The Lingering Plight of Manual Scavenging in India

The Lingering Plight of Manual Scavenging in India


Manual scavenging, the dehumanizing practice of cleaning and handling human waste and waste from unsanitary places, remains a pressing issue in India.

This practice, deeply rooted in the caste system, poses serious health hazards, perpetuates social exclusion, and results in fatalities. Despite government efforts, it continues to persist. In this blog, we'll discuss the challenges, and government initiatives, and propose a way forward to end this inhumane practice.

Manual scavenging, as defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO), encompasses tasks like cleaning human excreta from dry latrines, public areas, and maintaining septic tanks and sewers. This practice is most prevalent in India, where individuals from lower castes, primarily Scheduled Castes (SC), are often forced into this occupation, marking them as 'untouchables.'

The Prevalence of Manual Scavenging

According to the 2011 Census of India, over 740,000 households are still engaged in manual scavenging. This practice is predominantly associated with lower castes, such as Dalits, who are forced into manual scavenging. Between 2016 and 2019, 482 manual scavengers lost their lives while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.Health problems, including skin diseases and respiratory issues, are common among manual scavengers. From 2019 to 2022, 233 individuals died in accidents while cleaning sewers and septic tanks, with Haryana, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu recording the highest numbers of fatalities.

As of 2018, approximately 58,098 individuals were engaged in manual scavenging in India. Since 1993, 941 people have tragically lost their lives due to accidents while cleaning hazardous sewer and septic tanks. These figures highlight the gravity of the issue and the urgent need for change.

Reasons for prevalence of Manual scavenging:

  • Social Deprivation: Manual scavengers, often born into this occupation, have endured generations of social stigma and discrimination. Despite the existence of welfare measures and laws intended to uplift them, they remain marginalized, shunned, and despised. This perpetuates the cycle of manual scavenging, as individuals are trapped in this occupation with limited opportunities for escape.
  • Poor Enforcement of Existing Laws: The legislation in place to eradicate manual scavenging is often poorly enforced. The lack of effective implementation allows the practice to continue, with little accountability for those who employ manual scavengers.
  • Exploitation of Unskilled Laborers: Contractors and employers take advantage of unskilled laborers, paying them meager daily wages in comparison to the exorbitant fees charged for cleaning septic tanks, creating a profit-driven incentive for this inhumane practice to persist.
  • Unorganized Groups: Unlike other professions with labor unions, manual scavengers lack a well-organized group or union that can advocate for their rights and lobby for change in the political process. This absence of collective voice weakens their ability to influence policymakers.
  • Lack of Empathy: A glaring issue is the general lack of empathy and understanding regarding the hardships faced by manual scavengers. This lack of empathy contributes to the indifference of society and authorities towards their plight.
  • Inadequate Rehabilitation and Limited Employment Opportunities: A dearth of viable alternatives for employment forces many individuals to continue in this occupation. Due to the caste-based nature of this work, lower-caste individuals are often coerced into manual scavenging. The failure of society and the system to provide effective rehabilitation and inclusion into the mainstream perpetuates this cycle.
  • Continuance of Unsanitary Latrines: The persistence of unsanitary latrines, which require manual cleaning due to the absence of proper infrastructure, further fuels this practice. Many parts of the country still lack flush toilets or running water, leading to the manual cleaning of dry toilets.
  • Human Rights Violations: Manual scavenging is a human rights violation akin to slavery. Despite the recognition of this issue on a global scale, the practice endures due to systemic apathy, economic factors, and social biases.

Impact of manual scavenging:

  • Sewer Deaths in India: Between 2016 and 2019, the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment reported a tragic loss of 282 lives among manual scavengers while cleaning sewers, tunnels, and septic tanks. Despite multiple official attempts to address this issue, the problem persists, highlighting the urgency of finding a lasting solution.
  • Manner of Living: Sanitation workers lead extraordinarily challenging lives, marked by persistent racism and discrimination, affecting not only them but also their families. The caste-based bias they encounter is an unbearable obstacle.
  • Poverty: Sanitation workers are trapped in a cycle of poverty, earning meager wages throughout their lives. According to the Safai Karamchari Aandolan, these workers receive as little as Rs. 180-200 per month per household, far below the government-prescribed rates. They toil for long hours in perilous conditions without adequate protective gear, leading to severe injuries and health problems.
  • Health Issues: The average life expectancy of a sanitation worker is a mere 50 years. Their families also suffer from a range of diseases throughout their lives, primarily due to their exposure to unsanitary conditions and hazardous materials.
  • Social Disparity and bias: Manual scavengers predominantly belong to lower castes and are often labeled as "untouchable" due to their occupation. This discrimination extends to various aspects of their lives. Many employers refuse to hire them, denying them job opportunities, and they face societal disrespect and ostracization. Their children experience discrimination in schools, compounding the cycle of social disparity.

