This article is written by Somya Janki from the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology. This is an exhaustive article which deals with the problem of manual scavenging in India with a special emphasis on the effects.


The class is full of din and bustle. The students were asked the previous day to deliver a few words about their father. The little boy was sitting in the corner of the classroom waiting for his turn patiently. When he was called out, he came forward with beads of perspiration running down his head. Unfolding his crumpled paper with his nervous hands he cleared his throat, and spoke out, “My father runs the nation”. A hush fell over the class and everyone was listening to him with rapt attention. He continued, “My father runs the country though he is not a politician. He is neither a doctor yet he fights the diseases, he is neither a policeman yet he removes the filth of the nation. My father runs the country. He does that job which no father of this nation wants to, he carries the waste, segregates it, goes inside manholes, and comes outside after getting sick. Sometimes I feel he will not return.”


Long before, after we regained our independence from the colonial rule, we had a multitude of goals for equality of every citizen in the eyes of law and much celebrated among all was the rights and reservation of Dalits but the situation has never had a drastic change as such to see, more or less not changed Dalits continue to do one of the fifteen duties enumerated in Naradiya Samhita which is the most inhumane practice in the history of mankind known as manual scavenging. But here comes a question: what does manual scavenging mean, and most importantly why is it considered as one of the most inhumane practices prevalent in society. 

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Manual scavenging is a term used mainly to refer to manual cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or handling of human excreta from any dry toilets, pits, or from open areas with the use of hand equipment such as buckets, shovels, etc. for faecal sludge management.

Under, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993 “manual scavenger” refers to any person who is engaged in or employed for manually carrying and dumping human excreta. Further in the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013, the definition has got wider ambit by encompassing details like the person who are employed in the cleaning of the septic tanks, open drains or the railway tracks could also be categorized as manual scavengers.

As laid in the Act, manual scavenger means a person engaged or employed, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, to carry, dispose of or dumping of, or handling in any such waste in an unsanitary toilet or an open pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central or the State Government may notify before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the term “manual scavenging” shall be constructed according to its relevance.

The occupation of this sort of sanitation work is intrinsically linked and related to the caste system in India. The works of disposal of waste or waste management are usually carried out by the lower strata of the society, mainly the Dalits. It was found over in estimated data in 2019 that about 40 to 60 percent of the 6 million households of Dalit sub-castes are engaged in sanitation work or occupations and among them, the most common Dalit caste performing it is usually belong to the Valmiki caste. It was in 1993 that the construction of dry toilets or toilets without flushing systems and the employment of manual scavengers for cleaning them was banned and prohibited in India. 

And another point to be taken into consideration is that the term manual scavenging is quite different from that of the scavenging solely itself, while manual scavenging implies disposal of faecal matter manually from the pits to the dumping grounds while on the other hand scavenging refers to more specifically to recycling of old items and it has quite pertinency with rupees three. The term “manual scavenging” differs from the stand-alone term “scavenging”, being one of the oldest economic activities, which refers to the act of sorting discarded materials by picking them. Scavengers usually collect from the streets, dumpsites, or landfills who also sort out the reusable and recyclable material that can be included in the economy’s production process.

Manual scavenging – an insight

In the late 1950s, freedom fighter, G. S. Lakshman Iyer became the chairman of Municipality of Gobichettipalayam taluk and he banned manual scavenging which was the first step taken towards human scavenging by the local bodies. Sanitation is a subject to the State List by Entry 6 of the Constitution of the State subject. So, under it in February of the year, 2013 Delhi announced banning manual scavenging thereby making them the first Indian state to do so. District magistrates are responsible for ensuring that there are no manual scavengers as such working in their district. Within the three years of the ruling municipalities, railways and cantonments were required to make sufficient sanitary latrines available for proper disposal of waste and to prevent the employment of manual scavengers.

Various affirmative steps have been taken to obliterate the practice of it. Such as the Article 252 of the Indian Constitution gives the powers or reins to the parliament to legislate for two or more than two states after seeking their consent and adopting such sort of legislation by any other State, the Government of India has enacted and formulated various laws. The continuance of such discriminatory practice is in violation of the terms of International Labour Organization’s Convention number 111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation). In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Chief welcomed the movement to wipe out manual scavenging in India.

