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Manual scavenging

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Manual scavenging is a term used mainly in India for "manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit".[1] Manual scavengers usually use hand tools such as buckets, brooms and shovels. The work is regarded as a caste-based, dehumanizing practice. The workers have to move the excreta, using brooms and tin plates, into baskets, which they carry to disposal locations sometimes several kilometers away.[2] These sanitation workers, called "manual scavengers", rarely have any personal protective equipment. The term Manual scavenging differs from the stand alone term Scavenging which refers to the act of sorting though and picking from discarded waste.[3] In Gaborone, Botswana, as in other large cities in the developing world, members of the community try to make a living by engaging in landfill scavenging.[4] Scavenging is one of the oldest economic activities. The quantities of waste generated and the materials contained in trash are different in different parts of the world, and change over time. Scavengers usually collect from the streets, dumpsites, or landfills. They collect re-usable and recyclable material that can be included into the economy's production process.[5]

The employment of manual scavengers to empty a certain type of dry toilet that requires manual daily emptying was prohibited in India in 1993. The law was extended and clarified to include insanitary latrines, ditches and pits in 2013.[6]

In 2014, manual scavenging was most prevalent in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan.[6]

The occupation of sanitation work is intrinsically integrated with caste in India: It is mainly the Dalits in India who work as sanitation workers - as manual scavengers, cleaners of drains, as garbage collectors and sweepers of roads.[7]:4 It was estimated in 2019 that between 40 to 60 per cent of the 6 million households of Dalit sub-castes are engaged in sanitation work.[7]:5 The most common Dalit caste performing sanitation work is the Valmiki (also Balmiki) caste.[7]:3


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. The safe and controlled emptying of pit latrines, on the other hand, is one component of fecal sludge management.

The official definition of a manual scavenger in Indian law from 1993 is as follows:[8]

"manual scavenger" means a person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta and the expression "manual scavenging" shall be construed accordingly

In 2013, the definition of manual scavenger was expanded to include persons employed in cleaning of septic tanks, open drains and railway tracks. It reads:[9]

“Manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.

The definition ignores many other sanitation workers like fecal sludge handlers, community and public toilet cleaners, workers cleaning storm water drains, waste segregators, etc. Such workers are not required to handle excreta directly, but get in contact due to poor working conditions, lack of segregation, and the interconnectedness of excreta management with solid waste management and storm water management.[10] The 2013 Act adds that a person engaged or employed to clean excreta with the help of equipment and using the protective gear as notified by the Union government shall not be deemed to be a manual scavenger.[9] Bhasha Singh argues that this clause gives the government an escape clause as all forms of manual scavenging can be kept outside the purview of the law by arguing that the person are using protective gear.[11]

There is a very clear gender aspect to division of various types of work that is called manual scavenging in India. The cleaning of dry toilets and carrying the waste to point of disposal is generally done by women while men are involved in cleaning of septic tanks, and sewers. There is an economic reason for this distribution - the municipality employs to clean sewers and septic tanks and hence the salary is better. Cleaning private toilets on the other hands pays little and hence handed over to the women.[11] The women involved are referred to differently - 'dabbu-wali' in Bengal, 'balti-wali' in Kanpur, 'Tina-wali in Bihar, tokri-wali in Punjab and Haryana, 'Thottikar' in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, 'Paaki' or 'Peeti' in Odisha, Vaatal in Kashmir. [11] These names directly refer to the tools (dabbu, balti, tokri) used by the women to carry waste or dustbin (thottikar) or excreta (Paaki, Peeti).[11]

Manual scavenging is done with basic tools like thin boards and either buckets or baskets lined with sacking and carried on the head. Due to the hazardous nature of the job, many of the workers have related health problems.[6] Scavengers risk suffering from respiratory disorders, typhoid, and cholera. Scavengers may also contract skin and blood infections, eye and respiratory infections due to exposure to pollutants, skeletal disorder caused by the lifting of heavy storage containers, and burns due to coming into contact with hazardous chemicals combined with waste. [12] The data obtained by Safai Karmachari Andolan for 2017-2018 found that the average age of deceased sewer workers to be around 32 years, that is, they do not even reach the age of retirement and a family often loses its breadwinner very early.[10][13]

Not all forms of dry toilets involve "manual scavenging" to empty them, but only those that require unsafe handling of raw excreta. If on the other hand the excreta is already treated or pre-treated in the dry toilet itself, as is the case for composting toilets, and urine-diverting dry toilets for example, then emptying these types of toilets is not classified as "manual scavenging". Container-based sanitation is another system that does not require manual scavenging to function even though it does involve the emptying of excreta from containers.

