What is manual scavenging?

Manual scavenging is referred to as manual removal and lifting of human excreta, both from private and also communal dry latrines. In India, unlike any other country, this work of scavenging was historically and permanently assigned to one social group, belonging to the lowest tier, so lowly that they were placed out of the hierarchical Hindu caste system. It portrays how deeply embedded is the caste system in our country. The prejudice was so prevalent that if a person from the so-called higher caste was touched by a manual scavenger or a “bhangi”, a cleansing bath had to be taken. It was considered that even the sight of a “bhangi” required purification by looking at the sun, moon, stars, or rinsing the mouth with water.[1]

Social ostracism and ridicule used to be at its zenith, while the dignity of these manual scavengers was given absolutely no importance. The practice was driven by caste, class, and income divides. It is discomforting to highlight that these cleaners, who made life easier for the higher strata of the society were stigmatized to a level that they had to tie a broom behind them to sweep away the imprints of their “polluting” feet.[2] It was important for them to walk around with an identified mark so that the social elite could stay away from them.

Both male and female “bhangis” were a victim of this trap of division and discrimination. Apart from physical isolation and social and moral abuse, they were also in the trap of significant economic disparity, legitimized by the Hindu religion. The majority of women “bhangis” were involved in cleaning household dry latrines and servicing toilets of female social elites. What is all the more disheartening is, amidst the existence of all this discrimination with the entire community of manual scavengers, there were also imprints of gender disparity amongst and within the community of these scavengers.

Gender disparity exists in the community of cleaners just like they do in any other occupation. Women by and large are the ones who manually clean the toilets and heap the feces outside the toilet while the men haul their way either on a tractor, handcart or rickshaw to dump it in fields outside the town[3]. Salaries are higher for men and they have better access to rehabilitation. Male scavengers find it easier to shift professions because they have better access to alternative livelihoods as their physical mobility is not tied to the responsibilities of the household.

As a Health Hazard

These cleaners who were already a victim of social boycott, with the denial of equal opportunity and gender disparity were also uncertain about their health. The entire idea of cleaning human waste without the use of any precaution can be tagged as nothing but deadly. The evil of manual scavenging is directly related to the lack of availability of sanitization facilities. It is a known fact that proper sanitization is one of the basic requirements of mankind. These cleaners helped in providing cleanliness by diving into all the hazards themselves. Manual scavengers are exposed to the most toxic, poisonous, and virulent form of viral and bacterial infections that harm their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems, tuberculosis was the most common threat faced by them[4]. These hazards were slowly becoming the sole reason for the deaths of many who were engaged in this occupation and the condition was screaming for help.

Government intervene, outlawed yet persisting

In the late 1950s, G.S Lakshman Iyer, a freedom fighter banned the practice of manual scavenging when he was the chairman of the Gobichettipalayam Municipality and became the 1st local body to officially ban this practice. The government after witnessing 6 states passing the resolution requested the centre to frame a law. Thus, “The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993” came into existence.

The spirit of Article 17 of the Constitution of India had already been given voice through the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, which outlawed the act of compelling a person to do any scavenging based on his or her untouchability. The 1993 Act made employment of “scavengers” or construction of dry toilets punishable by imprisonment for up to one year and a fine. The enactment also provided for the expedited conversion of dry latrines into water-seal latrines.

The Act, though well-intentioned, has failed in its stated goal of ending manual scavenging, mostly due to the federal structure of the Indian democracy wherein sanitation being a state issue, the implementation of the law rested with the states. In the judgment of the case of Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India[5], the Supreme Court of India recognizes this failure on the part of the states and the unabated continuance of the practice of manual scavenging.

