Manual scavenging

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Woman in manual scavenging

Manual scavenging refers to the removal of human waste/excreta (night soil) from unsanitary, "dry" toilets, “dry toilets”, i.e., toilets without the modern flush system. Manual scavenging involves the removal of human excreta using brooms and tin plates. The excreta are piled into baskets which scavengers carry on their heads to locations sometimes several kilometers from the latrines.[1] Manual scavenging is said to have started in 1214 in Europe when the first public toilets appeared.[2] The water closet was invented by John Harrington in 1596. In 1870, S.S. Helior invented the flush type toilet, and it became common in the Western world.


There is evidence of existence of wet toilets in the civilisations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. These cities had toilets, which were connected to underground drainage system lined with burnt clay bricks.[3] and in later stage manual scavenging became a caste-based occupation and the vast majority of workers involved are women.[4]


In India, the Mughal ruler Jehangir built a public toilet at Alwar, 120 km away from Delhi for 100 families in 1556 AD.[5] Not much documentary evidence exists about its maintenance. Scholars have suggested that the Mughal women with purdah required enclosed toilets that needed to be scavenged.[6] They point out that the bhangis share some of the clan names with Rajputs, and propose that the bhangis are descendants of those captured in wars.There are many legends about the origin of bhangis, who have traditionally served as manual scavengers. One of them, associated with Lal Begi bhangis describes the origin of bhangis from Mehtar Ilias.[7] Municipal records from 1870 show that the British organized municipalities in India which built roads, parks, public toilets etc.[8] The British administrators organized systems for removing the night soil and employed bhangis[9]

On the basis of census data, Risley, the Commissioner for 1901 Census, classified castes into seven main categories according to their social standing and ranked the Jatis in the local hierarchy and varna affiliation of each.The scavenging castes which were known by different names in different States like Bhangi, Balmiki, Chuhra, Mehtar, Mazhabi, Lal Begi, Halalkhor etc. in northern India; Har, Hadi, Hela, Dom and Sanei etc. in eastern India;Mukhiyar, Thoti, Chachati,Pakay, Relli etc. in Southern India ;and Mehtar, Bhangias, Halalkhor, Ghasi, Olgana,Zadmalli, Barvashia, Metariya, Jamphoda and Mela etc. in Western and Central India,also made an effort to get united and have a common name. In 1911 census some of them started returning as Adi Dharmi, Adi Dravida, Adi Karnataka and Adi Andhran .[10]

Current prevalence[edit]

Manual scavenging still survives in parts of India without proper sewage systems. It is thought to be most prevalent in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan.[11] Some municipalities in India still run public dry-toilets.The biggest violator of this law in India is the Indian Railways which has toilets dropping all the excreta from trains on the tracks and they employ scavengers to clean it manually.[12]


In the traditional Hindu caste system, the manual scavengers are considered outcastes (Dalits). Their occupation is considered as ritually polluting by other caste communities.[13]

According to the official statistics, there are about 340,000 people who work as manual scavengers in India.[11] Manual scavenging is done with basic tools like thin boards and either buckets or baskets lined with sacking and carried on the head. Due to the nature of the job, many of the workers have related health problems.[11][14]

The International Dalit Solidarity Network estimates that around 1.3 million Dalits in India, mostly women, are involved in manual scavenging. It links the job to "forced labour or slavery", stating that the Dalits are rarely able to take up another occupation due to caste-based discrimination and debt bondage.[14]

Apart from having to earn their livelihood by manually carrying or cleaning excreta, the workers are also discriminated against by stigmatisation and are forcibly hidden from the public sphere. Newspaper reports have suggested that 99% of those involved in manual scavenging are dalits and among them 95% women. In 1995, according to a Planning Commission study, more than six lakh people were engaged in scavenging. And the practice is not restricted to the private sphere. The Indian Railways, argue activists, employ a large number of people for manually clearing the tracks of sewage and human waste.[15] There are an estimated that 700 million people do not have access to sanitary toilets.[11]

