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  • 05 April, 2021

  • 15 Min Read

Manual Scavenging in India

Manual Scavenging

Syllabus subtopic: Welfare schemes for vulnerable sections of the population by the Centre and States and the performance of these schemes; mechanisms, laws, institutions and bodies constituted for the protection and betterment of these vulnerable sections.

Prelims and Mains focus: about the problem of manual scavenging in India; reasons and govt’s efforts in curbing it.


  • While civil society started a movement in the 1990s to abolish dry latrines, the focus now is on manhole deaths and provision of safety equipment to sanitation workers.
  • The movement has been demanding the abolition of the dehumanising practice of the manual removal of human excreta and calls for the introduction of mechanisation for handling waste.
  • Various State governments and the previous Central governments have responded to these civil society demands by introducing different laws to stop manual scavenging and provide incentives to build toilets.
  • Still the problem of manual scavenging is persisting in India, even in 2020.

What is Manual Scavenging?

  • Scavenging is the practice of manual cleaning of human excreta from service/ dry latrines.
  • The scavengers crawl into the dry latrines and collect the human excreta with their bare hands, carry it as head-load in a container to dispose it off.
  • Manual scavenging refers to the practice of 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.

Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993

  • In 1993, the then government promulgated an Act prohibiting the construction of unsanitary dry latrines and employing manual scavengers.
  • The Act defined ‘manual scavenger’ as a person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta.
  • The government’s description of dry latrine was a problem, as it defined dry latrine as “latrine other than a water-seal latrine”.
  • Manual scavenging was not just a practice related to dry latrines, but also to insanitary latrines and open defecation.
  • Until the introduction of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993, State governments had a post called ‘scavengers’.
  • A scavenger’s job was to manually remove human excreta in households and designated places.
  • The local authorities levied scavenging tax on houses for availing this service.
  • But after the Act was introduced, State governments themselves became agencies that would enforce prohibition of the construction or usage of dry latrines.

Safai Karamchari Andolan

  • Ten years later, the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a social movement that campaigned against manual scavenging, along with other organisations, filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court.
  • The demand was to direct State governments and Union Territories to strictly enforce the law to stop the practice of manual removal of human excreta.
  • Mounting pressure from civil society, coupled with the intervention of the Supreme Court, forced the Central government to conduct a survey of manual scavengers in 2013.

Survey of manual scavengers:

  • The survey found that dry latrines and manual removal of human excreta still persisted.
  • In the same year, the government introduced the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act,2013.
  • Though the construction of dry latrines has drastically reduced, the number of deaths in manholes, sewers and septic tanks continues to remain high.
  • The present government had plans to amend the 2013 Act to completely mechanise the cleaning of sewers and manholes and build new sewers.
  • But neither the past nor the present amendment addresses the issue of labour safety.
  • Same is the case with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which skirts the issue of labour rights and the stigma attached to sanitation.
  • As a matter of fact, in Tamil Nadu, all political parties have trade unions for government servants, except for sanitation workers.

Concerns of sanitation workers:

  • Bodily wastes are seen as unholy elements that need to be kept away from places of living, cooking, studying, or worshipping.
  • Not only toilets, but even cleaning work is seen as a lowly job in India.
  • Dalit movements have been found wanting in this regard — there have hardly been any organised movements to demand permanent job status for sanitation workers.
  • Most sanitation contracts are given to private contractors or self-help groups, and such staff hardly have ID cards, leave alone the protection of medical insurance policies.
  • Workforce in sanitation departments is recruited via open competition.
  • The local administration usually approaches particular caste members during such hiring.
  • The situation is so dire that while we find volunteers to distribute food and undertake rescue operations during natural calamities, hardly any volunteer offers to do clean-up work or dispose of dead bodies.
  • During the last Chennai floods, sanitation workers from the Nilgiris district were made to travel in garbage trucks to Chennai.
  • This situation has continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In Tamil Nadu, sanitation workers are asked to work in newly formed COVID-19 wards. For example, the Gudalur municipality in the State issued an order to six of its staff members to work in COVID-19 wards.
  • Similarly, in Kotagiri town panchayat, officials asked the sons of sanitation workers to work in COVID-19 wards.