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

In the year 1993 after six states passed resolutions requesting the Central Government to frame a law, to prohibit manual scavenging altogether and it was then the Ministry of Urban Development under the Narasimha Rao government which drafted and passed the act which we know as “The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993”. As evident from the name itself the act prohibits the employment of manual scavengers or the construction of dry (non-flush) and on the violation of which punishment ranging from imprisonment up to one year or a fine of Rs 2,000 or in certain cases both. But there were no convictions obtained under the law during the 20 years it was in force.

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

In September of 2013, the government passed the new legislation with government notification issued for the same. In December 2013 Government also formulated provisions called “The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules, 2013“. The central objectives of the act are to eliminate unsanitary latrines, prohibit the employment of manual scavengers to dispose of faecal matter and the precarious manual cleaning of sewer and pits or manholes, and maintain a survey of manual scavengers for their rehabilitation.

In 2007, the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers was passed to help in the transition to other occupations.

And further in the year 2020, Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (Amendment) Bill, 2020. The Bill calls for complete mechanization of cleaning sewers and septic tanks and non-involvement of manual labour. There were many activist reforms against manual scavenging such as:

  • In the 1970s, Bindeshwar Pathak introduced the concept of “Sulabh” for building and managing public toilets in India, which introduced hygienic and well-managed public toilet systems and eradicated the practice of manual scavenging.
  • In 1994, Activist Bezwada Wilson formed a group, Safai Karmachari Andolan, to campaign for the demolition of the then newly illegal ‘dry latrines’ (pit latrines) and the abolition and prevention of manual scavenging. But as fate would be, despite the efforts of Wilson and other activists, the practice persisted two decades later.
  • In July 2008 a fashion show was organized by the United Nations called “Mission Sanitation” which was part of its International Year of Sanitation. On the runway, there were 36 previous workers, who were called scavengers, and top-notch models to help bring awareness of the issue of manual scavenging.
  • The Movement for Scavenger Community (MSC) is a non-government organization that was founded in the year 2009 by Vimal Kumar along with young social activists, and like-minded people from the scavenger community. It is committed to working towards the social and economic empowerment of the scavenger community and improvising its education as a medium.
  • The Garima Abhiyan or also Campaign for Dignity was started in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. It has assisted and supported more than 20,000 women to stop manual scavenging as an occupation to uproot it gradually.
  • Pragya Akhilesh is also called the ‘Toilet woman of Delhi’. She is a trade unionist, activist, and theatre director. Since 2010 she has played an active role in highlighting the government’s failure to recognize the labour movement of sanitation workers and the failure to eradicate and rehabilitate manual scavengers in India and transit their occupations.

Why is it termed a shameful practice?

Manual scavenging is one of the worst violations of human rights. Not only it exploits the marginalized section of society but is also a health hazard for them. The toxic and poisonous gases evolved from the decaying of faecal matter can cause skin diseases, respiratory problems, long-term illness, and death too. Due to the practice of manual scavenging, many people lose their lives in dungeons like manholes and dark pits covered in sewage. And the ultimate point being the violation of the dignity of humans.

The need to eliminate manual scavenging

According to an official in a ministry of social justice and empowerment, about 1,013 persons died while working as manual scavengers from 27 years up till 2020. Manual scavenging not only violates the right of dignity but also the right to health which is a universal right and also right to life and liberty. The life of manual scavengers is constantly under threat due to the health hazard it causes. And further, it is also violative of the right to equality by treating untouchables in an undignified manner.


The elimination of manual scavenging is the need of the hour. The state and society need to take an active interest and play a great role to address this issue and look into all plausible ways to accurately assess and subsequently obliterate this practice. It also requires an engagement of all stakeholders for the introduction of complete mechanization and to ensure that it is made available to all those who are forced to involve in this undignified practice. There should also be proper assistance given by the judicial sector too to address the issue lying ahead. If the government gets stringent about the manual scavengers’ issue we will surely eradicate this peril because as our little friend mentioned the country requires the participation of all rather than the story of Omelas being illustrated. And further, we should also put forth our endeavour to make the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan mission a successful implementation not only for the sake of sanitation but also for the marginalized strata of our society. 


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