Also, emptying the pits of twin-pit (see pit latrine for details) toilets is not classified as manual scavenging in India, as if used and emptied appropriately, the excreta is already treated.

The International Labour Organization describes three forms of manual scavenging in India:[6]

Manual cleaning of railway lines of excreta dropped from toilets of trains is another form of manual scavenging in India.[14]

The Hindi phrase safai karamchari defines not only "manual scavengers" but also other sanitation workers.[15]

Current prevalence

Despite the passage of two legislations, the prevalence of manual scavenging is an open secret.[13] Manual scavenging is traditionally a role determined by the caste system in India for members of the Dalit caste, usually from the Balmiki (or Valmiki) or Hela (or Mehtar) subcaste.[6] The sub-castes involved in the practice are considered at the bottom of the hierarchy within the Dalit community itself. Bezwada Wilson, and Indian activist, argues that the practice continues due to its casteist nature.[11] He also argues that the failure of implementation of the 1993 Act is a collective failure of the leadership, judiciary, the administration, and the Dalit movements to address the concerns of the most marginalized community.[11] Unlike infrastructure projects like metros, the issue receives little or no priority from the Government and hence the deadline to comply with the 1993 Act has been continuously postponed.[11] An example that demonstrates the apathy of the government is the fact that none of the Rupees 100 Crore (1,000 million) allocated in the budgets for financial years 2011-12 and 2012-13 was spent.[11] Such is the stigma attached that even professionals who work for their emancipation get labelled (for example, Bhasha Singh was labelled 'manual scavenging journalist').[11]

According to the Socio Economic Caste Census 2011, 180,657 households within India are engaged in manual scavenging for a livelihood.[16] The 2011 Census of India found 794,000 cases of manual scavenging across India.[17] The state of Maharashtra, with 63,713, tops the list with the largest number of households working as manual scavengers, followed by the states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Karnataka.[18] Manual scavenging still survives in parts of India without proper sewage systems or safe fecal sludge management practices.[19] It is thought to be most prevalent in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan.[6]

In March 2014, the Supreme Court of India declared that there were 96 lakh (9.6 million) dry latrines being manually emptied but the exact number of manual scavengers is disputed – official figures put it at less than 700,000.[20] An estimate in 2018 put the number of "sanitation workers" in India at 5 million, and 50% of them being women.[21] However not all sanitation workers would be manual scavengers. Another estimate from 2018 put the figure at one million manual scavengers, stating that the number is "unknown and declining" and 90% of them are women.[22]:4

The biggest violator of this law in India is the Indian Railways where many train carriages have toilets dropping the excreta from trains on the tracks and who employ scavengers to clean the tracks manually.[14] The situation is being improved in 2018 by the addition of on-train treatment systems for the toilet waste.[citation needed]

Threats and Harassment

In India, women who practice manual scavenging face pressure from their respective communities if they miss a day since toilets are cleaned every day. Many women have no choice but to turn up to clean the toilets. The practical requirement that they do not miss a day prevents them from pursuing alternate occupations like agricultural labor. And in the event that they are able to find the means and support to stop manual scavenging, women still face extreme pressure from the community. [23]

In Pakistan it's a hard reality that municipalities still rely on Christian sweepers. In the city of Karachi, sweepers keep the sewer system flowing, unfortunately they use their bare hands to unclog crumbling drainpipes of feces, plastic bags and hazardous hospital refuse, part of the 1,750 million litres of waste the city's 20 million residents produce daily. Christians make up a small percentage of Pakistan's population, they fill majority of the sweeper jobs. Lower-caste Hindus mostly fill the rest of the slots. When Karachi's municipality tried to recruit Muslims to unclog gutters, they refused to get down into the sewers, instead sweeping the streets. The job was left to Christians .[24]

