Perils of Manual Scavenging


“For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is the battle of reclamation of human personality.”

-Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

A government’s crucial and indispensable responsibility is to formulate and implement welfare policies and budgets that address the needs of the people. There have been various discussions concerning education, sanitation, housing programmes, food and nutrition, and water. On top of this, the idea of social and economic rights for humans offers us a different perspective on the basic human conditions we need to live a life that lives up to the standards of dignity and freedom.

As part of a judgement passed in 1980, the Indian Government extended the ‘Right to Life’ of Article 21 to include the ‘Right to Life with Dignity’ as well as several social and economic rights; these rights were listed as being the essential elements of the Right to Life with Dignity. In consequence, Article 21 of the Constitution of India was enlarged to include all types of constitutional protections.

President Shri Ram Nath Kovind called manual scavenging an unfortunate practice whose eradication is not only the responsibility of the government but also the responsibility of the society. This is due to India’s caste system, which has historically rooted manual scavenging in hierarchy and exclusion. According to the latest government data, out of the 43,797 identified manual scavengers, 42,000 are Dalits or members of Scheduled Castes.

Meaning of Manual Scavenging

The practice of manually carrying human excreta is known as ‘manual scavenging’. Defining manual scavenging as a process of cleaning, disposing of, or handling human excreta from dry latrines or sewers.

The UN India describes this practice as being performed in different ways. Many dangerous diseases are at risk of being transmitted to manual scavenging workers, including cholera, hepatitis, tuberculosis, typhoid, among other illnesses. Water Aid India conducted a study in 2018 in which 1,136 women worked in 36 settlements in four states to clean dry latrines by hand. TERI study demonstrates that, despite all these risks, workers are still paid low wages, ranging from around INR 40 to INR 100 for cleaning around 50 toilets, to as much as INR 500 to INR 1,000 for cleaning four drainage lines and sewers, according to their employer. People of Lower Castes are stigmatized as being ‘dirty’ and ‘untouchable’ as a result of specialised occupations assigned to them based on their caste.

During COVID-19’s second wave in 2021, 25 sanitation workers lost their lives due to the lack of protective gear. However, no improvements were made by any institution to ensure the welfare of these workers. The stigma associated with these people getting infected during the COVID-19 pandemic increased their social exclusion from society. This practice presents several questions regarding the constitutional guarantee of equal protection that are offered to all citizens by the Indian Constitution and the Indian judiciary.

Policies adopted to end this practice

There have been several measures and policies adopted by the Indian government to end this practice since Independence.

The Civil Rights Act, 1955 aims that a person cannot be forced to engage in manual scavenging. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Con­struction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993, and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, were all passed by the Indian Parliament as part of the eradication of manual scavenging. The Supreme Court ruled on March 27, 2014, that the Constitution requires the government to prohibit manual scavenging and to rehabilitate those involved.

However, this practice continues to exist despite the laws and periodic court intervention. Manual scavengers do not appear to have had a significant improvement in their condition.

The affected numbers

B R Ambedkar stated that caste affects not only the division of labour but also the division of labourers. Many Dalits face discrimination when attempting to get a job in sectors that are considered ‘pure’. Dalits have traditionally been assigned the task of manually scavenging or cleaning dry latrines. The practice of manual scavengers was banned by the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers Act, 2013, but it still persists. Government statistics indicate that 97 per cent of manual scavengers are Dalits.

Breakdown of numbers-

42,594 classified under Scheduled Castes

421 classified under Scheduled Tribes

431 classifies under Other Backward Classes

As disturbing as the figures are, they serve as a reminder that we have collectively failed to rise above caste lines and treat all workers with dignity.

A person’s dignity is linked to how one provides for oneself and his or her family financially; a lack of it leads to alienation and stunted growth. It is expected of Dalits to clean dry latrines, carry human excrement, and clean sewage for little to no pay. This leaves them trapped in poverty and a sense of exclusion. Ambedkar noted that “In India, a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not”.


There has been a cultural normalisation of caste-based prejudice to the point where the plight of manual scavengers does not receive the attention it deserves. Government at both Central and State levels are notorious for concealing the problem. Contradictions can be found in government data itself and fudged data has always been attempted. Several media outlets suggest that the Indian Railways, the army, and municipal governments are the main employers still employing workers for manual scavenging. Either they employ contractors to do the work or they misrepresent them as sweepers so as not to be held directly responsible or liable. With all the laws that are in place, panchayats, village council members, as well as municipal corporations have consistently failed to enforce the prohibitions stated in the laws against manual scavenging, which is why the heinous practice continues to exist. We have stopped being concerned about sewer deaths. The rehabilitation of manual scavengers is still far from being complete. The current punishment provisions are both weak and, very few serious legal proceedings have taken place against people and organizations who engage workers for manual scavenging. The gains made to date will be lost if action is not taken immediately.



Aishwarya Says:

I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.


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The copyright of this Article belongs exclusively to Ms. Aishwarya Sandeep. Reproduction of the same, without permission will amount to Copyright Infringement. Appropriate Legal Action under the Indian Laws will be taken.

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In the year 2021, we wrote about 1000 Inspirational Women In India, in the year 2022, we would be featuring 5000 Start Up Stories.

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