Rights of Manual Scavengers

Author: Anisha Tak, Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab


Manual scavenging is the act of removing the excreta from dry toilets manually. It was reduced under colonial rule in India due to the development of toilets which consisted of flush systems. However, this practice is still in existence in the country.[1] This practice is a kind of forced labor that compels some particular communities to work as manual scavengers because it is considered this work is endowed to them due to their birth in that community. This practice can be termed as an outcome of the menace of the caste system prevalent in Indian society. In the earlier times, the caste stratification controlled the economic, political, social and other such sectors.[2]

Caste System and Manual Scavenging

According to the caste system, these communities were assigned the lowest position. They were considered untouchables and were compelled to do the work which involved dirt and filth. The lower caste people were forced to do manual scavenging due to the community they belonged to.[3] These people were isolated from the mainstream of society which hindered their progress and development. Separate areas were allocated for the community which discharged the function of manual scavenging and were segregated from the upper caste communities. Women who did this work were not even paid for it due to operation of both gender and caste discrimination. The oppression of these communities was present at such a high level that these communities could not refuse to work as manual scavengers. They were illiterate, poor and powerless due to which they were afraid that they would not get any employment if they did not work as manual scavengers. [4]

The lower caste people were terrified that if they would not get any job to do then they would not be able to fulfil their basic needs. They were not even paid adequately which exhibited a blatant violation of their rights. These people could not protest as they were afraid of pernicious consequences. The meagre amount they earned as manual scavengers were spent on arranging food and clothes for the family. Poverty did not permit the children of these communities to become educated.[5]

Moreover, the children belonging to the lower caste were not allowed by the upper castes of the society to study. The lack of education ceased their progress and resulted in a further increase in their exploitation. All these factors caught generations of these communities into the web of manual scavenging. These communities are referred to from different names in different countries like Bhangis, Phakis, Sikkalia, etc. Since these communities are not able to develop as they have not received the required education, they become a vulnerable group. The powerful groups can easily violate their rights as these people are not even cognizant of their rights. [6]

Provisions in the Country

The Indian constitution delineates several provisions which highlight that discrimination based on caste is prohibited. The concepts of equality and dignity are outlined in the constitution. However, still, these provisions are not implemented in society. The fundamental rights which are described in it are far from enforcement. Untouchability is still prevalent which can be corroborated through the practice of manual scavenging.[7]

Several laws are there that provide for the protection of these workers but there are many flaws with the laws themselves and with their implementation. Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993[8]; Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, etc. There are many problems and contentions associated with these acts which make the safeguarding of these workers difficult again making them prone to do the job along with exploitation and humiliation. The act of 2013 differentiated between manual scavengers and sewage workers. [10]

The sewage worker will be the one who handles the work of septic tanks and sewage systems with the use of protective gear. The contentions are on the exact meaning of the term protective gear. The next issue is that sewage workers are no different than manual scavengers as just providing clothes, masks will not bring any significant change in their condition. They still have to face those unhygienic conditions. They will be prone to the diseases to which they were before. No difference will be brought in the exploitation based on the caste system. Their financial conditions will be almost the same. Thus, proper laws and enforcement of those laws are vital for bringing a considerable change in the lives of these workers.[11]

Violation of Rights and Impact of Manual Scavenging

Under the concept of manual scavenging, the people who perform this act are required to remove the excreta from septic tanks, railway tracks, etc. and carry them manually to be dumped in the required area. As described in earlier times, the lower castes indulged in this work as they had no other livelihood option and were compelled to work as manual scavengers. However, nowadays, even if the people belonging to those communities do not want to do this work, they are forced by upper castes in some regions just to keep the caste system intact and uphold their power derived from this system. This behaviour exhibits how basic human rights are also not given to them.[12]

Manual scavenging in India was banned in 1952 and 1993 but this ban was not able to eradicate this menace from society. This practice has weakened the workers executing this job emotionally, financially, psychologically, socially and has deprived them of economic and political opportunities.[13] They are living under very adverse conditions. Manual scavenging is a hazardous job that is not only dangerous to one’s health but can also cause the death of the workers indulged in this work. The workers suffer from many diseases. The unhygienic conditions involved in this work causes many skin problems. It can also cause many communicable diseases due to the presence of various harmful microorganisms in the manholes, septic tanks, etc. [14]