Waste storage practices in homes in Sierra Leone are poor, adding to the not so good collection difficulties. Unsorted waste is often stored in old leaky buckets, and used plastic bags instead of a bin lined with plastic bags. Like most African countries, waste collection is a problem. Garbage collected by collection workers who are not provided with safety gears like gloves from communal skips is moved straight for the city’s two disposal sites. Scavengers try to earn a living from scouring through rotting rubbish, plastic bags and raw sewage for discarded things they can sell. As if the struggle to survive is not enough people living on dumps often face discrimination. Living and working on a rubbish dump makes everything about you filled by the overpowering smell. One is identified before they even open their mouth as someone who lives outside of normal society. [25]

Initiatives for eradication


In the late 1950s, freedom fighter G. S. Lakshman Iyer banned manual scavenging when he was the chairman of Gobichettipalayam Municipality, which became the first local body to ban it officially.[26][27] Sanitation is a State subject as per entry 6 of the Constitution. Under this, in February 2013 Delhi announced that they were banning manual scavenging, making them the first state in India to do so. District magistrates are responsible for ensuring that there are no manual scavengers working in their district. Within three years of the ruling municipalities, railways and cantonments were required to make sufficient sanitary latrines available.[28] The government of the state of Maharashtra has planned to abolish the menace of manual scavenging completely from the state soon.[citation needed] But by using Article 252 of the constitution which empowers Parliament to legislate for two or more States by consent and adoption of such legislation by any other State, the Government of India has enacted various laws .[29] The continuance of such discriminatory practice is violation of ILO’s Convention 111 (Discrimination in Employment and Occupation)[30]

The United Nations human rights chief welcomed in 2013 the movement in India to eradicate manual scavenging.[31]

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993

After six states passed resolutions requesting the Central Government to frame a law, The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, drafted by the Ministry of Urban Development under the Narasimha Rao government,[32] was passed by Parliament in 1993.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 punishes the employment of scavengers or the construction of dry (non-flush) latrines with imprisonment for up to one year and/or a fine of Rs 2,000.[1] No convictions were obtained under the law during the 20 years it was in force.[33]

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 or M.S. Act 2013

Government has passed the new legislation in September 2013 and issued Government notification for the same. In December, 2013 Government has also formulated Rules-2013 called as "The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules 2013" or "M.S. Rules 2013". The details of the Act and Rules are published on the website of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, GOI.

Further, the hearing on 27 March 2014 was held on Manual Scavenging of writ petition number 583 of 2003, and supreme Court has issued final orders and case is disposed of with various directions to the Government.

The broad objectives of the act are to eliminate unsanitary latrines, prohibit the employment of manual scavengers and the hazardous manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks, and to maintain a survey of manual scavengers and their rehabilitation.[34]


In India in 1970s, Bindeshwar Pathak introduced his "Sulabh" concept for building and managing public toilets in India, which has introduced hygienic and well-managed public toilet systems. Activist Bezwada Wilson founded a group in 1994, Safai Karmachari Andolan, to campaign for the demolition of then newly illegal 'dry latrines' (pit latrines) and the abolition of manual scavenging. Despite the efforts of Wilson and other activists, the practice persists two decades later.[35] In July 2008 "MissionSanitation" was a fashion show held by the United Nations as part of its International Year of Sanitation. On the runway were 36 previous workers, called scavengers, and top models to help bring awareness of the issue of manual scavenging.

The Movement for Scavenger Community (MSC) is an NGO founded in 2009 by Vimal Kumar with young people, social activists, and like-minded people from the scavenger community. MSC is committed to working towards the social and economic empowerment of the scavenger community through the medium of education.[36]

The "Campaign for Dignity" (Garima Abhiyan) in Madhya Pradesh in India has assisted more than 20,000 women to stop doing manual scavenging as an occupation.[37]


The practice of manual scavenging in India dates back to ancient times. According to the contents of sacred scriptures and other literature, scavenging by some specific castes of India has existed since the beginning of civilization.[38]

One of the fifteen duties of slaves enumerated in Naradiya Samhita was of manual scavenging. This continues during the Buddhist and Maurya period also.[39] Jahangir built a public toilet at Alwar, 120 km away from Delhi, for 100 families in 1556 AD.[40] Not much documentary evidence exists about its maintenance.

