Social Protection of Manual Scavengers
By Arya Raje and Urvashi Suraj
01/ Manual Scavenging and its Social Legacy in India
Manual scavenging has a deeply entrenched history in India, existing at the crossroads of caste-based discrimination and economic deprivation. Described by the Supreme Court as a practice which is ‘squarely rooted in the concept of the caste system and untouchability’,1 it is the hazardous practice of manually cleaning, handling, and disposing of human excrement, animal waste, and other unsanitary substances from sewers, septic tanks, drains, or ‘dry toilets’.2
Individuals, known as manual scavengers, undertake the cleaning of waste using rudimentary tools such as brooms, buckets, or baskets, usually without access to the necessary protective gear. Their work may involve descending into dark and hazardous environments, and the absence of modern equipment and protective clothing makes them highly vulnerable to health risks, including exposure to toxic gases and pathogens.
The nature of manual scavenging reinforces deep-seated social hierarchies in India. The practice perpetuates a cycle of discrimination, as manual scavengers face not only physical hazards, but also experience social stigmatisation and exclusion from mainstream society. Caste-based occupational groups like manual scavengers are economically, psychologically, and politically marginalised in society.
The emergence of a manual scavenging class has been shaped by a number of socio-economic practices and perceptions and has been normalised through the idea of a ‘duty’, sanctioned by religious-based caste oppression, economic imperatives, a lack of infrastructure, and legal indifference.3 Many manual scavengers are women, also making it a question of gender discrimination.4 Despite manual scavenging having been banned, the practice continues in pockets of the country under different names.5
Efforts have been made by the Indian government and various organisations to eradicate manual scavenging and provide alternative livelihoods for those involved. However, despite legislative measures and awareness campaigns, the practice persists, underscoring the complex challenges of dismantling a deeply ingrained social and economic system. The fight against manual scavenging is a critical aspect of India’s struggle for social justice and equality.
02/ Legal Frameworks
While the practice of manual scavenging has been outlawed by the Government through two Acts, of 1993 and 2013, it continues across the country.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 outlaws the employment of manual scavengers, the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment and cleaning devices, and the construction of insanitary latrines.7
Recognised as a grave violation of human rights, manual scavenging infringes upon several fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India. It represents an unacceptable sanitation practice that poses severe risks to public health and the environment. In light of the nature of this occupation, and the historical contexts of caste, poverty, and coercion, there has been a progression of social and legal responses, ultimately leading to the comprehensive legal prohibition of manual scavenging in all its forms.8
In the landmark 2014 judgement of Safai Karamchari Andolan v Union of India, the Supreme Court established clear guidelines for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and compensation for the families of deceased workers. However, despite the existence of these laws and guidelines, manual scavenging still persists.
The Act does not designate an authority to oversee the rehabilitation process, leading to a failure in rehabilitating manual scavengers, a problem which is exacerbated by the absence of alternative employment and the social stigma attached to the practice. The lack of appropriate retraining and skill development programs further hinders these workers from transitioning to other forms of employment, leaving them trapped in the cycle of manual scavenging. The Act also aims to prohibit employers from engaging manual scavengers unless they provide protective gear, but does not offer a precise definition of protective gear. Further, the Act’s effectiveness is compromised by the absence of technological investments in appropriate infrastructure9.
03/ The Need to Strengthen Rehabilitation Schemes
Since the ban on the employment of manual scavengers in 1993, India has witnessed a total of 1035 deaths resulting from the hazardous practice of cleaning sewers and septic tanks10. The number of people who died cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the last five years stands at 330; it is likely that these numbers are under-reported11.
The Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) was revised in November 2013 after the enactment of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. It covers:
- Cash assistance of INR 40,000 to one manual scavenger in the family.
- Capital subsidies of up to INR 3.25 lakh to identified manual scavengers and their dependants for undertaking self-employment projects up to INR 10 lakhs (and INR 15 lakh in case of sanitation-related projects).
- Skill Development Trainings for manual scavengers and their dependents, with a stipend of INR 3000 per month during the training period.
