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Manual Scavengers: The Untouchables

Article by Shivam Singh Rathore

Student of Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab


Even after untouchability getting abolished, it persists in various shapes and sizes. One such form which is still practiced in Indian society is manual scavenging. This blog discusses manual scavenging, how it came to be, and the social stigmas attached to it, targeting the Dalits and ostracizing them. Moreover, the blog focuses on the activities that perpetuate these malpractices and the significant steps to end the same. This research's primary intent was to touch upon a very delicate topic and highlight the same. Sadly, manual scavenging continues to grow, and not much is done to address it.

Keywords: Untouchability, Manual Scavengers, Indian Society.

We have always been taught to stay clean and maintain hygiene, and in these worst times when Covid-19 is wreaking havoc, it has been made our number one priority. While doing so, we may have practiced untouchability, subconsciously, in one form or other. A typical example of such could be maintaining distance from sanitation workers. However, this could hardly be called 'untouchability' as it is unintentional and a norm in our society. But often, it is found to be practiced in its worst form imaginable. The mind-boggling thing about these evils is their chameleon-like ability to surface from time to time. Despite living in the twenty-first century where people are supposed to be treated with basic human dignity and where men and women are to be treated as equals, many ancient evils like untouchability persist and haunt our society. India and many other countries are no exception to it; despite the efforts of several social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy or Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, these evils come to the surface from time to time in one form or another. These social evils come in many shapes and sizes, from deliberately killing a newborn female child to demanding dowry. Most victims of such malpractices are either women or people belonging to lower caste or a combination of both. While some practices like dowry, prostitution, female infanticide, or even human trafficking are apparent and widespread, some remain silent and work from behind the scenes. One such practice in which India is at the forefront is the ostracizing or the social exclusion of a group of people as manifested in physical contact restriction or, simply put, the practice of untouchability. These ancient evils are like Pandora's box, which once opened, continues to breed more and more inhumane practices. Yes, I am talking about manual scavenging, which was born centuries ago and, to this day, is still practiced.

As we all know, a vast population of India is used to open defecation for many years. However, it was not always like this; Indus Valley Civilization was well-known for its town planning worldwide. At that time, most of the houses had attached toilets, and there were public toilets for those who did not have one. Toilets used to have a wooden seat placed on top of bricks and used water to flush out the waste. But with the end of the Indus Valley Civilization, the practice of defecating in the open began and went on for a very long time. Some historians believe that the Aryans introduced this practice as they were a wandering tribe, so they did not need one. Until the Mughals came to India, nothing had changed. Subsequently, Mughals started building toilets for the women's privacy, but they did not use water for it; instead, people used to clean them manually. So, from there began the practice of manual scavenging, which magnified with time.

As a so-called ‘tradition’, the work of collecting human waste is passed on from generation to generation, and being consistent with centuries-old “feudal and caste-based custom”, the people who are associated with such work as still either female or people belonging to lower caste who were once treated as untouchables (even now but a diluted version of it) also known as ‘Dalits’ of the society. These ‘workers’ still collect human waste consistently and carry it on their heads to dispose of it. In spite of the government trying to end manual scavenging (Supreme Court in one of its judgment calling such activity as inherently dangerous) and even Article 17 of the constitution which abolishes the practice of untouchability and terms it as an offense which is punishable under the law[i], the practice of manual scavenging is still widespread. Studies and surveys have revealed that in almost every work that is considered too low or too menial, people engaged in such work belong to a lower caste (mainly Dalits). Such designation of occupation reinforces the social stigma of them being unclean or “untouchables” and thus gives birth to discrimination. The reasons for the persistence of manual scavenging are many folds, and they go back in time

Dalits and Caste- Caste is one of those chains that India has failed to break. Since time immemorial, caste has regulated the social, economic, and civil life of the people. It has created a system that promotes social alienation of a specific group based on their descent and limits them to specific pre-decided roles. The problem of caste in India is its nature of inheritance. Two individuals, having the same qualifications, are treated differently just because of their descent. According to a study done by ILO, the poverty rate for Dalits in India is around 65.8 percent, twice the rate for the rest of the population, which stands around 33.3 percent.[ii] This apparent discrimination is justified based on them belonging to the bottom of the caste hierarchy, thereby labeling them 'impure' or 'polluted'.