Initiatives to Eradicate Manual Scavenging[edit]

Governmental Initiatives[edit]


Sanitation is a State subject as per entry 6 of the Constitution .Under this, in February 2013 Delhi announced that they are banning manual scavenging, making them the first state in India to do so. District magistrates are responsible for ensuring that there are no manual scavengers working in their district. Within 3 years time municipalities, railways and cantonments must make sufficient sanitary latrines available.[16] The government of the state of Maharashtra has planned to abolish the menace of manual scavenging completely from the state soon.[citation needed]But by using Article 252 of the constitution which empowers Parliament to legislate for two or more States by consent and adoption of such legislation by any other State, the Government of India has enacted various laws .[17] The continuance of such discriminatory practice is violation of ILO’s Convention 111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation)[18]

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 After six states passed resolutions requesting the Central Government to frame a law, The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993,drafted by the Ministry of Urban Development under the Narasimha Rao government,[19] was passed by Parliament in 1993. Over time, the Act was adopted by 23 states and all union territories. Two other states have enacted their own laws, which are similar to the central Act .[20]

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 punishes the employment of scavengers or the construction of dry (non-flush) latrines with imprisonment for up to one year and/or a fine of Rs 2,000.[21] The 1993 law saw no conviction in its 20-year history despite the widespread prevalence of the practice.[22]

National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) A statutory National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) was constituted for the first time in August, 1994, according to provisions under Section 3 of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act, 1993. This Commission continued till February, 2004, when the relevant Act expired. Thereafter, the tenure of the Commission has been extended from time to time, as a non-statutory body, the last such extension being up to 31.3.2016. The Commission functions among other things for the upliftment of safai karamcharis, evaluation of the implementation of measures taken for the welfare of safai karamcharis, making of suitable recommendations to the Central Government in this regard, and to investigate grievances relating to implementation of schemes, laws etc. for the purpose.[23]

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 or M.S. Act 2013

The 1993 law was enacted under the State List and question arose whether Parliament has the jurisdiction to enact the The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012 Bill. It was argued that the objective of the Bill is to protect weaker sections of society, including Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from the practice of manual scavenging, that is, it is primarily about preventing employment in hazardous occupations. In view of this interpretation, Parliament was empowered to legislate on the issue through Entry 23 (employment and unemployment) and Entry 24 (welfare of labour including condition of work) of the Concurrent List.

The 2011 Draft obliges previous employers to extend monthly pension to manual scavengers in recognition of the long years of service rendered to society under adverse conditions; and assist in securing alternative employment for such pensioned elderly manual scavengers who are unwilling to be idle. It further recommends rehabilitation (unconnected with sanitation work) as service providers and cooks for anganwadis and mid-day meal schemes or as railway staff assisting the elderly, the disabled or children.

In addition to training them as caretakers of public parks/gardens, plumbers or electrical repair workers, the 2011 Draft directs the Ministry of Railways to set aside a quota to absorb ex-scavengers as railway catering staff. It also duty binds the Central and State governments to provide proper housing with adequate sanitation, road infrastructure and, most importantly, quality schools up to Class XII for the children of all SC communities from which manual scavengers are drawn. A remarkably detailed rehabilitation plan in the 2011 Draft is motivated by a three-fold realisation: (1) to restore the dignity of life to the entire community of sanitation workers; (2) to secure, through educational opportunities, better vocations for future generations traditionally vulnerable to being recruited as manual scavengers; and (3) to clearly spell out the tasks of every Ministry, PSU, and private sector organisation in order to make them enforceable.[19]

Government has passed the new legislation in September 2013 and issued Government notification for the same. In December,2013 Government has also formulated Rules-2013 called as "The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules 2013" or "M.S. Rules 2013". The details about Act and Rules are available on the website of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, GOI.

