Rs.100 per day for repeated violations.

Despite these prohibitions, the law failed to end manual scavenging. This is attributable in part to India's federal governance system. Implementing most legislation, once passed in parliament, is the responsibility of the governments of the states. It is generally recognized in the two decades after the legislation was passed that the States did not do enough to implement the 1993 Act, or even to examine the scale of the problem.

In 2003, ‘Safai Karmachari Andolan’ and six other groups filed a written petition in the Supreme Court of India in the face of systematic failure by state governments to enact and enforce the 1993 Act. The petitioners, alleging that manual scavenging was illegal and unconstitutional, asked the court to order central and state governments to take appropriate action to eradicate the practice. According to Bezwada Wilson, founder of Safai Karmachari Andolan, this public interest litigation sought to require the central and state governments to account for the persistence of manual scavenging.

In April 2005, a Supreme Court bench ordered all state governments and all central government ministries and corporations to file affidavits reporting on the prevalence of manual scavenging, the use of funds for the end of manual scavenging and progress towards the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and then on March 27, 2014, several years after the initial filing, the Supreme Court decision in the case, Safai Karmachari Andolan vs Union of India[7], Confirmed that manual scavenging remained widespread and guided the rehabilitation of all those who serve as manual scavengers.


On 6 September 2013, due to significant efforts by former manual scavengers and Dalit rights activists, the Indian parliament enacted a new law to improve accountability mechanisms, expand the concept of manual scavenging, and move the emphasis of initiatives to end manual scavenging beyond sanitation to preserving the integrity of communities engaged as manual scavengers. Not only does the 2013 Act ban dry latrines but it also bans all manual excrement cleaning as well as cleaning gutters, sewers, and septic tanks without safety equipment.

Whereas the 1993 Act specifically aimed at prohibiting the practice of manual scavenging and the building of dry latrines, the 2013 Act acknowledges obligations to redress historical injustices suffered by manual scavengers and their families by providing alternative livelihood opportunities and other assistance. The 2013 Act expressly entitles persons who have been engaged as manual scavengers to one-time cash assistance, their children's scholarships, lodging, alternative livelihood help and other legal and programmatic assistance.


People involved in manual scavenging rely on the frequent donations of food that they collect for subsistence. They must have immediate access to alternate employment in order to leave manual scavenging. Even then, these groups face major barriers to entry into the labour market, including social boycotts and economic boycotts in revenge for refusing to clean the toilets in the village, gender- and caste-based discrimination in access to jobs, and corruption, such as demanding to pay bribes to be named to reserved positions of government. These obstacles are exacerbated to many people as by low education levels and an absence of marketable skills.

While many women in rural Madhya Pradesh have been able to find seasonal work in the fields, the accessibility of agricultural labour and other unskilled work by private employers depends on the willingness of landowners to hire women who have left manual scavenging[8] and, as stated in the previous section, people who leave the manual scavenging study face social and economic boycotts that last for various periods of time.

Acknowledging the need to promote access to alternative jobs, the 2013 Act includes provisions aimed at securing income — namely, training in living skills and access to loans for sustainable employment. Although successful occupational training and loans can offer long-term livelihood options, they do not meet the households' essential need for survival jobs. In addition, people from these communities’ report major difficulties in accessing and enjoying existing training and loan schemes.


The move from the 1993 law to the 2013 law was felt because the earlier law focused too much on dry latrines. But the reality is that the discourse around manual scavenging is still focused on cleaning of dry latrines and does not pay much attention to rehabilitation and other modern problems like cleaning at sewage treatment plants. Thus, the definition of “manual scavenger” needs to be broadened so that people are not left out. The definition of “protective gear” needs to be inserted in the act to ensure that employers cannot get away by providing minimal equipment. The main problem under the law is that authorities at the local level who are responsible for implementing the act have been given too many powers and there is no penal provision for failure to comply with the act. This needs to be rectified by curtailing some of the powers and making them accountable for the implementation of the act.

Manual scavenging is a form of forced labour because people enter this work without their choice and cannot leave easily if they wish to do so. The workers employed are not given the basic wages that are provided to a labourer. Mostly, there is no monetary remuneration but only food or other resources are provided. The government needs to firstly conduct a comprehensive survey to assess the gravity of the problem. The next step must provide them support to move out of this work. This can be done by educating the children and providing requisite training for alternate employment opportunities. The government has to be the front runner in this to ensure that this form of modern slavery is eradicated.

[1] https://www.thehindu.com/data/manual-scavenging-exists-in-india-despite-being-outlawed-in-2013/article29508476.ece [2] Safai Karmachari Andolan & Ors. v. Union of India & Ors., Supreme Court of India, Writ Petition (Civil) No 583 of 2003, judgment, March 27, 2014 [3] Human Rights Watch interview with Bablu, Bharatpur city, Rajasthan, June 27, 2014 as cited in Human Rights Watch [4] Human Rights Watch interview with Anita, Kasela village, Etah district, Uttar Pradesh, January 19, 2014. [5]https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/indias-manual-scavenging-problem/article30834545.ece [6] https://www.firstpost.com/india/72-year-old-who-went-missing-from-delhi-airport-traced-to-ghaziabad-sent-to-home-quarantine-for-14-days-8537141.html [7] Safai Karmachari Andolan & Ors. v. Union of India & Ors., Supreme Court of India, Writ Petition (Civil) No 583 of 2003, judgment, March 27, 2014 [8]https://indianexpress.com/article/gender/2-6-million-dry-toilets-and-13384-manual-scavengers-do-the-maths-5064728/

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