Human right violation: No end to Manual Scavenging in India?

This article dives into the reality of manual scavenging, its implications and the failure of prevention since the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and other safeguards which ban it furthermore the article provides for simple solutions to fully stopping the occupation from existing however it faces some obstacles and can only be tackled head-on with the dedication of eradicating this inhumane practice. The solutions to ending manual scavenging are provided with suggestions which are simple and can be implemented therefore there are no excuses for this occupation to exist.

HumanManual Scavenging in India

Manual scavenging has been banned for more than 20 years with the passing of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, nevertheless every year, a huge amount of manual scavengers die by health-related reasons such as suffocation by the poisonous gases! The employment of manual scavenging to empty a particular category of the dry toilet that involves manual daily emptying was banned in India and this law was further clarified and extended in 2013.

Manual scavenging is not just a national constitutional violation, it is a human rights violation too. Even though the Constitution of India, is in conformity with the international code of human rights, abolishes untouchability (Article 17) and caste-based discrimination (Article 15) moreover under the Constitution of India human dignity is an unchangeable right which is part of the fundamental right to life! Therefore the Courts in India and the constitution has held human dignity to be the most significant, fundamental, inalienable of all rights. Human dignity is a universally recognised right by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and also protected by the National Human Rights Commission therefore human dignity contains equal treatment and respect of citizens.

Despite the strict provisions in the law, manual scavenging remains undiminished in India. These are human beings are made to enter drain and sewers that are filthy and unhygienic furthermore they work without any appropriate protection equipment and safety tools which cause major health concerns. Due to manually cleaning these septic tanks, sewers and drains it makes it unbearable to eat and most of the time the individuals suffer from serious health problems ranging from continuous nausea, headaches, breathing and skin ailments, vomiting and the most known carbon monoxide poisoning. On top of that, these conditions are intensified by prevalent malnutrition and inability to access health services in the country. Deaths due to manual scavenging happen every year despite the bills passed in India, and there has been press attention on the scavengers’ unsafe and disgusting working conditions in the National Capital however it still exists.

An interesting documentary which shows the ground realities of manual scavenging is “The Cost of Cleanliness – Documentary on Deaths of Manual Scavengers in India” and it was released in 2018 which shows that even though manual scavenging is banned by law it still persist very much in India.

Understanding Manual scavenging:

To understand the magnitude of this job we have to understand what manual scavengers do. Manual scavenging is the known practise in which human beings clean human excreta from public streets and dry latrines, cleaning septic tanks, gutters and sewers manually and most of the time without protection. Usually, the removal of human excrement is by tools such as buckets, shovels, and brooms. If you search manual scavenging on google the images you will find will truly disgust you of the inhumane practice that has still not been stopped in our Country.

Life in India has been historically, socially, and economically been dominated by the caste system which is the structure of social stratification that labels hierarchical groups defined by ancestry and restricted to specific occupations. A person’s caste is a marker which has long had a momentous influence on one’s ability and impact in important matters such as the control of land, occupation and other fruitful resources depend heavily on caste, therefore, creating wide similarity between caste and class. The caste-based social organization is ruled by tradition which is practiced and is imposed not only socially but economically. This occupation is identified to be practiced from centuries back by those who are typically from the lower caste such as the Dalits and women of lower caste from these groups that traditionally worked as “manual scavengers” and to date still work and collect human waste every day, load the excreta into baskets or racks, and will carry it away on their own heads or by hand for disposal at the peripheries of the settlement. These communities by society are considered fit for only the utmost “polluting” labor as their role is to physically dispose of human excrement and other unsanitary everyday jobs. Dalits have by tradition limited livelihoods and are given jobs that are disgraceful by the higher caste groups furthermore their caste label also reduces them socially “polluted” or “untouchable” and to date is used to validate discriminatory practices. Just because of the caste given occupation the whole social stigma that they are unclean or “untouchable” is reinforced and thus the discrimination continues. The Women from these classes are typically made to clean dry toilets while both men and women clean excrement from open defecation sites and drains whereas men are given tasks which are more physically challenging work such as cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

As an effect, in parts of India, Dalit communities are still not allowed to basic necessities such as access to community water sources as they might “pollute” them, If they are ever served tea or water it is in separate cups and in most they are still shunned from community gatherings and functions. Even though India’s constitution and the other laws guarantee equal status for all inhabitants and bans untouchability practices, countless forms of discrimination continue. Political and rights movements have cracked some caste barriers, however, caste continues to be used to defend discriminatory, harsh, and inhuman treatment wreaked upon masses of Indians especially living in areas of rural India where caste-designation still commands inflexible roles and powers.

