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Manual scavenging: A continued scourge

A Dalit man working as a manual scavenger. Image credit: Dalit Network ( [CC BY-SA 3.0  (], via Wikimedia Commons. Manual scavenging concept.
A Dalit man working as a manual scavenger. Image credit: Dalit Network ( [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.
Politician Jaya Bachchan has expressed India’s failure to deal with the practice of manual scavenging “is a pity” in a recent address, drawing attention to the continued scourge of the practice which – while illegal – continues to cost lives. 

“I cannot understand why we have not yet been able to provide them with protective gears and why we have not done away with manual scavengers,” Bachchan – who represents Uttar Pradesh in the Rajya Sabha – told parliamentarians. “We are talking of progress, we are talking about going to the moon and Mars and everywhere and we cannot provide the protective gears. It’s an embarrassment for the country and for all of us sitting here.”

Manual scavenging has been in the crosshairs of the judicial system recently. The Madras High Court recently called for criminal action against manual scavenging, with a bench of the High Court consisting of Chief Justice Sandib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy said, where they are concerned, corporations and municipalities should be liable for deaths of manual scavengers in the state of Tamil Nadu. “Despite passing orders and filing detailed status reports till December 2019, the practice still prevails and people are dying in pits,” the justices said. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has adjourned a hearing on the matter until August.

The practice of manual scavenging refers to, as explained by UN India, “manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. It often involves using the most basic of tools such as buckets, brooms and baskets. The practice of manual scavenging is linked to India’s caste system where so-called lower castes were expected to perform this job. Manual scavengers are amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in India.” 

Officially, the practice of manual scavenging is illegal. As previously noted by Health Issues India, “manual scavenging has been illegal in India since 1993, but continues to be widespread. This puts workers at a great deal of risk, not least because they often descend into sewers lacking proper protective equipment such as breathing equipment

“Once in the sewers, workers are vulnerable to asphyxiating to death on toxic gases; developing life-threatening infections from open wounds owing to the septic environment; or sustaining fatal injuries because of the hazards. Many cases have also been reported of people losing their lives after falling down open manholes.” 

India’s sanitation infrastructure is lacking. This is despite efforts to address poor sanitation through initiatives such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan which, admittedly, has made gains in fighting open defecation. Nonetheless, a high proportion of waste generated in India is improperly treated. Nonetheless, as we previously reported, “India properly treats just forty percent of its faecal waste. Much of the country’s sanitation waste ends up in sewers, septic tanks, and bucket latrines which sanitation workers are left to clean.”

Copyright: ultrapro / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: ultrapro / 123RF

The Government last year introduced legislation to fortify the law against manual scavenging. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020 awaits Cabinet approval, although its future is in doubt. Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale told Parliament that there is “no such proposal to amend the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.” This is despite the draft law carrying many much-needed reforms, such as mechanising the cleaning of sewers and septic tanks entirely, enhancing protection for sanitation workers and compensation in the instance of fatalities, and upping the ante on penalties.

Poor treatment of manual scavengers is rife – and the crisis is poised to continue. As Shreehari Paliath of IndiaSpend recently reported, “in Karnataka alone, 3,000 manual scavengers have not received proper rehabilitation, including cash assistance or training for alternative employment.” Countrywide, many may be returning to the sewers, the analysis notes, “manual scavengers…lack adequate support in training and suffer delays in entitlement. Data discrepancies deny them a quicker route to an alternative profession.” 

As outlined in the analysis, “the Prohibition Of Employment As Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR Act, 2013) expanded the scope of rehabilitating manual scavengers–over 95 percent of whom are Dalit–and their dependents by providing for cash assistance to a member of the household, voluntary skill development training, capital subsidy and concessional loans, and scholarships for children. It also mandated the formation of central and state-level committees to monitor and coordinate the implementation of the Act.” 

Yet inadequacies in implementation are prevalent: “rehabilitation is riddled with obstacles and hurdles, say former manual scavengers, activists and other stakeholders. For one, multiple data surveys and associated data discrepancy on the number of manual scavengers have complicated the process of identification and rehabilitation. Inadequate handholding support and training to move to alternate livelihoods are compounded by administrative and bureaucratic hurdles, leaving many in precarious financial situations, several former manual scavengers in Kolar district as well as activists working for them told IndiaSpend.” 

A public toilet in Delhi. Image credit: silentgunman / 123rf

Compounding the plight of manual scavengers is a data deficit. The country has yet to operate a national database of manual scavengers, which presents an impediment to those who are undetected who would otherwise be eligible to receive assistance. It can also hinder much-needed reforms. As Pragya Akhilesh reported recently for NewsLaundry, “at present, India has fifty lakh sanitation workers of whom over a third have done manual scavenging at some point. Even after the passage of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, there are still around fifteen lakh manual scavengers in India, of whom over seventy percent are women, according to 2019 data from the Rehabilitation Research Initiative. The argument that the mechanisation of sewage cleaning will be the next step can only sustain if the government knows to whom it must give these machines.” 

Women are underrepresented in the discourse too. As noted above, seventy percent of manual scavengers are women. Yet their voices are seldom heard and they often go without what they are entitled to. Typically belonging to marginalised groups and facing discrimination, they suffer disproprtionately from the errors within the system. 

It is impossible to overstate why manual scavenging is a public health woe. It kills. Between 2016 and 2020, 340 manual scavengers died on the job although undercounting of such deaths is common. As I noted in 2019, “since 1993, the Commission [referring to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis] estimates 813 deaths due to manual scavenging. On the other hand, some estimates put the death toll from manual scavenging at 1,800 in the last decade alone.” 

Manual scavenging may be illegal, but it has not gone anywhere. With many, constrained by India’s caste system and in the absence of adequate, timely support, looking to return to the sewers because they feel they have no other option, the system needs to be rethought. Ensuring a robust, comprehensive dataset, expediting assistance, and addressing the wider socioeconomic issues which fuel this dire trend are much-needed – as well as justice for those killed and their families. 

A harrowing story published in The Citizen recently detailed “a manual scavenger in Mysuru committed suicide because he was being harassed by his bosses for five months and was not even paid his salary. He left behind a suicide note stating that he was forced to enter a manhole to clean it without safety gear or even a pair of gloves. He felt severely humiliated because these bosses made him put his thumb impression on a paper which stated that he had stepped into the manhole without protective gear of his own volition.”

To have to decide between a safe working environment and your income – and then still be denied that income – is horrific. We need reform. And part of that reform must be accountability for those who send people into these sewers and those who are negligent enough to allow it to happen. 

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