India’s Greatest Shame Is Its Failure To Eradicate This ‘Profession’ Of Untouchability

WaterAidEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #InDeepShit, by WaterAid India and Youth Ki Awaaz to understand the reality behind the inhumane practise of manual scavenging in India. You can speak up against this form of discrimination and share your views by publishing a story here.

One of modern India’s greatest shames is the administrative and social failure to eradicate ‘manual scavenging’, the most degrading practice of untouchability in the country. Merely because of their birth in particular castes, the practice condemns mostly women and girls, but also men and boys, to clean human excreta in dry latrines with their hands and carry it for disposal in dumps, lakes, or rivers. Many men also clean sewers, septic tanks, open drains into which excreta flows, and railway lines.

Post-independence, various committees were formed to understand the working condition of the manual scavengers and other aspects related to their wages, facilities at working sites and housing etc. The Scavengers’ Living Condition Enquiry Committee 1949 which was chaired by V.N Barve was the first among them. The committee submitted its report and recommended improvement in the working condition and revision in the wages. Backward Class Commission 1953 chaired by Kaka Kalelkar addressed the issue that scavengers were living in sub-human conditions surrounded by filth. The commission suggested providing housing facility and elimination of night soil disposed of as head load and recommended to provide technologically advanced tools.

The Scavenging Condition Inquiry Committee was formed under the chairmanship of N.R Malkani in the year 1957. The committee recommended improvement in working condition by providing the tools and equipment to supposedly improve their working condition, decent housing facility by constructing quarters for scavengers and revision in the wages as per the Minimum Wages Act, employees’ benefit such as working hours, unclean working allowances and leave etc. Yet another report submitted by the committee headed by N.R Malkani which was constituted in 1965 talks about the customary rights of the scavengers. Pandya Committee, in 1969, recommended establishing the law and enforcement mechanism to regulate the working conditions of sweepers and scavengers. It is important to note here that all these committees that were formed focused on the working conditions, housing and tools and equipment provided to them. Though these various committees acknowledged the degrading practising of carrying night soil, it failed to demand complete abolition of these practices.

Prevalence of caste system has forced Dalits in India to perform the caste-based occupation which has lead to discrimination, exclusion, ostracisation and victimisation. Dalits engaged in manual scavenging are compelled to perform the task of cleaning human excreta with bare hand or to clean sewer lines and septic tanks. Lack of political will and inadequate implementation of “The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules 2013” (MS Act 2013) has maintained the status quo of the caste order and continued the plight of the manual scavenging communities.

Workers engaged in this practice are employed by the municipality; contracted by the municipality or contacted by individual and are generally made to clean the septic tank or sewer. This job requires workers to descend down neck deep or to be completely submerged into the putrid. They go in a team of four to five persons depending upon the size, age, depth and width of the tank. There is a standard procedure to carry out this work as mentioned in the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rule 2013.

Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan undertook a study to document the deaths happening in sewer and septic tanks all over India. The study aims to understand the progress on implementation of the MS Act 2013, socio-economic condition of the families after the death of the deceased and the legal course of actions in the incidents in which the first information report (FIR) was registered. The compensation received by the families on account of the death as per the landmark Judgement of the Supreme Court and the rehabilitation to the families as per the MS Act 2013 have also been an area of the study. The survey was carried out in 11 states of India in which the families of deceased from the respective states were interviewed. Total 51 incidents were covered in which 97 deaths were reported.

Findings Of The Study:

Persons mostly from the Valmiki caste are hired by municipalities and households through contractors to clean septic tanks or sewers. Though it has been acknowledged as Manual Scavenging and prohibited under the MS Act 2013, this practice continues to prevail in revenue villages, urban agglomerations, outgrowths, census towns and statutory towns. This illegal and inhuman practice takes the lives of many every year. The primary focus of this study was to understand the progress on implementation of the MS Act 2013, socio-economic condition of the families after the death of the deceased and to analyse the legal course of actions in the incidents in which FIR was registered.

The survey was carried out in 11 states of India in which the families of the deceased from the respective states were interviewed. The survey findings say in only 35% of the incidents the FIR was filed, whereas in 59% of the incidents FIR were not filed and in 6% of incidents, respondents do not know if FIR had been filed. In the FIRs, section 304 and 304 A of IPC was charged 77% cases (10 cases out of 13 cases where FIR was filed and furnished), which is related to death caused due to negligence and for the remaining 3 cases out of 13 cases where the FIR was filed and furnished, sections 174 of IPC (Non-attendance in obedience to an order from public servant) and 284 (Negligent conduct with respect to a poisonous substance) and 7, and 9 of the MS Act 2013 had been charged.

But, not in a single case except in that of Bengaluru, the arrest of the employers or the contractors was made. In cases where the FIR had not been filed, the reasons cited by the family were that of compromises being made, pressure and intimidation faced and at times, they have been threatened that they would lose their current jobs. In the 51 cases interviewed, prosecution did not happen in any of the cases.