In 2022, the government officially approved the National Action for Mechanised Sanitation Ecosystem (NAMASTE)12, which is the scheme to transition to 100% mechanised sewer cleaning Among other aspects, NAMASTE also integrates the scheme for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and provides for the distribution of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits and occupational safety training for individuals engaged in the cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.
The National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) also offers other loan-based and non-loan-based schemes including financial assistance with subsidised interest rates, skill development training, job fairs, awareness programs, and workshops, all aimed at supporting and promoting the rehabilitation of manual scavengers.13
04/ An Inconsistent Uptake of Rehabilitation Schemes
For the year 2022-23, a total budget of INR 70 crore was set aside under the SRMS to cover one-time cash assistance, workshops for the prevention of hazardous cleaning practices, training, and health insurance under Ayushman Bharat, among other initiatives. However, according to the 2022-23 Annual Report of the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment14, only around 7% of the annual budget was utilised as of 31 December 2022 (an actual expenditure of INR 5 crore).
A total of 58,098 eligible manual scavengers15 were identified through 2 surveys conducted by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2013 and 2018. While all 58,09816 of the identified manual scavengers were reportedly provided the one-time cash assistance of INR 40,000, only around 22,000 manual scavengers have availed of the skill development training, and less than 2,500 manual scavengers (or their dependents) have availed loans for self-employment projects.
In addition to limited awareness, the low uptake of self-employment schemes also suggests that the mere establishment of such schemes, while well-intentioned, may not be enough. There is a clear need for focused efforts on entrepreneurship development, training, and ongoing support for this target group. These measures are essential to complement existing schemes, and ensure those seeking rehabilitation through self-employment are able to pursue meaningful and sustainable alternative livelihoods.
The problem of manual scavenger rehabilitation in India is a complex and deeply entrenched issue that requires urgent attention and concerted efforts from all stakeholders. Despite various legislative measures and government initiatives to eradicate this dehumanising practice, significant challenges remain. It requires a shift in societal attitudes towards the dignity and rights of manual scavengers, along with the commitment to provide alternative livelihoods and opportunities for those trapped in this exploitative occupation.
1 Safai Karamchari Andolan and Ors. v. Union of India and Ors.WP no. 583 of 2003
2 Dry toilets are those without the modern flush system
3 Legal Discourses on Manual Scavenging in India Sujith Koonan Indian Anthropologist , July – December 2021, Vol. 51, No. 2, Special Issue on: Landscape of Sanitation in India: Reflections on Swachchhta (July – December 2021) pp 41-56
4 Manual Scavenging Must End, Deepika Tandon and Moushumi Basu, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, No. 17 (APRIL 23, 2016), pp. 4-5 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly
5 Manual Scavenging As Social Exclusion: A Case Study, Rajeevn Kumar Singh, Ziyauddin
Economic and Political Weekly , Jun. 27 – Jul. 10, 2009, Vol. 44, No. 26/27 (Jun. 27 – Jul. 10, 2009), pp. 521-523
6 Manual Scavenging in India: The Banality of an Everyday Crime, Shiva Shankar and Kanthi Swaroop
7 “Insanitary latrine” means a latrine which requires human excreta to be cleaned or otherwise handled manually, either in situ, or in an open drain or pit into which the excreta is discharged or flushed out, before the excreta fully decomposes
8 Legal Discourses on Manual Scavenging in India: From ‘Right’ to a ‘Crime’ Sujith Koonan,Indian Anthropologist , July – December 2021, Vol. 51, No. 2, Special Issue on: Landscape of Sanitation in India: Reflections on Swachhta (July – December 2021), pp. 41-56
11 Although the surveys identified around 58,000 manual scavengers, unofficial sources like the Safai Karmachari Andolan – an organization that advocates for the rights of manual scavengers – cite numbers as high as 770,000
12 The NAMASTE scheme has a budget allocation of ~₹360 crore spanning from 2022-23 to 2025-26
14 Department of Social Justice & Empowerment, Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Annual Report 2022-23, https://socialjustice.gov.in/writereaddata/UploadFile/58421681720758.pdf