“In India a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question of whether he does scavenging or not”——B.R. Ambedkar
For some, manual scavenging is the most nauseating thing to do; for others, it’s the only way to make a living.
Starting from the 1980s Indian courts in various judgments expanded the ‘right to life’ guaranteed in Article 21 of the Constitution into a right to life with dignity, and read several social and economic rights as underlying determinants of the right to life with dignity.  Article 21 is not merely confined to animal existence or survival but it includes within its ambit the right to live with human dignity and all those aspects of life which go to make a man’s life meaningful, complete and worth living.
‘Untouchables’ are often impoverished, shunned by society and forbidden from touching Indians of other castes, or even their food. For one brief moment during the COVID-19 rhetoric, sanitation workers were acknowledged as the unsung heroes who work every single day, risking their lives, to keep us all safe. Otherwise, the lives of manual scavengers – the people, the caste (almost exclusively Dalits) who clean our toilets all over India go unnoticed.
Among an estimated 1.2 Million sanitization workers in India, most are dalits or from denotified tribes
- What is Manual Scavenging?
Manual scavenging is a term used mainly in India for “manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or sewer or in a septic tank or a pit”. Manual scavengers usually use hand tools such as buckets, brooms and shovels. The workers have to move the excreta, using brooms and tin plates, into baskets, which they carry to disposal locations sometimes several kilometers away. These sanitation workers, called “manual scavengers”, rarely have any personal protective equipment. The work is regarded as a dehumanizing practice.
- Legislation governing Manual Scavenging in India
Several attempts have been made over the years to eradicate manual scavenging and improve the working conditions of sewage workers. Despite modernization, waste management remains one of the most dangerous and underpaid job in the country.
In 1993, The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed by Parliament. It punishes the construction of dry latrines or employment of scavengers with imprisonment for up to one year and / or a fine of Rs. 2000.
The practice of manual scavenging has accursed Indian society since time immemorial. The efforts to abolish this custom have garnered momentum within the state machinery, advocacy groups and academia the last three decades, particularly since the constitution of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) in 1994.
Later the Act of 1993 was amended in 2013 with The Prohibition of employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013. This Act focused on increasing the punishment for manual scavenging, and on Rehabilitation and Employment of those involved in manual scavenging. The Act has provisions for stringent penalties, for direct or indirect employment of any person in hazardous cleaning of sewers or septic tanks by any person, local authority or agency. For example, even the first instance of its contravention is punishable with imprisonment up to two years or fine up to Rs 2 lakh or both. If a worker dies while performing such work, even with safety gear and other precautions, the employer is required to pay compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the family.
Despite such stringent provisions, hardly any action is visible on the ground — not a single FIR was filed in 2014, according to the 57th Standing Committee of Social Justice and Empowerment, 2017-2018. Two cases under the law were reported from Karnataka in the National Crime Records Bureau report of 2015, where only one went for trial. Karnataka has maintained its lead in its compliance with the law by filing 55 FIRs. This clearly reveals a lack of empathy on part of the state, bureaucracy and even society. The recent data released by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has brought to light the fact that manual scavenging has led to 376 deaths in the last five years. It has also mentioned that the practice led to the death of 110 persons in 2019. The data has highlighted the discrepancies in the prohibition of manual scavenging law. In order to correct them, the government of India has proposed to amend the Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. The government proposal for amendment of the manual scavenging law aims at mandating the use of machines for cleaning sewers and septic tanks. It has stated that the word “manhole” will be replaced with “machine-hole” in all the official government documents. In addition to this, the proposal has stated the need to install a 24×7 national helpline to report violations which will help the government ineffective monitoring and ensuring compliance.
The replacement of the word ‘manhole’ with ‘machine hole’ symbolizes the government’s intolerance towards the practice. While these are strong words, they are merely symbolic in nature. It clears the intent of the government of eliminating the practice. However, they do not do much for enforcement.
- Judicial Intervention
The judiciary has taken a proactive role in addressing this issue. The aforementioned survey in 2018 to estimate the number of manual scavengers in India was conducted at the behest of the judgment passed by the Supreme Court in the matter of Safai Karamchari Andolan and others vs. the Union of India and others.
The Bombay High Court in response to a PIL filed in 2019, sought a response from the Maharashtra Government regarding the number of convictions in cases related to the employment of manual scavengers as well as the disbursement of compensations upon their death, doubting the tendency of underreporting by the government.
The state and society needs to take active interest in the issue and look into all possible options to accurately assess and subsequently eradicate this practice. It also warrants an engagement of all stakeholders for the proper introduction of mechanization and ensuring that it is made available to all those who are forced to engage in this undignified practice.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has made a series of recommendation to the Centre to eradicate manual scavenging, including bringing a new Act on “hazardous cleaning” and taking strict action against local authorities who employ people as manual scavengers.
- Why Manual scavenging is still prevalent in India?
- The current act only bans manual scavenging only for the workers are not provided ‘protective gear’ and other ‘cleaning devices
- It does not define what the ‘protective gear’ is due to which private contractors start taking advantage of this and do not provide any gear.
The Supreme Court of India stated in September 2019 that “In no country people are sent to gas chambers to die”.
- Under Swach Bharat Mission, various toilets have been built up. But, even this has to be cleaned every few years which again is carried by Manual scavengers.
- How to eradicate this problem?
‘One of the Modern India’s great shames is the official failure to eradicate “manual scavenging” , the most degrading surviving practice of untouchablity in the country’—Harsh Mander
Whenever a man is put inside a sewer, some protective gear must be provided such as gloves, masks, and shoes. Human excreta contain harmful gases such as sulphur, methane and which can cause severe damage as well as deaths. It is important to provide alternative professions to manual scavengers. Will anyone take up the challenge to cleanse India, it will prove to be a complex task, but hopefully not an impossible dream.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal.
LL.B 2nd Year
Vivek College of Law, Bijnor, U.P.
 Scourge of Manual scavenging , available at https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/scourge-of-manual-scavenging/article4038824.ece
 Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India, 1978; wider interpretation of Article 21.
 Why manual scavengers in India haven’t got their rights despite laws, judiciary intervention; available at
 How caste oppression is institutionalized in India’s sanitation jobs, available at https://scroll.in/article/984297/how-caste-oppression-is-institutionalised-in-indias-sanitation-jobs
 Meaning of word scavenger according to Cambridge dictionary.
 Safai Karamchari Andolan And Ors vs Union Of India And Ors on 27 March, 2014 , available at https://indiankanoon.org/doc/6155772/#:~:text=(x)%20In%20December%2C%202003,the%20practice%20of%20manual%20scavenging
 NHRC recommends special Act against manual scavenging , available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/nhrc-recommends-special-act-on-manual-scavenging/story-EkbYXNe4vhLw7RzTh01wkI.html
 CSR JOURNAL ; Manual Scavenging – A Law Without Enforcement available at https://thecsrjournal.in/manual-scavenging-a-law-without-enforcement/
 The Hindu : India’s Manual scavenging problem , available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/indias-manual-scavenging-problem/article30834545.ece