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Why Do We Still Clean Sewers by Hand In A Country That Sends Rovers To The Moon?

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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.

Manual scavenging, a form of untouchability, still persists in the so-called ‘New India’. This ‘New India’ isn’t devoid of caste-based discrimination as much as we’d like to believe otherwise. The official definition of “manual scavenger” is very broad and specific but in the short term, a manual scavenger is a person who handles and cleans human excreta. This activity is carried out in unsafe conditions at most of the places and many sanitation workers die every year due to contracting deadly diseases.

To address this health issue, the government has announced the inclusion of all MS in the Pradhan Mantri Jan Aushadhi Yojana – Ayushman Bharat. This will facilitate early treatment of acute diseases related to the lungs, heart, brain, etc. Many manual scavengers suffer from severe diarrhoea and the like. This scheme provides a health cover for secondary and tertiary care hospitalization in public as well as private empanelled hospitals. But in a country like ours, which does not have official data of manual scavengers who are compensated for death, can we trust just the big announcements by the government? 

The Human Rights Watch report of 2014 should be an eye-opener for those who consider  “manual scavenging” to simply be a governance-related issue. The report says For people who practise manual scavenging, untouchability and social exclusion are inextricably linked.”

Representational image.

Numbers Show A Sad State Of Affairs

As per the national survey on manual scavengers, over 53,000 manual scavengers were identified till 15th September 2019. The World Bank report of 2018 “What a Waste” approximates 277.1 million tons of solid waste every year. The MS survey (2018-19) identified that there are 2.6 million insanitary latrines all over India. Uttar Pradesh topped the chart with 2.23 lakh insanitary latrines while Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu stood at the second and third place respectively 1.71 lakh and 1.64 lakh insanitary latrines respectively. The number of manual scavengers compared to the amount of waste generation is too less thereby increasing the workload. Unfortunately, women get paid an average Rs.10 to Rs.50 each month by houses having insanitary latrines.

The Ministry of Social Justice and empowerment gave a contradictory statement in Rajya Sabha (2018) that there have been no reports regarding death of persons due to manual scavenging.”

However, as per reports received from states, 288 persons have died while cleaning sewers or septic tanks during the last three years up to August 31, 2020. As per the 2018-19 report of National Safai Karamchari Commission, a total of 814 persons have succumbed to sewer death in the span of 1993 to 2019. Tamil Nadu topped the chart while Gujarat stood second in terms of sewer deaths. 

Manual scavenging is prohibited by the “Prohibition of Employment As Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013”. SC asked the GOI in 2019, “Why are you not providing them masks and oxygen cylinders? In no country in the world, people are sent to gas chambers to die.”

But the inhuman practice still exists in India even as we boast of the “Swachh Bharat Mission “. 


Statewise/UT no of insanitary latrines in urban areas. Downloaded from the ‘MSsurvey’ website by the Ministry of Social Justice.

 Every Dalit Is Not A Manual Scavenger But Every Manual Scavenger Is A Dalit

The Human Rights Watch report of 2014 should be an eye-opener for those who consider  “manual scavenging” to simply be a governance-related issue. The report says For people who practise manual scavenging, untouchability and social exclusion are inextricably linked.”

Manjula Pradeep, executive director of Navsarjan, a Gujarat based nongovernmental organization that has worked for decades around this issue explains, “Manual scavenging is itself a form of caste-based violence and needs to be understood that way. It is degrading, it is imposed upon very vulnerable people, and in order to leave manual scavenging, they have to make themselves even more vulnerable— they risk backlash, they don’t know how they will live.”

Without protection gear, the manuals scavengers are prone to skin diseases, respiratory illness, asthma, diarrhoea, TB and more. The real soldiers of the ‘Swachh Bharat’ mission are the ones who dive inside a manhole to clean the shit of 1.35 crore people. It is rightly said that while every Dalit might not be a manual scavenger, every manual scavenger is a Dalit.

Lack of Implementation

To promote health and social security, the Indian government started various schemes to make health services accessible to the poor and downtrodden.  There are numerous government schemes like Aam Admi Bima Yojana, Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, Employment State Insurance Scheme, etc. which provide insurance for health emergencies. 

The problem with the schemes is the ‘red tape’ and the centre-state financial contribution. The Ayushman Bharat yojana failed to counter the acute Encephalitis when more than 100 children died in Bihar which is a financially poor state unable to afford the 40% share in the PM-JAY scheme.

 NCSK (National Commission for Safai Karamcharis), in its 2018-19 report, highlighted that there is lack of coordination among the sanctioning authorities, the implementing agencies and the recipients of the welfare schemes available for the sanitation workers.”

The Human Rights Watch report quotes a similar issue. The report says that “of those interviewed for the study, 85% reported problems in accessing benefits, including significant time investment, requests for bribes, difficulty producing required documents and completing processing requirements, and widespread manipulation of the process by middle-men or commission agents resulting in confusion and misapprehension among beneficiaries about how much money had been borrowed in their names.” 

If this situation persists, no scheme is going to help out sanitation workers. V. Samuel, the Tamil Nadu convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, asked The WireWould the government agree to pay the compensation if it were raised to Rs 2 crore?”. According to him, the government agrees to pay Rs 10 lakh to escape the responsibility of ending the practice of manual scavenging. The core issues of the ‘safai karamcharis’ do not end by just washing their feet on camera.

India does not lack innovation but implementation and political will.

The one thing that prevents the government to address the issue of manual scavenging is the deep-rooted belief of people in caste itself.

Even if the safai karamcharis get protected gear and automated machines, will the upper caste person be employed for that work willingly? The answer is a BIG NO. On the contrary, Japan and Hong Kong have been successful in finding solutions for sewage management. Infrastructure for sewage flow has been upgraded as well as the protective gear has been innovated so that the sanitation workers can travel in-out safely from the manholes. India needs to have a multi-pronged approach to deal with the issue.

Let’s hope that the government addresses the real issue and works for this inhuman practise of manual scavenging to be completely eliminated from society. Let’s not wait for anyone to die in the sewer and demand compensation. Let us come together and annihilate the “caste” itself.

  • Human Rights Watch Report, 2014: Cleaning Human Waste “Manual Scavenging,” Caste, and Discrimination in India
  • National Survey on Manual Scavengers, 2018-19
  • Rajya Sabha Question -Answers
  • Annual Report of PM-JAY 2019-20
  • National Commission for Safai Karamcharis annual report: 2018-19
  • Safai Karmachari Andolan data.
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