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. Despite a 2013 law prohibiting employment of manual scavengers, a government survey recently has identified 54,130 people engaged in this job as of July 2019. International Labour Organisation describes three forms of manual scavenging in India: 

  • Removal of human excrement from public streets and dry latrines
  • Cleaning septic tanks
  • Cleaning gutters and sewers

In India, the inhumane task of manual scavenging is exclusively carried out by the Dalit community of specific sub-castes and is an archetype of the oppressive legacy of the hierarchical Hindu varna system.

Facts & Figures

  • The Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 counted over 1.82 lakh families that had at least one member employed in manual scavenging. Rights groups Safai Karamchari Andolan pegs the number of manual scavengers across India at over 7 lakh.
  • Between 2016 and 2018, up to 123 manual scavengers have died on the job, data from the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK).
  • Since January 2019, more than 25 sewer workers have died of asphyxiation across the country, including in densely populated cities.

State Measures/Interventions

  • In 1993, Parliament enacted The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and employment of manual scavengers was declared unlawful.
  • National Commission for Safai Karamcharis was constituted under the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act, 1993, to monitor and recommend specific programs. 
  • In 2004-10, The Planning Commission developed a national action plan for the total eradication of manual scavenging by 2007
  • Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers initiated to provide training, loans, and subsidies for alternate occupations in 2007.
  • In 2013, Parliament passed the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation, Act, 2013
    • The Act recognizes the category of sewer workers and prohibits the employment of manual scavengers, the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment, and the construction of insanitary latrines.
  • In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India that “entering sewer lines without safety gears should be made a crime even in emergency situations,” and ordered for compensation in cases of death of the worker.
  • The Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) was replaced by Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) in 2014. SBA has been conceived with the following objectives: (i) Elimination of Open Defecation. (ii) Eradication of Manual Scavenging. (iii) Modern and Scientific Municipal Solid Waste Management. (iv) To effect behavioral change regarding healthy sanitation practices.
  • State-level efforts: Telangana government in alliance with the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry provided a group of sanitation workers with small sewer jetting machines, and trained them on how to use them.
    • Delhi government announces 100% mechanization of sewage cleaning following the rise in the number of deaths of sewage workers in Delhi. In 2019, the Delhi government flagged off 200 sewer cleaning machines.
  • In 2019, NCSK submitted its report saying 50 deaths in the first 6 months in 2019. The figures only represent 8 states (out of 36 states and UTs) and the actual number in the country may be much higher.
  • Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment announced the Draft National Action Plan Framework ‘to eliminate inhuman practices by 15th August 2022’ and counted sewage cleaning as one such practice. The Ministry revealed that so far the conviction rate in matters related to the death of sewage workers is zero. 

Problems in the Implementation of the Measures/Interventions

  • Prohibition and Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013
    • It bans ‘hazardous cleaning’ of septic tanks and sewer pits, but only if the workers are not provided ‘protective gear’ and ‘other cleaning devices’. 
    • The act also fails to explain what qualifies as "appropriate safety gear"
    • It does not mention health as a component of rehabilitation and provides a meager amount of money to the worker in the name of assistance for alternative occupations, which most manual scavengers remain unaware of. 
    • Nothing in the act mentions provisions related to the death of manual scavengers
  • Rather than following the Supreme Court's (2014) orders of ensuring that manual scavengers are provided with safety gear and that the sanitation infrastructure is restructured, municipalities choose the compensation route as they mostly outsource the unsanitary sanitation work.
  • Toilets that were built under SBM are dependent on water and a lot of parts of India, especially rural India, are not connected by the sewage system. Also, Septic tanks have engineering defects which means that after a point, a machine cannot clean it.
  • Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has remained elusive of the health problems of manual scavengers even though the National Health Policy (2017) calls for action on social determinants of health. 

“In India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question of whether he does scavenging or not.” – Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Reasons for the Prevalence of Manual Scavenging in India

  • Delayed Implementation - Manual scavenging was banned 25 years ago with the passing of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, but it continues to find practitioners. As most of the states adopted the act 1993 Act only after 2005.
  • Insanitary Latrines - According to Safai Karmachari Andolan, the occupation persists mainly because of the continued presence of insanitary latrines. There are about 2.6 million insanitary latrines (dry toilets) that require cleaning by hand.
  • Caste-based notions of stigma and deployment of Dalit workers in these occupations in modern contexts reinforces manual scavenging in India. 
  • The policymakers’ have a fragmented and a target driven approach (counting numbers of toilets, length of sewerage, etc.,) to sanitation. 
  • Privatization of waste management and acute contractualisation of sanitation work has made fixing legal responsibility and identification of the guilty much more difficult. 
  • Gender-based occupation - Manual scavenging is not only a caste-based but also a gender-based occupation with 90 percent of them being women. Households with dry latrines prefer women to clean the excreta instead of men as they are located inside the house.
  • Inadequate Funding - The government, which spends more than Rs 18,000 crore every year on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, allocated only Rs 47 crore for rehabilitating manual scavengers in 2014-2015.

Under the Swachh Bharat Mission, millions of septic tanks are being built in rural India. If the Central, state and local sanitation programs do not take up fecal sludge management as a priority, the onus will shift to the lowest rung of the society to clean millions of dry toilets.

