Manual scavenging

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Manual scavenging is a term used mainly in India for "manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit".[1] Manual scavengers usually use hand tools such as buckets, brooms and shovels. The work is being regarded as a caste-based, dehumanizing practice. The workers have to move the excreta, using brooms and tin plates, into baskets, which they carry to disposal locations sometimes several kilometers away.[2] These sanitation workers, called "manual scavengers", rarely have any personal protective equipment.

The employment of manual scavengers to empty a certain type of dry toilet that requires manual daily emptying was prohibited in India in 1993. The law was extended and clarified to include insanitary latrines, ditches and pits in 2013.[3]

In 2014, manual scavenging was most prevalent in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan.[3]

The occupation of sanitation work is intrinsically integrated with caste in India: It is mainly the Dalits in India who work as sanitation wokers - as manual scavengers, cleaners of drains, as garbage collectors and sweepers of roads.[4]:4 It was estimated in 2019 that between 40 to 60 per cent of the 6 million households of Dalit sub-castes are engaged in sanitation work.[4]:5 The most common Dalit caste performing sanitation work is the Valmiki (also Balmiki) caste.[4]:3


Manual scavenging refers to the unsafe and manual removal of raw (fresh and untreated) human excreta from buckets or other containers that are used as toilets or from the pits of simple pit latrines. The safe and controlled emptying of pit latrines, on the other hand, is one component of fecal sludge management.

The official definition of a manual scavenger in Indian law from 1993 is as follows:[1]

“Manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or 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 Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.

Not all forms of dry toilets involve "manual scavenging" to empty them, but only those that require unsafe handling of raw excreta. If on the other hand the excreta is already treated or pre-treated in the dry toilet itself, as is the case for composting toilets and urine-diverting dry toilets for example, then emptying these types of toilets is not classified as "manual scavenging". Container-based sanitation is another system that does not require manual scavenging to function even though it does involve the emptying of excreta from containers.

Also, emptying the pits of twin-pit pour-flush toilets is not classified as manual scavenging in India, as the excreta is already partly treated and degraded in those pits.

The International Labour Organization describes three forms of manual scavenging in India:[3]

  • Removal of human excrement from public streets and "dry latrines" (meaning simple pit latrines without a water seal, but not dry toilets in general)
  • Cleaning septic tanks
  • Cleaning gutters and sewers

Manual cleaning of railway lines of excreta dropped from toilets of trains is another form of manual scavenging in India.[5]

The Hindi phrase safai karamcharis includes "manual scavengers" but also other sanitation workers.[6]

Current prevalence[edit]

According to Socio Economic Caste Census 2011, 180,657 households are engaged in manual scavenging for a livelihood.[7] The 2011 Census of India found 794,000 cases of manual scavenging across India.[8] The state of Maharashtra, with 63,713, tops the list with the largest number of households working as manual scavengers, followed by the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Karnataka.[9] Manual scavenging still survives in parts of India without proper sewage systems or safe fecal sludge management practices.[10] It is thought to be most prevalent in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan.[3]

An estimate in 2018 put the number of "sanitation workers" in India at 5 million, and 50% of them being women.[11] However not all sanitation workers would be manual scavengers. Another estimate from 2018 put the figure at one million manual scavengers, stating that the number is "unknown and declining" and 90% of them are women.[12]:4

The biggest violator of this law in India is the Indian Railways where many train carriages have toilets dropping the excreta from trains on the tracks and who employ scavengers to clean the tracks manually.[5] The situation is being improved in 2018 by the addition of on-train treatment systems for the toilet waste.[citation needed]

Manual scavenging is traditionally a role determined by the caste system in India for members of the Dalit caste, usually from the Balmiki (or Valminki) or Hela subcaste.[3]

In March 2014, the Supreme Court of India declared that there were 96 lakh (9.6 million) dry latrines being manually emptied but the exact number of manual scavengers is disputed – official figures put it at less than 700,000.[13]

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 hazardous nature of the job, many of the workers have related health problems.[3]

Initiatives for eradication[edit]


In the late 1950s, freedom fighter G. S.Lakshman Iyer banned manual scavenging when he was the chairman of Gobichettipalayam Municipality, which became the first local body to ban it officially.[14][15] Sanitation is a State subject as per entry 6 of the Constitution. Under this, in February 2013 Delhi announced that they were 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 three years of the ruling municipalities, railways and cantonments were required to 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 United Nations human rights chief welcomed in 2013 the movement in India to eradicate manual scavenging.[19]

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

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,[20] was passed by Parliament in 1993.

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.[1] No convictions were obtained under the law during the 20 years it was in force.[21]

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

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 of the Act and Rules are published on the website of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, GOI.

Further, the hearing on 27 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.

The broad objectives of the act are to eliminate unsanitary latrines, prohibit the employment of manual scavengers and the hazardous manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks, and to maintain a survey of manual scavengers and their rehabilitation.[22]


In India in 1970s, Bindeshwar Pathak introduced his "Sulabh" concept for building and managing public toilets in India, which has introduced hygienic and well-managed public toilet systems. Activist Bezwada Wilson founded a group in 1994, Safai Karmachari Andolan, to campaign for the demolition of then newly illegal 'dry latrines' (pit latrines) and the abolition of manual scavenging. Despite the efforts of Wilson and other activists, the practice persists two decades later.[23] 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.

