The Plight of Manual Scavengers in India

Manual scavenging is the worst surviving symbol of untouchability.” —National Advisory Council resolution, 2010


The recent incidents of sewer deaths in Delhi indicate that the practice of manual scavenging remains unabated in India despite being banned.

Who is a manual scavenger?

Manual scavenger is a person engaged in or employed for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or handling human excreta.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) distinguishes three forms of manual scavenging:

  • Removal of human excrement from public streets and dry latrines,
  • Cleaning septic tanks,
  • Cleaning gutters and sewers.


Manual Scavengers

  • The Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 identified 1, 80,657 manual scavengers (does not include urban India) with highest number of them in rural Maharashtra

  • The 2011 Census identified the presence of 740,078 households (number does not include the septic tanks, public sewers and railway tracks which are also mostly cleaned by manual scavengers) where waste and excreta is cleared out by manual scavengers. Further, around 21 lakh households dispose of their wastes in dry latrines or drains, which also are cleaned by manual scavengers.
  • In 2013, the government recognised 12,742 manual scavengers in 13 states, with 82% of them in Uttar Pradesh. However, the data has been criticised as gross underestimation of the actual numbers.
  • The Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) estimates the number of manual scavengers to be around 1.2 million

Manual Scavengers Death:

  • According to National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), 123 people engaged in manual scavenging has died while at work since January 2017 (data has been reported only from 13 states and UTs). The number of casualties is high in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Gujarat.
  • According to SKA statistics, there has been nearly 1500 deaths in last 10 years

Issues faced by manual scavengers:

  1. Caste-based discrimination:  Manual scavengers are from the lowest of all caste groups in the Indian caste hierarchy. Their caste-designated occupation reinforces the social stigma that they are unclean or “untouchable” and perpetuates widespread discrimination and social exclusion.
  2. Human Right Violation: Manual scavenging is an extreme human rights violation in all spheres of life- equality, dignity, right against exploitation, health, education and right to have free choice of employment.
  3. Poor Knowledge of existing laws: As the level of education is poor, accurate information on existing laws and safeguards does not exist among the manual scavengers. Further, many workers fail to access rehabilitation schemes due to lack of knowledge about legal documents.
  4. Lack of occupational and safety measures: A common cause of exposure to health hazards and death at work is absence or inadequacy of safety gear (gloves, masks, safety belt, and safety shoes) and proper equipment.
  5. Health issues: Manual scavenging can have severe health consequences, including constant nausea and headaches, respiratory and skin diseases, diarrhoea, vomiting, jaundice, trachoma, and carbon monoxide poisoning due to exposure to human excreta and harmful gases such as H2S and methane.  The health issues are aggravated due to malnutrition and lack of access to healthcare.
  6. Low pay: The work tends to be the lowest paid and at instances no cash payment is paid. Low pay adds to their social stigma. Further, they also suffer from undernutrition and cannot avail of adequate preventive or curative health services.
  7. Status of women: Manual scavenging is also a gender-based occupation with 90 per cent of them being women. According to a Human Rights Watch report, on an average, women get paid as little as between Rs 10 and Rs 50 every month per household and are often forced to continue with the work due to social and economic pressure.

Constitutional Safeguards:

  • Article 14: Equality before law. (Right to Equality)
  • Article 15: Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
  • Article 16: (2): Equality of opportunity in matters of public employment,
  • Article 19: (1) (g): Right to Freedom – to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business
  • Article 21: Protection of life and personal liberty

Government efforts to end Manual Scavenging:

  1. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993:
  • The main objectives of the law were to prohibit employment of manual scavengers, construction or continuance of dry latrine and for the regulation of maintenance of water-seal latrines.
  1. Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013
  • The law intends to eliminate insanitary latrines and prohibit employment as manual scavengers. It also prohibits hazardous manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks.
  • Act made the states responsible for identifying and rehabilitating manual scavengers by providing them training, giving assistance, loans and even houses.
  • It fixed responsibility on each local authority, cantonment board and railway authority to survey unsanitary (dry) latrines within its jurisdiction and to construct sanitary community latrines.
  • Offences under the act are cognizable and non-bailable
SC Directive (Safai Karmacharis Andolan vs. Union of India, 2014):
Supreme Court ordered the abolition of the practice of manual scavenging and asked for the implementation of rehabilitation of such workers. It also acknowledged that the practice of manual scavenging was prohibited in India under various international instruments.
  1. Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS)

The scheme aims to rehabilitate manual scavengers and their dependents in alternative occupations, in a time bound manner.

