This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Amrita. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

In India, Manual Scavenging Goes Beyond An ‘Occupation’: It’s A Human Rights Issue

This post is a part of JaatiNahiAdhikaar, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz with National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights & Safai Karamchari Andolan, to demand implementation of scholarships in higher education for SC/ST students, and to end the practice of manual scavenging. Click here to find out more.

Most of you reading this probably do not think about your shit after flushing it. Some people, though, are not so privileged. Indian society and the caste system force them to touch human excreta with bare hands, to dive in clogged sewers without any protection. To deal with hazardous waste- used syringes, toxic biomedical waste, noxious gases, human and animal corpses, without proper compensation, without dignity.

We are talking about Manual scavenging. Yes. Even In 2021.

What Is Manual Scavenging?

From a limited perspective, it is the process of clearing human excrement from toilets, septic tanks, or sewers by hand. Globally also, humans do Sewage diving to clear clogged sewers.

But in India, it is not an occupation but a human rights issue. Why?

Deep-rooted in the caste system, this practice is forced upon Dalit communities specifically. Over 1.3 million people in India are manual scavengers. 99% of those are Dalits. Among them, 95% are women. (International Dalit Solidarity Network) In many countries, due to the risk involved, the pay for sewage divers is disproportionately high. But in India, manual scavengers are coerced and threatened into modern slavery by caste stigmas and lack of opportunities.

There are inadequate safety protocols or equipment. Despite exposure hazards, deadly infections, toxic fumes, there is no health insurance or healthcare facilities. “One person has died every five days while cleaning sewers and septic tanks across the country” [National Commission for Safai Karamcharis]. This number might be a gross underestimation due to a lack of data. Developed countries treat sewage divers as heroes.

In India, they are humiliated, ghettoised, treated as polluting, and prevented from joining the mainstream. “Manual scavenging is the worst surviving symbol of untouchability.” [National Advisory Council resolution] Does it still exist? Why are we talking about this in 2021? Many people find it hard to believe that such a repulsive practice still exists. In November 2019, a report India Brief: The hidden world of sanitation workers in India, was published by WaterAid, a non-profit.

These were the findings. [Box1]
“While media sensitivity and societal attention happen only around the unfortunate episodes of deaths during sewer or septic tank cleaning, these fatalities form only the tip of the iceberg,” the report stated. Media and society tend to see these deaths in isolation and rarely ever try to go in-depth about why such deaths occur, even in present times.

Besides the septic and sewage cleaning in urban areas, there is a total lack of awareness about rural and semi-urban sanitation. These are the places with dry toilets, lack of sewage systems, explicit caste hierarchy – where manual scavenging flourishes brazenly, in its most malignant form.  But because of media apathy, most readers might still be uninformed and living in denial that this social evil persists.


Can’t They Stop Doing It?

These are excerpts from a report by Human Rights Watch – Cleaning Human Waste: “Manual Scavenging,” Caste, and Discrimination in India.

No one would want to carry human waste out of choice. Often in villages, access to resources is denied to stop Dalits, especially women, from leaving this work. This is accompanied by threats of physical violence and social boycott. The criminal justice system, especially at the lower levels, often fails to empathise with them.

The HRW report talks about how Valmiki women of Parigama village failed to file a complaint at the local police station against the dominant castes harassing them for leaving manual scavenging. It took the intervention of NGO Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a visit to the distant district police headquarters, and an appeal to the Superintendent of Police to even initiate an FIR.  Another excerpt here, from the same report, talks about the difficulties faced by the marginalised sections in accessing the criminal justice system.

Despite all these factors, if a person manages to break away from their shackles, they cannot find alternative employment due to a lack of employable skills and stigma attached to their caste. Many have to return to manual scavenging.

“It was also found that some scavengers have tried to challenge their social and economic status by changing their jobs. But finally, they have to return to their original profession because of a social boycott and the lack of support from both private and governmental agencies. The law and order machinery has also proved inefficient. For example, Chinta Devi of Meherpur locality, started her shop with a loan arranged by a local NGO and left this menial job. But later she resumed this humiliating job as she faced a severe boycott even by her own community.” [Case Study in Ghazipur district of UP]

In urban areas, migration and anonymity have in some cases resulted in upward occupational mobility among Dalits, but the majority continue to perform their traditional functions. Manual sanitation in urban centres also rests on the caste system. Most work as sweepers and scavengers in urban centres as well.