Right to Sanitation vs. Rights of Sanitation Workers
  • While the central government claims to be treading a path of progress by building numerous household and community toilets, and the Mission aims to put an ending open defecation, there is little focus on the treatment of septage and wastewater from these toilets
  • Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana launched in 2015 which provides for building houses in rural India, does not focus on any components of the sanitation value chain. There is no mention of the integration of standard designs for the On-site Sanitation System -OSS (Septic tank, pit, etc.). 
  • These limitations are recognized in the National Policy on Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) and Septage Management: A Practitioner’s Guide, 2017
  • The document acknowledges that the state is focusing more on the building of dry latrines but not on proper construction, operation and maintenance in keeping with the guide’s objective of mapping ‘the journey beyond Open Defecation Free’
  • The gravity of the problem further deepens with the realization that a number of manual scavengers are found in cities that are claimed to be open defecation free. 
  • The Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers was allotted Rs 4600 crore in 2013 (when the law was passed). This was reduced significantly to Rs. 5 crores in 2017.
  • Swachh Bharat, a $9 billion Mission is silent on the condition of manual scavengers (whose numbers increased four-fold, based on data collected from 121 out of 600 districts per reports in 2018) and their lives do not seem to have changed much.

Reasons for Sewer Deaths  

  • Lack of planning and provision for and maintenance of proper sewage/septage 
  • There is a complete absence of planning for maintenance of sewerage, septic tanks, and waste disposal systems in the urban policies made for the city by the state and private companies.
  • There are entire areas and institutions where state laid sewerage lines either do not exist or if they do are completely inadequate and ill-maintained, left to the devices of individuals, with no official monitoring or authorization operating on the ground. 


    • Septic tank and water tank construction and maintenance are entirely unregulated
    • Ad-hocism prevails with official bodies like the DJB subcontracting the work of maintaining sewers and drains to private contractors, without monitoring the quality or conditions of work, rather than making regular provision for this essential work.


  • Lack of safety gear, or provision of any safety equipment, or training


    • In many cases, workers are not provided with any safety equipment or gear such as masks or protective clothing, goggles, etc. 
    • In many instances, those called to do such work are clearly not trained for it, and are either not aware of the dangers of the work or believed that they had no other option. 
    • For example,  Coimbatore deaths were not of trained laborers and they were employed under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA).
What causes the deaths of workers in Sewers/Septic Tanks? According to a study conducted by the Sanitation Workers Project, there are almost 5 million workers in the country employed to perform these tasks. 
  • It is due to over-filling of drainage pipes with waste that causes blockages in the drainage system. 
  • It is usually under these circumstances of blockages that the Municipal corporations or private contractors/households seek sewer/septic tank workers to clean sewage systems. 
The main reason for deaths in the process of sewage cleaning is the depletion of oxygen and the presence of toxic gases, mostly hydrogen sulfide that collects at the bottom of tanks, in pits and in enclosed spaces. It results in death due to asphyxiation. Besides this, repeated handling of human excreta without protection leads to respiratory and skin diseases, anemia, jaundice, trachoma, and carbon monoxide poisoning.


  • Adopting technology to end manual scavenging - It is not going to be possible to eliminate manual scavenging unless we create the right technologies. 
    • Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board is using 70 mini jetting machines that can access narrow lanes and smaller colonies to clear the choked sewer pipes. 
    • In Thiruvananthapuram, a group of engineers has designed a spider-shaped robot that cleans manholes and sewers with precision.
  • Proper awareness and sensitization of the authorities: It is essential that the authorities are sensitized to recognize the intensity of the issue and see the system as dehumanizing and unconstitutional.
  • Sensitising Women through a nationwide march to make them aware of their right to live with dignity and assure them of ‘sustainable freedom’, by providing an alternative livelihood option. 
  • The government should turn its attention away from toilet construction and explore ways to empty pits without human intervention.
  • That the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 and the Supreme Court’s judgment of 2014 should be duly implemented and applied in all cases of sewer/septic tank deaths.
  • Criminal accountability of employers guilty of sending/compelling workers to clean sewers/septic tanks etc., leading to their death or illness, should be established. Trials in all the cases covered in the report and other incidents should be speeded up and justice delivered.
  • The state should take primary and direct responsibility for sewerage, and waste management systems and ensure that provisions are made for the proper (safe and dignified) working conditions for all sanitation workers. 
  • Target driven approach to measuring the success of the sanitation policy should be substituted by a focus on ensuring proper maintenance of sanitation systems.
  • The right to sanitation should not be sought to be provided at the cost of the basic fundamental rights of sanitation workers – it is utterly urgent to factor in the repeated deaths of sewer/septic tank workers into the design of present and future sanitation policies and campaigns of ‘cleaning’ India.
  • The underlying caste-based attitude to sanitation work and workers should be identified and strong action taken against it. 
  • In case a human has to be put inside a sewer, at least protective gear such as gloves, masks, and shoes must be provided. A doctor must be kept at hand, as well as an ambulance in case of an emergency.
  • To eradicate the profession of manual scavenging, it is important to provide these people with alternate professions. The government could start by giving specific training for vocations like plumbing, gardening etc to those involved in manual scavenging.

Providing relief certificate: 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.

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