  1. National Commission for Safai Karmacharis (NCSK): It is a statutory body established under the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act 1993. The main aim of the commission is to promote and safeguard the rights of the Safai Karamcharis.
  2. National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation: It is a non-profit body under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. It aims at all round socio-economic upliftment of the Safai Karamcharis, Scavengers and their dependants throughout India, through various loan and non-loan based schemes.
  3. 6. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan: It has fourfold aim:
  • To eliminate open defecation
  • To eradicate manual scavenging
  • To bring in modern and scientific municipal solid waste management
  • Behavioural change regarding healthy sanitation practices

International Commitments and Efforts:

  1. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): It aims to promote a number of human, civil, economic and social rights.
  2. International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD): The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) recognized caste-based discrimination as a form of racial discrimination. India has ratified ICERD.
  3. India is also a party to other international conventions that reinforce obligations to end manual scavenging, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
  4. International Labour Organization (ILO) focuses on ending manual scavenging by supporting implementation of relevant government policies in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat

Civil Society Initiatives:

  1. Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan: It is a coalition of 30 community-based organizations who campaigned to encourage manual scavengers to voluntarily leave the practice.
  2. Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA): It aims at total eradication of manual scavenging and socio-economic inclusion of manual scavengers.
  3. Sulabh International Social Service Organization: Emphasizes the construction of proper toilets and has pioneered the two-pit, pour-flush compost toilet, known as the Sulabh Shauchalaya that does not require manual cleaning.


  1. Paucity of data: One of the biggest constraints in addressing the issue of manual scavengers is lack of data. Neither the central nor the state governments have a proper database on the number of manual scavengers or to record the increasing number of sanitation workers’ deaths
  2. Issues with the anti Manual Scavenging Act, 2013:
  • Critics are of the opinion that the Act legitimizes manual scavenging by stating that it can be done by using protective gears and other devices.
  • The Act is also silent on the rehabilitation of workers who left manual scavenging before the enactment of the Act
  1. Employment within government sector (Indian railways): Indian railways are the largest employer of manual scavengers. India’s rail coaches have toilets that drop excreta straightaway on the railway track. This waste is then cleaned by the manual scavengers who are employed by contractors.
  2. Poor Implementation of law:

According to SKA, between 1993 and 2013, no convictions were recorded for violation of the Manual Scavenging Act. Further, the 2015 National Crime Records Bureau data states that there has been no deaths caused due to manual scavenging. This shows the apathy of state governments and local authorities towards the practice.

  1. Compensation: Often Basic compensation is not paid to the workers if they are injured during work. In case of death during work, victim’s family does not receive timely and adequate compensation.
  2. Issues with Swachh Bharat Abhiyan:
  • The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has predominantly focussed on building toilets without any strategy about how they are to be cleared. There has been inadequate investment on procuring mechanized sludge and pump machines for physical removal of excreta
  • Further, the campaign does not address a reworking of the underground sewerage system.
  • The campaign has made negligible attempts at critical areas of eradication of manual scavenging and rehabilitation of such workers

SKA Convenor Bezwada Wilson points out, “Swachh Bharat represents toilet users, not toilet cleaners”

  1. Poor rehabilitation: Rehabilitation measures have been inadequate. Further, there is low occupational mobility due to educational and social deficiencies.

Best Practice:


Kerala Water Authority announced in 2018 that a fully equipped robot called “Bandicoot” would soon be used for cleaning the sewers in the state thus helping Kerala become manual scavengers- Free State

Way ahead:

  1. There should proper identification of those engaged/previously engaged in manual scavenging so that the magnitude of the problem can be assessed. Further, there should be a central database to keep track on number of deaths at work to effectively take punitive action against the violators of the law.
  2. The government must ensure alternative livelihood to the manual scavengers, skill-based training should be given to those who give up manual scavenging. Rehabilitation should include financial assistance, scholarships, housing, alternative livelihood support, and legal assistance.
  3. Immediate steps should be taken to ensure that officials effectively intervene to stop communities from being coerced to practice manual scavenging
  4. There should be proper implementation of Anti Manual Scavenging Act, 2013 . Legal actions should be initiated against those who recruit manual scavengers
  5. The need for manual scavenging should be eliminated by investing more on R&D to employ appropriate technological solutions depending on sewage volume, constituents, and geology. Further, the government must fasten the process of identification of insanitary toilets, their demolition and rebuilding.
  6. There is a need to educate and sensitize people about the inhumane practice of manual scavenging and perpetual caste and gender-based discrimination.
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