Caste-based Customs- Caste-based customs go way back in time. From the beginning, caste was divided into four varnas, the educated and the intellectuals- Brahmins, the warriors and the protectors- Kshatriyas, the merchants or the administrators- Vaisya, and finally the peasants- Shudras. However, there was one more group of people who were treated as ‘untouchables', they were known as the ‘Bhangi’ which literally translates to ‘Broken’ or ‘Trash’.[iii] The Jajmani system is probably one of the most famous systems followed in the middle ages when it comes to untouchability or manual scavenging. This caste-based discrimination involved two groups; one was the upper caste which comprised the Jajmans the other was the lower caste, comprised of sweepers, barbers, potters, and blacksmiths.[iv] Usually, the women were engaged in manually collecting human feces from these upper households and were paid nominal wages to, at times, no wages at all. In return, these women were allowed to use the land for grazing livestock or were given food and clothes for their work. To assess this situation in the modern world, a survey was conducted in 2013 by Jan Sahas Social Development Society in collaboration with UN Women. Out of 480 female manual scavengers, 70 percent had inherited this practice after their marriage. In contrast, the rest 30 percent were engaged in this practice even before their marriage.[v] These figures show that though the practice has diluted over the years, it lingers on and continues to victimize the same people.


Manual scavenging, being a malpractice in itself, has caused much traction over the years. Naturally, there have been attempts to address the same and act as a precedent for the coming years. Though not many have succeeded in achieving what they aimed for, there have been some noteworthy developments that I would like to mention here.

1. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013- Arguably, one of the significant developments that took place in the last decade in the legal system related to the abolition of manual scavenging was The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. The 2013 act was an up-gradation of the existing 1993 act, The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, and emphasized the sanitation workers' rights, dignity, and rehabilitation. The new act made the employment of any sort related to manually cleaning human excreta or the storm drains illegal and a punishable offense. Apart from defining the term manual scavenger, the new act also defines “agency”, “hazardous cleaning”, and “insanitary latrine”[vi]. Furthermore, the act also emphasizes on constituting a “National Commission for Safai Karmacharis” to speed up the process. The act also prohibits constructing an “insanitary latrine” or employment of a manual scavenger, directing municipalities to convert all dry toilets into flush toilets within the next three years.[vii] Furthermore, it directed the states to train all the manual scavengers for some other profession so that they can be hired to do other jobs. Nevertheless, even after seven years, as per the ministry of social justice and empowerment, there were 54,310 manual scavengers employed in 18 states.

Though the 2013 act was quite promising, it was not perfect in any shape or form. It failed to address critical points, like the mechanization of the work or the proper treatment of faecal waste. Therefore, an amendment was made to the existing act, and The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020 was introduced. Significant amendments added were the Modernization of the existing sewage framework, the inclusion of non-sewage areas, proper treatment of faecal waste, and trained response units in case of an emergency.[viii]

2. Safai Karmachari Andolan-

Whenever the term manual scavenging comes, the name Bezwada Wilson pops up automatically. Bezwada Wilson was born in Karnataka in a family of manual scavengers. He is the founder of the prevalent movement, Safai Karmachari Andolan or SKA, anti-manual scavenging movement. Safai Karmachari Andolan was founded in the year 1993 and continued to fight for manual scavengers' rights and end this dehumanizing practice. The organization aims to collect data of many sorts, like the number of dry latrines and the workers employed to clean these toilets or the deaths that occur due to unsafe conditions.[ix] This movement's reach continues to expand throughout the country with the main aim of rehabilitating sanitation workers, ensuring that their children are educated, ending this malpractice, and making people and government realize the egregious nature of this practice. The movement continues to fight for every human being's rights and equality and confronts the issues that people are afraid to address because of their sensitive nature. Safai Karmachari Andolan has many achievements, and one of them is the filing of PIL in 2003, due to which the Supreme Court made the practice of manual scavenging illegal in its 2014 judgment.


Around 7 to 8 workers die every month due to entering into septic tanks and storm drains as proper precautions are not taken. These deaths may seem like a small number compared to deaths occurring due to other practices, but the main difference is that these are not accidental deaths but systematic murders. Compared with other countries, India’s performance in this aspect is egregious, and workers face the worst working conditions. National Commission for Safai Karamcharis published a report in which 123 workers died in just a few months, all engaged in manual scavenging.[x] Even the Supreme Court called this an inhumane practice and questioned the government that which country sends its people to die in a “gas chamber”.[xi] The question that emerges while looking at this issue is why India has not made any significant progress in mitigating this issue and is there a will to do so? Are there any “models” that India could analyze and learn from it? Let us see how our neighbouring countries and other countries perform in this aspect.