Government and Legal Initiatives to Curb Manual Scavenging: 

  • Supreme Court Directives:  In a significant 2014 ruling, the Supreme Court of India mandated the government to identify individuals who lost their lives in sewage work since 1993 and provide each bereaved family with a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh. This directive aimed to recognize the sacrifices made by sewer workers and offer financial support to their families.
  • Rehabilitation Initiatives:A one-time cash payout of ₹40,000 has been provided to approximately 58,000 identified manual scavengers. Additionally, about 22,000 manual scavengers have been linked to skill training programs. Subsidies and loans are accessible to facilitate the establishment of new businesses, with the ultimate goal of completely eradicating deaths related to manual scavenging.
  • Integration with NAMASTE Scheme: The rehabilitation program for manual scavengers has been amalgamated with the NAMASTE scheme, which is dedicated to achieving 100% mechanization of sewer work. The Union Budget for FY 2023-24 allocates ₹100 crore to the NAMASTE scheme. The NAMASTE scheme mandates the identification and profiling of all septic tank and sewer workers, provides occupational training, and safety equipment, and enrolls them in health insurance through the Ayushman Bharat scheme.

Key constitutional and legal safeguards to manual scavengers:

The Indian Constitution upholds several fundamental rights and protections for manual scavengers, including the following:

  • Article 14 (Equality Before the Law and Equal Protection of the Laws): It Guarantees equal treatment under the law, ensuring that no one is discriminated against based on their occupation or caste.
  • Article 17 (Abolition of Untouchability and Prohibition of its Practice in Any Form):Explicitly bans untouchability, a practice deeply associated with manual scavenging, and forbids any form of its continuation.
  • Article 21 (Protection of Life and Personal Liberty): Protects the life and personal liberty of every individual, emphasizing the state's duty to ensure the dignity and well-being of manual scavengers.
  • Article 23 (Prohibition of Traffic in Human Beings and Forced Labour):Prohibits any form of forced labor, including manual scavenging, and human trafficking, ensuring the rights and dignity of individuals.
  • Legal Provisions: The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, is the primary legislation aimed at eradicating manual scavenging in India. This crucial law includes the following provisions:
  • Prohibition of Employment: The Act unequivocally prohibits the employment or engagement of individuals as manual scavengers, safeguarding them from entering this degrading profession.
  • Latrine Construction: The Act also prohibits the construction and maintenance of insanitary latrines, addressing one of the key sources of manual scavenging.
  • Rehabilitation: It mandates the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and their families, offering them alternative livelihood opportunities, housing, and support to lead dignified lives.

Challenges in Elimination of Manual Scavenging

Various challenges hinder the eradication of manual scavenging and a few of them are mentioned below:

  • Social Stigma: Manual scavenging is associated with certain castes which further leads to social discrimination and stigmatization.
  • Lack of Awareness: People remain unaware of the health hazards associated with manual scavenging.
  • Poor Implementation: Laws prohibiting manual scavenging are poorly enforced in many areas.
  • Inadequate Infrastructure: A lack of proper sanitation facilities forces individuals to continue manual scavenging.
  • Rehabilitation Gaps: Many rehabilitation schemes are poorly implemented, leaving people without alternative livelihood options.

Suggestive Measures

  • Socio-Economic Rehabilitation: Develop comprehensive rehabilitation schemes that address the social and economic aspects of liberated families.
  • Gender Focus: Redesign rehabilitation programs to cater to the 98% of women involved in manual scavenging.
  • Inclusive Appointments: Prioritize the appointment of Dalit women in ICDS centers to break the cycle of oppression.
  • Extend Support: Extend facilities and security to non-scheduled castes, such as Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians engaged in manual scavenging.
  • Railways Reform: Prohibit dry latrines in the Indian Railway and monitor progress through regular parliamentary reports.
  • Priority in policies: Include manual scavengers' families in the priority list for all government schemes.
  • Technology Adoption: Invest in technologies that can replace manual scavenging, as several innovations have shown promise.


The Constitution of India, along with the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, provides vital constitutional and legal safeguards for manual scavengers. These safeguards are instrumental in ensuring the eradication of this inhumane practice and promoting social justice and equality in the country. Alongwith implementation of these legal safeguards,targeted policing and proper implementation is required to get rid of this inhuman and discriminatory practice of manual scavenging.

UPSC Previous Year Question 

  1. ‘Rashtriya Garima Abhiyaan’ is a national campaign to (2016)

(a) rehabilitate the homeless and destitute persons and provide them with suitable sources of livelihood

(b) release the sex workers from their practice and provide them with alternative sources of livelihood

(c) eradicate the practice of manual scavenging and rehabilitate the manual scavengers

(d) release the bonded laborers from their bondage and rehabilitate them

Ans: (c)

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