The failure of the 1993 Act, led to the enactment of the prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their rehabilitation act, 2013. This act too fails to give the same rights to those who manually clean drains and septic tanks in urban areas. This is also manual labor and involves the use of hands in cleaning human excreta. Workers have to enter manholes to physically clean drains without any promised precaution. Government bodies have ignored court orders to ban manual scavenging and mechanizing the system of cleaning sewage pipes.[6]

Even after manual scavenging being defined as a hazardous occupation under section 2(d) of the act of 1993[7], they are cleaning the filth without the use of any devices. The changes in apparel are also considered insufficient since the “protective gear” provided is nothing but mere gloves. This has proven majorly as an escape route adopted by the government to just frame a law for the sake of it.

No Act till now has been able to provide proper rehabilitation to these manual scavengers. The deep-rooted cast discrimination persists and the needs and requirements have still not been fulfilled since they are till now in pursuit of witnessing the existence of “right to life and dignity” rather than just knowing its theoretical existence.

Current scenario

Despite stringent provisions in the law, manual scavenging continues unabated in India. The number of people killed while cleaning sewers and septic tanks have increased over the last few years. 2019 saw the highest number of manual scavenging deaths in the past five years, there was a 61% increase as compared to 2018.

In 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act put an end to the practice of any form of manual cleaning, carrying, disposing, or handling of human waste. But according to a national survey conducted in 18 States, a total of 48,345 manual scavengers have been identified till January 31, 2020. As per data collected in  2018, 29,923 people are engaged in manual scavenging in Uttar Pradesh, making it the highest in any State in India.

Despite the introduction of several mechanized systems for sewage cleaning, human intervention in the process still continues. Experts feel such one-time measures are not enough. They say that a more community-centric model should be taken, where the entire community is given more opportunities to help them come out of this practice.[8]

In larger towns and cities the practice of dry latrine scavenging has stopped, partly due to legislation but mostly due to the shift in attitudes and beliefs that toilets are a luxury rather than polluting entities. The caste stigma persists even for those who have moved away completely from scavenging[9].

There are certain laws too that now have been turned in favor of these manual scavengers and the downtrodden masses. The “Bhangis” or “Valmikis” in J&K did not have a permanent resident certificate and were forced to work as sanitation workers. However, with the abrogation of article 370, there is no need for a residency certificate which kept them away from government jobs.


The fact that technology makes life easier will be a myth if it doesn’t prove beneficial at places where it is most required. Living in the 21st century, we have acknowledged this problem of manually cleaning septic drains by coming up with solutions that included a robot named “Bandicoot” which can go down a manhole to clean the sludge; remote-controlled devices that can break down sludge that has turned solid by using a cylindrical hull device which can be lowered into a septic tank; to mitigate the risk of skin diseases and deaths of such cleaners because of inhaling toxic gases present inside these septic manholes, monitoring systems that can send alerts if the gases inside the manhole turn toxic have also been set.

Even though technological advancements are there, there are lakhs who have no clue about the existence of these devices. It is important to spread more awareness about these devices so that the act of manual scavenging can be completely eradicated.

The fight against scavenging will be won when there is a massive change in attitude both amongst the oppressed and the oppressors. The oppressed need to stand up and stop this flow of occupation from one generation to another and the oppressors should understand that dignity is a right irrespective of caste and class. With widened social inclusion and opportunities the stigma should fade and the idea of linking caste and occupation should be bought to a standstill. The government needs to formulate stringent laws and make sure it is being followed. A life of dignity can be ensured only when the occupation is adopted by choice and not pressure offering benefits that enable a safe, secure, and dignified livelihood.

Featured Image Source: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/Skill-training-for-manual-scavengers-begins/article16717715.ece

[1] Deepa Joshi and Suzanne Ferron, “Manual scavenging – a life of dignity?”, 26 Waterlines 24 (2007)

[2] Id at 25

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rajeev Kumar Singh. “Manual Scavenging As Social Exclusion: A Case Study” Economic and Political Weekly, June 27, 2009

[5] (2011) 11 SCC 224

[6] Samuel Sathyaseelan, “Neglect of Sewage Workers: Concerns about the New Act” Economic and Political Weekly, December 7, 2013

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.


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