When they are cleaning the septic tanks, they cannot breathe properly. The workers suffer from many respiratory diseases as they enter inside the manholes and sewage systems to remove the blockage and clear the systems. Impairment of vision and hearing power is another outcome that these workers need to bear due to manual scavenging. It is considered that the workers who work in the formal sector like Municipalities and panchayats need to be provided with essential safety equipment such as adequate clothing material, slippers, masks, hand gloves, proper clothes to work in the winter season, raincoats, brooms, etc. However, it could be seen in many cases, these requirements are not fulfilled and these workers are subject to exploitation.[15]

The positions which they faced in the earlier times are still prevalent and they are still discriminated against. They are not receiving adequate remuneration in the formal sector also which results in strained financial conditions. Manual scavengers are not able to get the required nutrition due to poverty which further diminishes their health due to poverty. Their children are underweight due to a lack of nutrition which is essential for their growth and development. Women involved in manual scavenging are not only discriminately paid and treated, but they also suffer from worse conditions than males. As their families are already poverty-ridden, women have to sacrifice the minimal share which they get for their family members. They become more vulnerable to anaemia as compared to women in other communities.[16]

Poverty, denigration, humiliation, emotional and psychological suffering push them into the web of drugs and alcohol. This worsens the living conditions of these workers as they are already poverty-stricken and now, they spend money to buy these things.[17] These people are not able to afford proper medical services. Despite all the diseases which they suffer, they are not provided proper assistance by the government through which their conditions could improve. They are not even able to avail basic rights.[18]   

The caste differences which the manual scavengers endure openly violate their fundamental, constitutional and legal rights. Enforcement of the right to equality cannot be seen. Abolition of untouchability seems a distant objective that is yet to be achieved. These workers are not able to claim cultural and civil rights. They are marginalized and are not able to take part in the social and political sector of the country. The deprived economic conditions become an obstacle in living a life as per basic standards. Illiteracy adds to their misery and binds generations into the same job leaving no way to return. [19]


Overhauling the entire social system is crucial for uplifting these workers. Their lifestyle needs to be changed to include them in the social and political system of the country. The norm of manual scavenging needs to be abolished in reality and not just in name. The caste system must not be allowed to influence the working of the country. Proper provisions for sewage workers need to be made and the loopholes present in the laws must be removed. The government should implement the legal provisions in a strict manner that denigrates these workers in the name of caste and communities. People who support the practice of untouchability must be strictly punished. [20]

Awareness among the workers about their rights is essential to safeguard them from this menace. The children of the manual scavengers must be assisted by the government so that they could be educated and their health remains in good condition so that the vicious cycle of manual scavenging could be stopped.[21] Adequate medical facilities, nutrition, and other things for basic needs must be arranged for them so that they could live in a better manner.[22] Alternative jobs should be arranged for them so that they do not continue manual scavenging due to fear of unemployment. Thus, support of the government, community and the legal system is essential to uphold the rights of these workers.[23]

[1] Rajeev Kumar Singh, Manual Scavenging as Social Exclusion: A Case Study, 44 ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY, 521-523 (2009), https://www.jstor.org/stable/40279798.

[2] SM Aamir Ali, Manual scavenging: Intersection of caste and labour, 5 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF LAW, 29-33 (2019), https://ssrn.com/abstract=3667457.

[3] Human Rights Watch, “Cleaning Human Waste” (2014).

[4] SM Aamir Ali, supra note 2.

[5] Rajeev Kumar Singh, supra note 1.

[6] Id.

[7] INDIA CONST. art. 14 and 17.

[8] Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, No. 46, Acts of Parliament, 1993 (India).

[9] Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, No. 25, Acts of Parliament, 2013 (India).

[10] Samuel Sathyaseelan, Neglect of Sewage Workers: Concerns about the New Act, 48 ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY, 33-37 (2013), https://www.jstor.org/stable/24478372.

[11] Id.

[12] Rajneesh Kumar Gautam, Islamuddin, et.al., Manual Scavenging in India- A Review, 2 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF DEVELOPMENT RESEARCH, 129-131 (2017), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335228176.

[13] Rajeev Kumar Singh, supra note 1.

[14] Avatthi Ramaiah, Health Status of Dalits in India, 50 ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY, 70-74 (2015), https://www.jstor.org/stable/44002776.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Rajeev Kumar Singh, supra note 1.

[18] Avatthi Ramaiah, supra note 14.

[19] Rajeev Kumar Singh, supra note 1.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Avatthi Ramaiah, supra note 14.

[23] Rajeev Kumar Singh, supra note 1.

Image: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/coimbatore/neck-deep-in-filth-manual-scavengers-look-for-a-saviour/articleshow/67663593.cms