Manual Scavenging

(Practice Question: Despite repeated government efforts, manual scavenging persists to be a human rights problem in India. What are the reasons? Suggest remedial measures.  – 250 words).

Why in news recently: The death of five manual scavengers in Delhi on September 10 due to asphyxiation by poisonous gases while cleaning sewers. 

The practice of manually cleaning excrement from private and public dry toilets and open drains persists in several parts of India, consistent with centuries-old feudal and caste-based custom, men and women from communities that traditionally worked as “manual scavengers,” still collect human waste on a daily basis.

Reasons for persistence of Manual Scavenging in India:

  1. Feudal – Caste based system in India: Historically, civil, social, and economic life in India has been regulated by the caste system—a system of social stratification that designates ranked groups defined by descent and confined to particular occupations. Some specific castes have been traditionally limited to livelihoods viewed as deplorable or deemed too menial by higher caste groups—including as manual scavengers.
  2. Social and economic pressures: Persons engaged as manual scavengers face pressure from the community and family to continue this practice because their households have few other options for livelihoods. These are often the poorest and most marginalized communities in India, where even food security is a serious challenge. While persons from manual scavenger communities may work as day laborers, their income is unreliable.
  3. Persistent Discrimination: Those that practice manual scavenging are routinely denied access to communal water sources and public places of worship, prevented from purchasing goods and services, excluded from community religious and cultural events, and subjected to private discrimination from upper-caste community members.

Associated Health Problems:  A 2013 report submitted to the UN by Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan notes that the direct handling of human excreta involved in manual scavenging can have severe health consequences, including constant nausea and headaches, respiratory and skin diseases, anemia, diarrhea, vomiting, jaundice, trachoma, and carbon monoxide poisoning.These conditions are exacerbated by widespread malnutrition and inability to access health services.

Steps taken by the government:

  1. Legislative steps: The Indian constitution abolishes “untouchability.” It also prohibits caste-based discrimination in employment. The specific prohibitions on untouchability are set out in the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The 1993 Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act criminalized employment of manual scavengers to clean dry latrines. On September 6, 2013, Parliament passed The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (2013 Act). The 2013 Act outlaws all forms of manual scavenging, beyond just dry latrines, prescribes penalties for those who perpetuate the practice, protects those who actually engage in it, and obligates India to correct the historical injustice suffered by these communities by providing alternate livelihood and other assistance.
  2. Government Programmes – India has allocated resources to modernize sanitation.National sanitation schemes aimed at modernizing human waste management include the Integrated Development of Small and Medium Towns Scheme (1969), Sulabh Shauchalaya (simple latrines) Scheme (1974), the Integrated Low Cost Sanitation Scheme (1981), the Low Cost Sanitation for Liberation of Manual Scavengers Scheme, 1989, and the Total Sanitation Campaign, 1999, renamed Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign).
  3. Rehabilitation Schemes –  Government policies for rehabilitation of manual scavengers include the National Scheme of Liberation of Scavengers and their Dependents, 1992, and the Scheme for Self Employment for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers. The National Commission for Safai Karmacharis, established in 1994, and the National Safai Karmacharis Finance and Development Corporation, established in 1997, are mandated to monitor implementation of programs to end manual scavenging, and extend financial assistance to facilitate alternate employment for these communities.

Civil Society Initiatives:  In 2002, Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan—a coalition of 30 community-based organizations from 13 Indian states—started a campaign to encourage manual scavengers to voluntarily leave the practice.

In March 2014 the Supreme Court ruled that the practice of manual scavenging was prohibited in India under various international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Other challenges faced by the involved communities:

  1. Exploitation and threats from community employers by means of very less payment etc.
  2. Denial of Access to Land-Based Resources – When people refuse to perform caste-based tasks, dominant caste groups may deny them access to community property and property belonging to upper caste landholders.
  3. Difficulties in Accessing the Criminal Justice System – Due to pervasive discrimination, Dalits require significant assistance in accessing the criminal justice system when they are victims of crime.
  4. Problems with implementation of the policy initiatives by the government.

Remedial steps that need to be taken:


  1. Better implementation of laws and policy initiatives like the The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
  2. Identify all individuals currently engaged in manual scavenging and those who have engaged in the practice since it was outlawed under the 1993 Act and provide them with identity cards.
  3. Establish a transparent, centralized, easy-to-use online database that all eligible individuals can access using their registration numbers to allow them to independently track the status of their applications for all relevant government schemes.


  1. Ensure that rehabilitation entitlements under the 2013 Act—including financial assistance, scholarships, housing, alternative livelihood support, and other important legal and programmatic assistance—are available to manual scavenging communities.
  2. Create a rehabilitation scheme in consultation with communities engaged in manual scavenging and civil society organizations that corresponds with the rehabilitative provisions under the 2013 Act. In particular, this scheme should provide for both immediate and long-term access to sustainable livelihoods.
  3. Ensure that manual scavenging communities can access employment under MGNREGA.
  4. Conduct gender sensitive livelihood training and support programs are gender sensitive because the majority of people who practice manual scavenging are women.
  5. Fairly distribute housing under the Indira Awaas Yojana program to families engaged in manual scavenging and to those who left since the practice was outlawed under The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993.

Use of technology: There are reportedly about 15 innovations developed across the country to replace manual scavenging. According to reports, the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board is using 70 mini jetting machines that can access narrow lanes and smaller colonies to clear the choked sewer pipes. In Thiruvananthapuram, a group of engineers has designed a spider-shaped robot that cleans manholes and sewers with precision.

In conclusion, better co-ordination and co-operation amidst the Central, state, district governments and civil society is required to eradicate the problem of manual scavenging.

Sources: Human Rights Watch and Down to Earth.

Categories: POINT IAS

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