The Ancient Web of Manual Scavenging - Daily Current Affair Article


Chastising the Centre's ignorance towards deaths due to manual scavenging and reporting zero deaths in last five years, Safai Karamchari Andolan National convenor Bezwada Wilson gave a count of atleast 472 deaths due to manual cleaning of human excreta.


"Manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers" According to UN INDIA.


  • The Rig Vedic times saw the birth of Varna system or Caste system from the Purush Sukta of Rig Veda. Earlier, it was in relation to occupation but the Later Vedic period shifted to association of castes by birth.
  • The Varna system introduced four categories
  • Brahmanas
  • Kshatriya
  • Vaishyas
  • Shudras
  • The Shudras were treated as the lower- most people, often given the derogatory occupation like cleaning toilets and looked down as untouchables.
  • Ancient texts like Manusmiriti, Mahabharata, Upanishads and Vedas confirms this ideology.
  • Even the Gupta period saw these practices at its level high, though this strata never actually gained dignity.
  • Even the 21st century shows prominence of such behaviour in form of manual scavenging and untouchability practices still ongoing in some parts of the country especially in Southern India.


  • Across much of India, consistent with centuries-old feudal and caste-based custom, the heinous practice of manual scavenging still lingers in the society.
  • Manual scavengers are usually from caste groups defined to the bottom of the caste hierarchy and perform tasks meant as deplorable or deemed too menial by higher caste groups.
  • Their caste-designated occupation reinforces the social stigma that they are unclean or “untouchable” and perpetuates widespread discrimination.
  • Generally the Dalits, and others from SCs and STs are employed for this task.
  • The inhumane manual scavenging practice enslaves an estimated 1.2 million people in India, who belong to the scheduled caste and are placed in the lowest rung of Hindu society- “untouchables among the untouchables”.
  • It was estimated in 2019 that between 40 to 60 percent of the 6 million households of Dalit sub-castes are engaged in manual scavenging.


With cities after cities claiming the title of the 'cleanest cities' in the Swachh Sarvekshan, the disturbing data regarding the manual cleaning of human excreta is shameful and horrifying. The Swachh Bharat mission seems to lack a complete approach to tackle each aspect of sanitation.

  • Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, India claims to have constructed approximately 1,000 lakh toilets since 2014, thereby providing approximately 95 per cent households with access to toilets.
  • National Annual Rural Sanitation Survey 2017-18 estimates that 13 per cent of the toilets constructed under Swachh Bharat mission had twin pits, while 38 per cent were equipped with septic tanks with soak pits and 20 per cent had single pits.
  • While the twin pit variety does not require human handling of faecal matter, the other two varieties require manual or mechanical extraction of faecal matter after a period of time. Thus, creating a high demand for manual scavengers.
  • It is true that the mission has undoubtedly brought positive changes with regard to the sanitation practices and infrastructure developments, but efforts are needed to reduce manual scavenging.



  • Article 14: Equality before law (Right to Equality);
  • Article 16(2): Equality of opportunity in matters of public employment;
  • Article 17: Abolition of Untouchability;
  • Article 19(1)(a):Right to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business;
  • Article 21: Protection of life and personal liberty;
  • Article 23: Prohibition of traffic in human beings and forced labour etc;
  • Article 41: Right to work, to education and public assistance in certain circumstances;
  • Article 42: Just and humane conditions of work;
  • Article 46:Promotion of educational and economic interests of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other weaker sections;
  • Article 47: Duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health.
  • Article 338: Constitution of a National Commission for Schedule Caste.


  • In 1993, India banned the employment of people as manual scavengers through Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act.
  • Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013
  • Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, prohibits compelling anyone to practice manual scavenging
  • The Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989
  • National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act, 1993


  • Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958
  • Forced Labour Convention, 1930
  • Annual report of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of the UN expressed serious concern about the deplorable conditions of manual scavengers in India.


  • Self-employment scheme for rehabilitation of manual scavenging (SRMS)
  • National scheme of liberation and rehabilitation of scavengers and their dependents (NSLRSD)
  • Integrated low cost sanitation scheme
  • Nirmal Bharat Abhiyaan (NBA) (2009-14) and Swach Bharat Abhiyaan (SBA) (2014-19)

Despite of such efforts, the data shows a very bleak image:

  • Survey conducted by the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) in 2018 found 87,913 manual scavengers in India, that too when was only conducted in the statutory towns of 14 Indian states.
  • Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 identified 1,82,505 households with the primary occupation of manual scavenging.
  • 282 sanitation workers have died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the country between 2016 and November 2019.
  • Not a single annual report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has recorded any crime under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act (MSCDL Act) till today.


Some important recommendations regarding this societal disaster by National Human Rights Commission are:

  • Rehabilitation process of manual scavengers may be linked to schemes under which they can immediately start earning like MNREGA.
  • The amount of compensation paid as one time cash assistance for rehabilitation of manual scavengers may be enhanced from Rs. 40,000/- to Rs. 1 Lakh.
  • Ensure to remove the role of middle men by making provisions like direct benefit transfer or by collaborating with NGOs.
  • Strict Action against local authorities, who employ people to work as manual scavengers; An App and a toll-free number for registration of complaints.
  • The National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB) to monitor the sewer deaths and data reflected in its report.
  • Designation of Nationalised bank by Finance ministry to allocate loans for business to rehabilitated people.
  • Monitoring Mechanism and a vigilance committee with a proper SOP must be established, under Section 24 of the PEMSRA, 2013;
  • Need to have police investigation officer with special training under SC/ST Atrocities Act, 1989, PEMS&R Act, 2013 and Supreme Court 2014 judgment.

Given the serious lacunae in the implementation of the laws made and the unchanging mindset of the society, this social evil has its root deepened. But the role of judiciary in this regard shows the right pathway to authorities to follow. The Government needs to be reminded of what Gandhiji said “I may not be born again but if it happens, I will like to be born into a family of scavengers, so that I may relieve them of the inhuman, unhealthy, and hateful practice of carrying night soil.”


  • The Hindu
  • Indian express
  • Down to earth magazine
  • NHRC website
  • Government ministries website
General Studies Paper 1
  • Social Issue