Further, the hearing on 27th March, 2014 was held on Manual Scavenging of writ petition number 583 of 2003, and supreme Court has issued final orders and case is disposed of with various directions to the Government.


In India in 1970s, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak introduced his "Sulabh" concept for building and managing public toilets in India, which has introduced hygienic and well-managed public toilet system. Activist Bezwada Wilson founded a group in 1994, Safai Karmachari Andolan, to campaign for the demolition of then newly illegal 'dry latrines' and the abolition of manual scavenging. Despite the efforts of Wilson and other activists, the practice persists two decades later.[24]

In July 2008 "MissionSanitation" was a fashion show held by the United Nations as part of its International Year of Sanitation. On the runway were 36 previous workers, called scavengers, and top models to help bring awareness of the issue of manual scavenging. It is the UN's goal to by the year 2015 reduce the current rate of inadequate access to sanitary services by 50%.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Human rights and manual scavenging" (PDF). Know Your Rights Series. National Human Rights Commission. Retrieved September 16, 2013. 
  2. ^ Dr. Bindeswar Pathak, History of Toilets, International Symposium on Public Toilets, Hong Kong, May 25–27, 1995
  3. ^ "Primary History Indus Valley: Home Life". Retrieved September 16, 2013. 
  5. ^ Bindeshwar Pathak, Toilet History The Vacuum - Issue 18
  6. ^ Road to Freedom: A Sociological Study on the Abolition of Scavenging in India, Bindeshwar Pathak, Motilal Banarsidass Publishe, 1999. p. 38
  7. ^ The Bhangi: A Sweeper Caste, Its Socio-economic Portraits : with Special Reference to Jodhpur City, Shyamlal, Popular Prakashan, 1992 p. 21
  8. ^ Themes in Indian History,Dr. Raghunath Rai, FK Publications, 2010, p. 246
  9. ^ Scavenging, Volume 17, Bombay (India : State), Government Central Press, 1884, p. 676-679
  10. ^ Srivastava, B.N. (1997). Manual Scavenging in India: A Disgrace to the Country. Concept Publishing Company (P) Ltd. p. 178. ISBN 8170226392. 
  11. ^ a b c d e "Manual scavengers become fashion models." BBC. 4 July 2008.
  12. ^ "Manual Scavengers: Indian Railways in denial". OneWorld South Asia. 25 February 2013.
  13. ^ United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, 27th Session, Geneva, 27–31 May 2002.
  14. ^ a b Manual Scavenging. International Dalit Solidarity Network. Retrieved 8 April 2013.
  15. ^ Beginning of the End
  16. ^ "Delhi first state to ban manual scavenging." Hindustan Times. 27 February 2013.
  17. ^ "Washing off this stain will need more". The Hindu. October 5, 2012. Retrieved September 16, 2013. 
  18. ^ "National workshop on decent work for sanitation workers and workers in manual scavenging". Retrieved September 16, 2013. 
  19. ^ a b
  20. ^ "Legislative Brief The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Bill, 2012" (PDF). Retrieved September 16, 2013. 
  21. ^ The Employment Of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, Govt. of India.
  22. ^ "Get serious". The Hindu. September 13, 2013. Retrieved September 16, 2013. 
  23. ^ "Extension in the tenure of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) up to 31st March 2016" (Press release). Press Information Bureau Government of India. 21 February 2013. Retrieved 16 September 2013. 
  24. ^ The 'untouchable' Indians with an unenviable job - Asia - World - The Independent

Additional reading[edit]

  • Maggie Black, Ben Fawcett. (2012). The Last Taboo: Opening the Door on the Global Sanitation Crisis. Routledge. ISBN 1136532919.
  • Bhasha Singh (2014). Unseen: The Truth about India's Manual Scavengers. Penguin India. ISBN 0143420380.
  • B. N. Srivastava (editor). (1997). Manual Scavenging in India: A Disgrace to the Country. Concept Publishing Company. ISBN 8170226392.