On 27th March 2014, Honorable Supreme Court of India, in a landmark judgment, declared that a person being made/forced to enter into a manhole or septic tank would be considered as a crime even in an emergency situation and in case of death of the person, a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh would be awarded to the family of the deceased. The judgment also directed states to undergo a survey to identify incidents of deaths from 1993. This research reports that out of a total of 51 incidents, only in 31% of the cases compensation was awarded to the families of the deceased, whereas in the remaining 69% of the incidents compensation was not awarded.

It is important to note that in many of the cases where relief amount has been given to the families of the deceased by the employers/contractors, it was underlined with the intention to dispose of the cases. Total 48 families out of 95 families in 16 incidents were awarded compensation. Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment also reported 172 deaths in the year 2016 and 323 deaths in the year 2017. During the time this study (January to July 2018) was being undertaken, 46 deaths were reported from states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu.

Every four days, one death has been reported in the last six months. Of the 51 incidents across 11 states that the team investigated, a total number of 70 workers suffered minor to fatal injuries. The survey was also aimed at ascertaining implementation of the self-employment scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) and pre-matric scholarship for the children whose parents are involved in an occupation involving cleaning and health hazard. Not a single family whose members have died while cleaning the septic tank or the sewer received their due rights mentioned in the SRMS scheme. Not a single family was rehabilitated in an alternative job, on the contrary; the deceased families have had to start engaging in manual scavenging as there was no alternate job available for their sustenance. The same goes for the pre-Matric scholarship also. Not a single child of the families involved in this hazardous and demeaning practice has received the scholarship for their children.

As the pre-matric scholarship is demand driven, not a single state has raised their demand for the scholarship in the year 2014-15 to 2018. Same goes for the year 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 except for Gujarat in the year 2015-16 and Maharashtra in the year 2016- 17. The highest death rate of 37% was recorded in the age group of 15-25 followed by 35% and 23% in the age group of 25-35 and 35-45 respectively. 67% of the total deceased were married. Valmiki, Arunthutiyar, Dom, Mehtar, Rukhi, Kumbhar, Matang, Meghwal, Chambar, Rai Sikh and Hela are the communities engaged in cleaning and sanitation-related work in the different states covered by the research. About 94% of the families of the deceased belong to the Scheduled Caste category, 4% to the Other Backward Classes and 2% to the Scheduled Tribe. Out of the 94% Scheduled Castes families of the deceased, 65% of the families’ interviewed belong to the Valmiki caste, a group pushed to engage in sanitation and cleaning related work mostly in the northern parts of the country. 49% of the deceased were found to have studied below the 10th standard whereas another 45% were uneducated.


In order to abolish the practices of manual scavenging, the foremost alternative proposed by various stakeholders was of technological intervention. “Technology Challenge”, where they are inviting application from individual and The Bandicoot Robot, developed by GenRobotics, Kerala, for cleaning manhole and septic tank. Such moves should be promoted and (tested) implemented in the ground instantaneously. Section 6(3)(i) of MS Rule 2013 states that all employees present at the site during cleaning work are given training and adequately familiarised with the knowledge to operate all equipment involved in cleaning work. Training of local bodies or sanitation inspectors about the act, safety procedure, technical know-how of cleaning devices, non-employment of manual scavengers should be imparted effectively. It is essential that the authorities are sensitised to recognise the intensity of the issue and see the system as dehumanising and unconstitutional. In order to achieve the complete eradication of the practices, awareness and sensitisation program for the authorities should be organised.

A relief certificate should be issued to the families of the manual scavengers who died in the incident, based on which all concerned agencies should extend provisions for the safety, security, benefits and subsidies to which they may be eligible. Supreme Court Judgment March 2014 directs states and local authority to identify and award compensation of Rs. 10 lakh to the families of the victims who have died cleaning a septic tank. Moreover, the survey of the families from 1993 should also be initiated for awarding the compensation. MS Act 2013 mentioned only one-time cash assistance, loan, dignified (alternate) livelihood opportunity and training for the same. It also cleanly mentioned residential plot and scholarship for the children. One adult family member of the deceased should be given adequate skill training and an opportunity of employment.

In many of the incidents that we have covered, there are workers who got severely injured while cleaning the sewer or septic tanks. These suffered minor or major injuries while their co-worker/s died in the incidents. The Legislature or Judiciary should cover the injured workers under the purview of MS Act 2013. During the research, it was found that no one from the victim’s family received any scholarship for their children. Therefore, it is recommended to allot the due amount of scholarship and that there is effective implementation of the scheme for the children whose parent/s engaged in occupation involving cleaning and prone to health hazards.

Budget allocation for prevention and the implementation of the Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) has reduced drastically over the years. Adequate budget allocation for the SRMS should be the urgent need of the authority. Stringent action against the employers: We strongly recommend that the Police register FIR along with invoking appropriate sections of the MS Act 2013 and The POA Act 1989. Penalising the implementing the agency: the authorities must be held accountable and responsible for the deaths and must be penalised, as per MS Act 2013 and recent amendment of POA Act in relation to manual scavengers. Although MS Rule 2013 laid down precautionary measures to be undertaken before the work starts, at the time of work and after completion of the work but failed to give due process to be followed for the persecution, FIR, trial, proceedings.

Ashif Shaikh is the Director, Jan Sahas and Member of Central Monitoring Committee, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. The Committee is monitoring the Manual Scavenging Prohibition Law, 2013.

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