The Movement for Scavenger Community (MSC) is an NGO founded in 2009 by Vimal Kumar with young people, social activists, and like-minded people from the scavenger community. MSC is committed to working towards the social and economic empowerment of the scavenger community through the medium of education.[24]

The "Campaign for Dignity" (Garima Abhiyan) in Madhya Pradesh in India has assisted more than 20,000 women to stop doing manual scavenging as an occupation.[25]


There is evidence of the existence of toilets with a water seal in the civilisations of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. These cities had toilets which were connected to an underground drainage system lined with burnt clay bricks.[26]

The practice of manual scavenging in India dates back to ancient times. According to the contents of sacred scriptures and other literature, scavenging by some specific castes of India has existed since the beginning of civilization.[27]

One of the fifteen duties of slaves enumerated in Naradiya Samhita was of manual scavenging. This continues during the Buddhist and Mauraya period also.[28] Jahangir built a public toilet at Alwar, 120 km away from Delhi, for 100 families in 1556 AD.[29] 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.[30] It is pointed out that the bhangis (Chuhra) 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.[31]

Municipal records from 1870 show that the British organized municipalities in India which built roads, parks, public toilets etc.[32] The British administrators organized systems for removing the fecal sludge and employed bhangis.[33]

Other countries[edit]

Manual emptying of toilets also took place in Europe. Historically the excreta was known as night soil and in Tudor England the workers were called gong farmers.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c The Employment Of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, Govt. of India.
  2. ^ "Human rights and manual scavenging" (PDF). Know Your Rights Series. National Human Rights Commission. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Cleaning Human Waste: "manual scavenging", Caste and Discrimination in India" (PDF). Human Rights Watch. 2014. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  4. ^ a b c PRIA (2019): Lived Realities of Women Sanitation Workers in India: Insights from a Participatory Research Conducted in Three Cities of India. Participatory Research in Asia, New Delhi, India
  5. ^ a b "Manual Scavengers: Indian Railways in denial". OneWorld South Asia. 25 February 2013.
  6. ^ Walters, Vicky (2 January 2019). "Parenting from the 'Polluted' Margins: Stigma, Education and Social (Im)Mobility for the Children of India's Out-Casted Sanitation Workers". South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 42 (1): 51–68. doi:10.1080/00856401.2019.1556377. ISSN 0085-6401.
  7. ^ "Swachh Bharat Abhiyan should aim to stamp out manual scavenging". Hindustan Times. 12 July 2015.
  8. ^ Umesh IsalkarUmesh Isalkar, TNN (30 April 2013). "Census raises stink over manual scavenging". The Times of India. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  9. ^ Venkat, Vidya (9 July 2015). "Manual scavenging still a reality". The Hindu. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  10. ^ "India's manual scavengers Clean-up - How to abolish a dirty, low-status job". The Economist. 10 July 2008. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  11. ^ "Sanitation Worker Project Animation (video)". Dalberg Global Development Advisors. 3 September 2018. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  12. ^ Ray, I., Prasad, CS S. (2018). Where there are no Sewers - Photoessays on Sanitation Work in Urban India. Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) secretariat at GIZ, Eschborn, Germany
  13. ^ "Safai Karamchari Andolan And Ors vs Union Of India And Ors". Supreme Court of India. 2014. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  14. ^ Kannadasan, Akila (25 January 2012). "Remembering a great man". Features - Cinema. The Hindu. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  15. ^ "Crusader against caste oppression and untouchability". The Hindu. 5 February 2007. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  16. ^ "Delhi first state to ban manual scavenging." Hindustan Times. 27 February 2013.
  17. ^ Bhasin, Agrima (5 October 2012). "Washing off this stain will need more". Chennai, India: The Hindu. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  18. ^ "National workshop on decent work for sanitation workers and workers in manual scavenging". 31 October 2012. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  19. ^ "UN News Global perspective, Human stories". 31 January 2013. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  20. ^ Bhasin, Agrima (3 October 2012). "Washing off this stain will need more". The Hindu. Chennai, India.
  21. ^ "Get serious". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 13 September 2013. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  22. ^ "Legislature on Eradication of Manual Scavenging". Press Information Bureau. 26 July 2014. Retrieved 26 July 2014.
  23. ^ "The 'untouchable' Indians with an unenviable job". The Independent. London. 15 October 2010.
  24. ^ "Learn More". Movement for Scavenger Community – MSC. Retrieved 18 September 2018.
  25. ^ "Ashif Shaikh". Retrieved 16 October 2019.
  26. ^ "Primary History Indus Valley: Home Life". Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  27. ^ Road to Freedom: A Sociological Study on the Abolition of Scavenging in India, Bindeshwar Pathak, Motilal Banarsidass Publisher, 1999. p. 37
  28. ^ Road to Freedom: A Sociological Study on the Abolition of Scavenging in India, Bindeshwar Pathak, Motilal Banarsidass Publisher, 1999. p. 38
  29. ^ Bindeshwar Pathak, Toilet History The Vacuum - Issue 18
  30. ^ Road to Freedom: A Sociological Study on the Abolition of Scavenging in India, Bindeshwar Pathak, Motilal Banarsidass Publishe, 1999. p. 38
  31. ^ The Bhangi: A Sweeper Caste, Its Socio-economic Portraits : with Special Reference to Jodhpur City, Shyamlal, Popular Prakashan, 1992 p. 21
  32. ^ Themes in Indian History, Dr. Raghunath Rai, FK Publications, 2010, p. 246
  33. ^ Scavenging, Volume 17, Bombay (India : State), Government Central Press, 1884, p. 676-679