Manual Scavenging: Ugly Truth in India

Manual Scavenging: Ugly Truth in India

“I may not be born again but if it happens, I will like to be born into a family of scavengers, so that I may relieve them of the inhuman, unhealthy, and hateful practice of carrying night soil.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

Manual scavenging refers to the removal of raw human excreta from the toilets or pit latrines, railway tracks or cleaning of gutters and septic tanks. The Asian Human Rights Commission defines it as, “Manual scavenging in India is officially defined as ‘lifting and removal of human excreta manually’, at private homes and toilets maintained by municipal authorities. The practice consists of gathering human excreta from individual or community dry latrines with bare hands, brooms or metal scrapers into woven baskets or buckets.”

The Safai Karmchari Andolan was launched to eliminate the inhumane practice of manual scavenging and demolish dry latrines in existing states of India and help them to live a dignified life. The Rasthriya Garima Abhiyan is one more such organization aiming to eradicate continued existence of manual scavengers and to rehabilitate them. Sulabh International, Janvikas, Manav Garima, Basthi Vikas Manch, Association for Rural and Urban Needy (ARUN) are some other initiatives for the ban of manual scavengers. The government of India has launched the scheme of the integrated low cost sanitation scheme where one of its targets is to replace dry latrines. The National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their Dependents (NSLRS) was launched in March, 1992 aimed at liberating and rehabilitating the scavengers. The Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) launched in January, 2007 aimed to rehabilitate the remaining scavengers by 2009 in alternative jobs. Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan (NBA) (2009-14) and Swach Bharat Abhiyaan (SBA) (2014-19) which replaced the NBA. The legislative policies for the welfare of the scavengers are The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was ineffective in resolving the issue of the manual scavengers. Therefore, an improved act was passed by the Parliament to make up for the loopholes in the old Act. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was considered by Dalits and such other class of people engaged in manual scavenging that it would protect their rights. The Act does not mention about the manhole workers even t hey come under this category, requiring safety devices when they are going down. The Act does not cover the public toilets and open defecation where manual scavengers are employed and also for garbage lifting which is equally hazardous. The local authorities are instructed to conduct a survey about insanitary latrine within two months which is not feasible as it is deep rooted. The use of devices to remove excreta does not mean that it is not manual scavenging. The liabilities of the local authority have not been laid down. The definitions of insanitary latrine, manual scavengers and implementation mechanism is lacking in the Act. The enactment of the act is not sufficient without awareness to bring these people into the mainstream. The bill remains silent on rehabilitation land’s location and the time within which and how they are to be rehabilitated. The appropriation of the estimated amount granted for the purpose has not been mentioned. The responsibility is mostly on the shoulders of the local authorities to demolish the dry latrines and install water flush latrines but what about the State providing financial assistance which will be required by them for this mammoth task.

According to the 2011 census, there were 180657 people engaged in scavenging. They are exposed to dangerous diseases and health hazards which include exposure to harmful gases such as methane and hydrogen sulfide, cardiovascular degeneration, musculoskeletal disorders like osteoarthritis changes and intervertebral disc herniation, infections like hepatitis, leptospirosis and helicobacter, skin problems, respiratory system problems and altered pulmonary function parameters. Women and children are exposed to chronic skin diseases. The Railways, Municipal Corporations and Gram Panchayat engage manual scavengers. India is signatory to Universal Declaration of Human Rights but the violation of human rights continues.  The International Labor Organization is working with India to remove such discrimination based on social origin. There is plethora of provisions in the Constitution of India for the manual scavengers such as Article 14, 16(2), 17, 19(1) (a), 21, 23, 41, 42, 46, 47, and 338. The People’s Civil Rights Act, 1955 makes untouchability a cognizable and non- compoundable offence. The Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 makes it a punishable offence to employ the SC/ST in manual scavenging. In order to get the recommendation to address the undignified work the Government had set up several committees such Barve committee22 Kaka Kalekar Commission, Central Harijan Welfare Board, Malkani Committee, and Committee on customary rights, Pandya Committee. In a meeting of National Commission for Schedules Caste held on July 21st, 2016 the mismatch of dry latrines and manual scavengers came to the lime light. It is as follows-


Telangana (Dec.31st, 2015) 1,57,321 Nil
Himachal Pradesh 854 Nil
Chhattisgarh 4, 391 03
Madhya Pradesh 34, 362 36
Haryana Nil Nil


In the case of Safai Karamchari Andolan & Ors. vs. Union of India & Ors., (2014) 11 SCC 224, Supreme Court had noted the plight of Manual Scavengers as- “The inhuman practice of manually removing night soil which involves removal of human excrements from dry toilets with bare hands, brooms or metal scrappers; carrying excrements and baskets to dumping sites for disposal is a practice that is still prevalent in many parts of the country. While the surveys conducted by some of the organizations estimate that there are over 12 lakh manual scavengers undertaking the degrading human practice in the country, the official statistics issued by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment for the year 2002-2003 puts the figure of identified manual scavengers at 6, 76,009. Of these, over 95% are Dalits (persons belonging to the scheduled castes), who are compelled to undertake this denigrating task under the garb of “traditional occupation”. The manual scavengers are considered as untouchables by other mainstream castes and are thrown into a vortex of severe social and economic exploitation.”


It is ironical to see that despite several constitutional, statutory and administrative safeguards and framework the plight of manual scavengers and has been deplorable. Identification of manual scavengers has so far progressed at snail’s pace and the Rehabilitation schemes for the welfare of manual scavengers have failed to achieve much result. [1]

  1. Manual Scavenging: A Case of Denied Rights, Abhishek Gupta.

Author: Snigdha Panigrahi