What Laws Exist Against This Practice?

  • Before 1993, even State governments had a post called ‘scavenger’ for manually removing human excreta in households and designated places. The local authorities levied scavenging tax on houses for availing this service. 
  • Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was the first step in banning manual scavenging. But it failed due to its limited scope, narrow reach (limited only to a few states), and inadequate punishments. This Act did not have any deterrent effect. Its failure led to much litigation. Finally, the Supreme Court issued directions for rehabilitating manual scavengers in Safai Karamchari Andolan v/s Union of India (2014).
  • Adopting the recommendations of the Safai Karamchari Andolan case, the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was passed. It expanded the definition of ‘manual scavenger’, provided for heavier punishments and protection to the weaker sections of the society. It also increased focus on rehabilitation, with provisions of training and cash assistance.
  • However, the 2013 law did not successfully translate into practice. Dry toilets continued to exist, so did the employment of Dalit persons to clean them. Lack of data hindered rehabilitation and protective gear not used in practice. And most importantly, this law had no provision for undoing historical injustice by providing quality education or guaranteed alternate jobs for children of safai karamcharis.

Yet again, the amendment fails to address the issue of caste. Caste – the reason behind unchanging attitudes towards manual scavengers, despite improvements in technology. 

It also fails to include sanitation workers employed in hazardous jobs like biomedical waste management, garbage collection, rag picking, cremation of dead bodies, and so on, who also mostly happen to be Dalits. During the Covid-19 pandemic, these essential workers were hailed as Corona Warriors but their safety and protection were as usual neglected. They worked without any special training, safety instructions, health check-ups,  or even adequate protective equipment.

What Is The Way Out?

  • Stricter implementation of the law,
  • Proper surveys for data collection and skilling programmes for rehabilitation. 
  • Fixing accountability of officials – district collectors, police officials, municipal officials
  • Strict punishment for digressions.
  • Social security provisions like better healthcare facilities, insurance cover, pension plans for sanitation workers. 
  • Payment of workers should be at par with semi-skilled workers with additional hazard pay depending on the risk involved.
  • Ensure good quality education to children of manual scavengers to enable them to avail alternative livelihood options
  • Immediate compensation for families of those who lose their lives in this work. A proper mechanism for providing legal help in cases of death and legal redressal.
  • The unregularised ‘Contractual employment system’ for allotting sanitation works needs to be reassessed. Along with that formation of trade unions, self-help groups, co-operatives, and pressure groups to educate and empower sanitation workers.
  • Most important is, enlarging the scope of the definition of sanitation workers rather than manual scavengers.
  • Along with mechanisation, focus on changing attitudes. Attack the root cause by acknowledging the role of caste and how it traps people in the practice of manual scavenging. 

What Is Our Role As Individuals?

If scavenging still exists, we all are equally guilty and responsible. Our silence makes us complicit. Every one of us has a moral obligation to curb this problem.

From talking to your families and friends, spreading awareness on social media, to actively volunteering and supporting civil society groups like Safai Karamchari Andolan, Rashtriya Garima AbhiyanARUN (Association for Rural and Urban Needy) and many others, filing RTIs, reporting cases of manual scavenging in your surroundings – a lot can be done as an individual. As said by an ex-rural development minister, “unless we get a sense of shame, anger and take it as an affront to our, not just the involved person’s, dignity, there can be no change in the existing practice.”

Featured image is for representational purposes only.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Jaati Nahi, Adhikaar Writer’s Training Program. Head here to know more about the program and to apply for an upcoming batch!

This post is part of theJaati Nahi, Adhikaar Writers' Training Program, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz with National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights & Safai Karamchari Andolan, to demand implementation of scholarships in higher education for SC/ST students, and to end the practice of manual scavenging. Click here to find out more and apply.

You must be to comment.

More from Amrita

Similar Posts

By Prityush Sharma

By Parveen

By ginju mathew

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below