Question of dignity

  • Unlike other labour forces, sanitation workers do not have a separate rule-book that lays down guidelines for their work timings, holidays, a proper place for roll call, removal from duty, etc.
  • For example, in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu, all the sanitation workers have to stand outside the office during the morning and afternoon roll calls.
    • If they reach early, they are seen sitting on roadside pavements.
    • Even though there are spaces within the office premises, the officers force them to stand outside. The officials claim that the practice is traditional and that for any change, new rules need to be formed.
  • There are no vehicles for sanitation workers to travel to their designated workspaces, and they have to either walk for kilometres or use garbage vehicles .
  • This is a forced choice and is connected to the dignity of a worker.
  • To put this in contrast, no supervisor would stand and travel with the sanitation workers.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013

This Act intends to, inter alia, achieve its objectives to:-

  • Eliminate the insanitary latrines.
  • Prohibit:-
  1. Employment as Manual Scavenger
  2. Hazardous manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks.
  • Survey of Manual Scavengers and their rehabilitation, within a time bound manner.

Main features of the Act are:-

  • Definitions of manual scavengers and insanitary latrines widened to cover not only dry latrines but other insanitary latrines as well.
  • Prohibition of person from engagement or employment for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank.
  • Offences under the Act are cognizable and non-bailable and attract stringent penalties.
  • Vigilance/Monitoring Committee at sub-Division, District, State and Central Govt. levels.
  • National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) would, inter alia, monitor implementation of the Act and enquire into complaints regarding contravention of the provisions of the Act.
  • Provision of construction of adequate number of sanitary community latrines in urban areas, within three years from the date of commencement of this Act to eliminate the practice of open defecation.
  • Survey of Manual Scavengers in Urban and rural areas: which should be conducted with a time bound framework
  • Comprehensive Rehabilitation of the Manual Scavengers within a time bound framework.

National Commission for Safai Karmacharis

  • The NCSK was established in the year 1993 as per the provisions of the NCSK Act 1993 initially for the period upto 1997.

Role of NCSK:

  • Recommend to the Government regarding specific programmes for welfare of Safai Karamcharis, study and evaluate the existing welfare programmes for Safai Karamcharis, investigate cases of specific grievances etc.
  • Also as per the provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, the NCSK has been assigned the work to monitor the implementation of the Act, tender advice for its effective implementation to the Centre and State Governments and enquire into complaints regarding contravention/non-implementation of the provisions of the Act.

Death Status report of the states

  • During a meeting of the Central Monitoring Committee (Chaired by Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment) under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, which is meant to review the implementation of the law, on January 8, States that were found lagging behind in the rehabilitation of manual scavengers were asked to comply soon.
  • Tamil Nadu, which had the highest number of such deaths, had paid compensation in all but seven of the 234 cases. Gujarat was yet to pay or confirm payment in 48 of the 162 sewer deaths recorded in the State, and in 31 of those cases, the legal heir could not be traced, the data showed.
  • One- time cash assistance had been disbursed in 35,397 cases, with Uttar Pradesh accounting for 19,385 such people.
  • Capital subsidy and skill development training had been provided to 1,007 and 7,383 of the identified manual scavengers, respectively, the data showed.
  • According to the NCSK, a total of 53,598 people, of which 29,923 were in Uttar Pradesh alone, had been identified as engaged in manual scavenging after surveys in 2013 and 2018.
  • As per the provisions of the Act, District Vigilance Committees had been constituted in 21 States/Union Territories, State Monitoring Committees in 26, and State Commissions for Safai Karamcharis in eight.

Source: PIB

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