The harsh reality is that in spite of the many constitutional safeguards and laws, manual scavengers continue being the victims of discrimination. The Indian Government has passed laws and approved of policies made to end caste discrimination, but it has failed in the implementation process. Some failures include promises to renovate sanitation so there is no more need for manual disposal of filth, bans on employing anyone to do this work and since these policies are not appropriately executed, public remain unaware of their right to refuse this inhumane role of disposing of excrement manually, and those who do refuse may face powerful social burden, including threats, intense discrimination and removal from their village and in many cases with the local government officials are also involved.

For manual scavenging to come to an end in India there need to be revisions to the existing law, strict implementation, and a change in mindset are required. Some key points to remove manual scavenging from our society are listed below:

  • Generating awareness and training the locals: Awareness campaigns are a good way to spread knowledge on the communities rights and also a way to teach the mass on health issues, hygiene practices, and sanitation practices. Through the campaign, the government officials need to inform the people on the legal consequences that are connected to engaging in scavenging and having dry toilets so that everyone knows that it is banned by law and the community should be aware of the penalties they will face once they are arrested and if they partake in employing manual scavengers. On top of that, the manual worker should be made aware of their rights and the laws that protect them from exploitation by their employers or community. In addition to the awareness campaigns to stop the repeated cycle of children following the parent’s footsteps educating the children whose families are involved in scavenging practice faces a lot of social stigmatization that may get in the way of their education. Therefore since the scavenging work makes little money that is not enough to educate a child there should be the enactment of schemes that would help these children complete their studies so that they can get many different career options.
  • The Detection of all persons present or who have in past engaged in manual scavenging since it was banned under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 so they can be eligible for the aid under the 2013 Act and come under the protection of the government. The detection needs to be accompanied by a guarantee of help from the government for the individuals not to fall back into manual scavenging either due to poverty, unemployment or discrimination.
  • It is as imperative to guarantee the rehabilitation rights under the 2013 Act includes important necessities such as financial support, substitute livelihood support, and other important legal assistance are fully available to manual scavenging communities for them to fully come out of that occupation. The jobs formed with the purpose to offer equal opportunities to the citizens and through these jobs, it may become a way to adjust manual scavengers into the community more smoothly.
  • Strict enforcement of the law: The government needs to take firm steps to guarantee that officials will efficiently interfere to stop communities from being forced to practice manual scavenging which may include the stoppage of when those affected face threats and intimidation for trying to leave manual scavenging by others. However, It is also vital to include holding officials accountable for correctly enforcing applicable laws and firm enforcement of the law against those local government officials who may themselves employ individuals to work as manual scavengers. Governmental institutions are indifferent to act and go to endless lengths in rebutting the existence of manual scavengers however it is vital that people endangering others into such inhuman activities and occupations should be arrested.
  • Attitudes change is highly needed as the disposal of excrement is each person’s responsibility therefore no one should be made to clean another person’s faeces in any form or way.
  • Investing in human waste management: The government should invest in proper human waste management equipment furthermore the solution is not protective gear for them as it should be the total removal of the occupation so that no one has to suffer from doing such miserable and health deteriorating job such as cleaning other people’s excrement.

There have been many efforts not only by the Government, the civil society organizations or the NGO’S to bring an end to this inhumane practice, however, there are some difficulties and conditions that need to be met such as a serious commitment from the government to promise adequate plans and aids in place and to hold officials at all and every level accountable for implementing the laws and policies intended at ending manual scavenging. The government, therefore, needs to totally commit to developing modern sanitation systems alongside the government should also give total support and fund those communities that are seeking to leave manual scavenging which includes intervening when those communities face any discrimination and violence and giving other employment opportunities!


Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan.2018, October 1.The Cost of Cleanliness – Documentary on Deaths of Manual Scavengers in India. Retrieved from

Report by Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, “Justice Denied: Death of workers engaged in manual scavenging while cleaning the Septic tank or Sewer”,

Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, “Violence Against Manual Scavengers: Dalit Women in India,” Report Submitted to UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women during her visit to India between April 22-May 1 2013, (accessed August 3, 2014).

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Mayumi Oseng Apang Nongrum is currently an undergraduate student pursuing anthropology, history and international relations. She is an individual striving for a better tomorrow.