Context: Even in 2020, the Indian government and our civil society continue to grapple with the inhuman nature of manual scavenging.

The current scenario in India

  • While civil society started a movement in the 1990s to abolish dry latrines, the focus now is on manhole deaths and the provision of safety equipment to sanitation workers. 
  • The movement: 
    • The movement has been demanding the abolition of the dehumanizing practice of the manual removal of human excreta and calls for the introduction of mechanization for handling waste. 
  • The response of the government
    • Various State governments and the Central governments have responded to these civil society demands by introducing different legislations to stop manual scavenging and provide incentives to build toilets.
  • Currently, the Indian government seems to be framing the issue as a spectacle in the form of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and is addressing the problem in terms of an obstacle in the way of tourism promotion.
  • Abysmal situation:
    • During the last Chennai floods, sanitation workers from the Nilgiris district were made to travel in garbage trucks to Chennai. 
    • This situation has continued even during the coronavirus pandemic eg. in Tamil Nadu, sanitation workers are asked to work in newly formed COVID-19 wards. 
    • Mounting pressure from civil society, coupled with the intervention of the Supreme Court, forced the Center to conduct a survey of manual scavengers in 2013. 
    • The survey found that dry latrines and manual removal of human excreta still persisted. 


  • Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993
    • The  Act prohibited the construction of unsanitary dry latrines and employing manual scavengers.
    • The Act had defined ‘manual scavenger’ as a person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta. 
    • However, the government’s description of the dry latrine was a problem, as it defined dry latrine as “latrine other than a water-seal latrine”. 
    • Manual scavenging was not just a practice related to dry latrines, but also to insanitary latrines and open defecation. 
  • Safai Karamchari Andolan
    • The Safai Karamchari Andolan, a social movement that campaigned against manual scavenging, along with other organizations, filed public interest litigation(PIL) in the Supreme Court. 
    • The demand was to direct State governments and Union Territories to strictly enforce the law to stop the practice of manual removal of human excreta. 
  • Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act,2013
    • Though the construction of dry latrines has drastically reduced, the number of deaths in manholes, sewers and septic tanks continues to remain high
    • The Indian government had plans to amend the 2013 Act to completely mechanize the cleaning of sewers and manholes and build new sewers. 
    • However, neither the past nor the present amendment addresses the issue of labor safety
  • Swachh Bharat Abhiyan
    • The same is the case with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which skirts the issue of labor rights and the stigma attached to sanitation. 
    • Also, not only toilets but even cleaning work is seen as a lowly job in India. 
    • Most sanitation contracts are given to private contractors or self-help groups, and such staff hardly have ID cards, leave alone the protection of medical insurance policies.

Way ahead

  • Guidelines related to work
    • Unlike other labor forces, sanitation workers need to have a separate rule-book that lays down guidelines for their work timings, holidays, a proper place for roll call, removal from duty, etc
    • There is a need to provide vehicles for sanitation workers to travel to their designated workspaces.
  • Urgent need to dissociate caste from labor
    • There are hardly any exclusive trade unions for sweepers.
    • And unlike other sections in government or private workforce, their problems are voiced by only those who are not associated with sanitation work often NGOs. 
    • This is mostly because in India, sanitation work is caste-ridden and hence, there is an urgent need to dissociate caste from labor.

Source: TH​​​​​​​

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Q. Even in 2020, the Indian government and our civil society continue to grapple with the inhuman nature of manual scavenging. Discuss