When looking for such practices in our immediate neighbours, we find that situation is not much different, if not worse, from India. Just like in India, manual scavenging is rampant in Pakistan too. The difference in both countries is that while the Dalits are victimized in India, in Pakistan, lower-caste Hindus, who are now Christians, are targeted. Even the government encourages such discrimination. The New York Times reported that the Pakistani military had set paper ads for sewer sweepers with the proviso that only Christians ought to apply. These sanitary workers have to unclog the drain pipes with their hands, and no adequate equipment is provided to them.[xii] Another incident that took place was that a worker while cleaning a septic tank, got ill and fainted, and subsequently died as the doctors refused to treat him due to the work he did.[xiii] When it comes to Bangladesh, even though it is one of the fastest-growing economies, the situation remains the same and is struggling to implement proper management to treat waste. Like India and Pakistan, Bangladesh remains dependant on manual labour for the cleaning of sewers and drains. In the case of death, laws for protection and compensation are present in Bangladesh, but they only cover formal labour and do not include the informal labour that the third parties hire.[xiv] Hence the malpractices and health issues these workers are subjected to goes unnoticed. The minimum the government could do is to provide adequate health gear for the protection of these workers and fair pay for the same.


Now, coming to other countries that are more developed than our previous countries to compare how developed and developing countries stand on this parameter. Countries like the USA, UK, Russia, France have a better sewage infrastructure with several water treatment plants. Manual scavenging is almost negligible at places. If something needs to be done manually, trained professionals are deployed only after ensuring that it is safe to do so. The workers are trained for years, and they have to obtain proper licenses to work at such places. Malaysia is a good example; where sewerage management has evolved, the country focuses more on mechanization of the work so that manual labour can be replaced. The government also subsidized the construction of sewerage plants and pits and launched campaigns to make the public aware of the advantages of keeping their septic tanks clean.[xv] In countries like the USA, caste-based discrimination is almost negligible, if at all, which helps in mitigating the problem. India should also learn from these countries and adopt a holistic development plan for a better sewage infrastructure.


As seen, Manual scavenging or modern-day slavery is yet another form of this evil practice known as untouchability which has been a part of our society. Even when we try to bury it deep in the ground, it comes back to the surface in one form or another. To eradicate such inhumane practices of manual scavenging and untouchability, we are in dire need of viable laws and rehabilitation schemes. However, it is not just the laws that need to be changed and enforced strictly; we also need a change in the people's attitude and how they perceive different people. Various issues need to be addressed, such as the prejudice in people’s minds that these workers belong to an impure class; or the marginalization of such workers just because of the type of work they do. These issues need to be highlighted as even though there are ample laws and statutes that prevent such victimization, these inhumane practices continue to prevail. In the 1980s, the Indian court extended the right to life, enshrined in article 21 of the constitution, with a view in mind that every person should lead a life with basic human dignity and protect the individual from being exploited.[xvi] Every person should be made aware of this right to ensure practices like manual scavenging remain buried, and people are not victimized.

Furthermore, manual workers must be made aware of their rights, and stringent laws should be made to ensure their strict enforcement throughout the country. The government needs to draft policies for the upliftment of these workers and ensure that people engaged as manual scavengers are given help and are rehabilitated so that they do not fall back into such practices. The most important thing that needs to be addressed is complete mechanization in this line of work so that such practice of manually cleaning human waste ends. For the same work in Hong Kong, a worker not only needs to go through two years of extensive training acquiring over 15 licenses but is also given full-body suits with attached oxygen cylinders.[xvii] The real question is, if we can create vast highways of two, four, and even six lanes, then why cannot we mechanize this sort of work? Why are humans still doing this sort of work? It is high time for India to step up and end these malpractices where thousands, if not more, people lose their lives doing something which no one should be doing in the first place.

[i] INDIA CONST. art. 17. [ii] Equality at work: The continuing challenge, International Labor Organization, 43, 2011, [iii] Chirali Sharma, Tracking The History Of Manual Scavenging In India And Its 2017 Existence, ED TIMES (Apr. 15, 2021, 3:10 AM), [iv] Digvijay Singh, Cleaning Human Waste "Manual Scavenging," Caste, and Discrimination in India, HRW 1, 14 (2014.), [v] Id. at 15. [vi] The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, § 2, No. 1, Acts of Parliament, 2013 (India). [vii] Id. at 4. [viii]Mari Marcel Thekaekara, Why the Proposed Manual Scavenging Prohibition Bill Looks Good Only on Paper, THE WIRE, (April 15, 2021, 3:51 AM), [ix] SAFAI KARMACHARI ANDOLAN, (last visited April 15, 2021). [x] Id. at 1 [xi] PTI, Supreme Court on manual scavenging: ‘No country sends its people to gas chambers to die’, THE HINDU, (April 15, 2021, 3:59 AM), [xii] Lalwani Vijayta, How do other countries clean their sewers and is there something India can learn from them?, THE SCROLL, (April 15, 2021, 5:13 AM), [xiii] Id. at 1. [xiv] Id. at 3. [xv] Id. at 4. [xvi] INDIA CONST. art. 21. [xvii] The Scroll, supra note 12, at 1.

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