Scholars have suggested that the Mughal women with purdah required enclosed toilets that needed to be scavenged.[41] It is pointed out that the Bhangis (Chuhra) share some of the clan names with Rajputs, and propose that the Bhangis are descendants of those captured in wars. There are many legends about the origin of Bhangis, who have traditionally served as manual scavengers. One of them, associated with Lal Begi Bhangis, describes the origin of Bhangis from Mehtar.[42]

Municipal records from 1870 show that the British organized municipalities in India which built roads, parks, public toilets etc.[43] The British administrators organized systems for removing the fecal sludge and employed bhangis.[44]

Other countries

Manual emptying of toilets also took place in Europe. Historically the excreta was known as night soil and in Tudor England the workers were called gong farmers.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ a b The Employment Of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, Govt. of India.
  2. ^ "Human rights and manual scavenging" (PDF). Know Your Rights Series. National Human Rights Commission. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  3. ^ "SCAVENGER | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary". Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  4. ^ Rankokwane, Batsumi; Gwebu, Thando D. (2006). "Characteristics, threats and opportunities of landfill scavenging: The case of Gaborone-Botswana". GeoJournal. 65 (3): 151–163. doi:10.1007/s10708-005-3122-3. ISSN 0343-2521. JSTOR 41148032. S2CID 153618319.
  5. ^ DEL PILAR MORENO-SÁNCHEZ, ROCÍO; MALDONADO, JORGE HIGINIO (2006). "Surviving from garbage: the role of informal waste-pickers in a dynamic model of solid-waste management in developing countries". Environment and Development Economics. 11 (3): 371–391. doi:10.1017/S1355770X06002853. ISSN 1355-770X. JSTOR 44379108.
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Cleaning Human Waste: "manual scavenging", Caste and Discrimination in India" (PDF). Human Rights Watch. 2014. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  7. ^ a b c PRIA (2019): Lived Realities of Women Sanitation Workers in India: Insights from a Participatory Research Conducted in Three Cities of India. Participatory Research in Asia, New Delhi, India
  8. ^ "The Employment Of Manual Scavengers And Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993". Legislative Department, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India. Retrieved 21 October 2020.
  9. ^ a b "The Prohibition of Employment As Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013". Legislative Department, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India. Retrieved 21 October 2020.
  10. ^ a b "Failing the sanitation worker again". The Indian Express. 21 September 2020. Retrieved 16 November 2020.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i Siṃha, Bhāshā (Bhasha Singh) (2014). Unseen : the truth about India's manual scavengers. New Delhi. ISBN 978-0-14-342038-5. OCLC 879642608.
  12. ^ Magaji, J. K.; Dakyes, S. P. (30 September 2020). "An assessment of socio-economic impact of waste scavenging as a means of poverty alleviation in Gwagwalada, Abuja. Selected works of confluence,"". Journal Environmental Studies. 6.
  13. ^ a b "India's manual scavengers: Ugly truths of unsanitary sanitation work an open secret, law needs better enforcement - India News , Firstpost". Firstpost. 11 June 2019. Retrieved 16 November 2020.
  14. ^ a b "Manual Scavengers: Indian Railways in denial". OneWorld South Asia. 25 February 2013.
  15. ^ Walters, Vicky (2 January 2019). "Parenting from the 'Polluted' Margins: Stigma, Education and Social (Im)Mobility for the Children of India's Out-Casted Sanitation Workers". South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 42 (1): 51–68. doi:10.1080/00856401.2019.1556377. ISSN 0085-6401. S2CID 150965777.
  16. ^ "Swachh Bharat Abhiyan should aim to stamp out manual scavenging". Hindustan Times. 12 July 2015.
  17. ^ Umesh IsalkarUmesh Isalkar, TNN (30 April 2013). "Census raises stink over manual scavenging". The Times of India. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  18. ^ Venkat, Vidya (9 July 2015). "Manual scavenging still a reality". The Hindu. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  19. ^ "India's manual scavengers Clean-up - How to abolish a dirty, low-status job". The Economist. 10 July 2008. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  20. ^ "Safai Karamchari Andolan And Ors vs Union Of India And Ors". Supreme Court of India. 2014. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
  21. ^ "Sanitation Worker Project Animation (video)". Dalberg Global Development Advisors. 3 September 2018. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  22. ^ Ray, I., Prasad, CS S. (2018). Where there are no Sewers - Photoessays on Sanitation Work in Urban India. Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) secretariat at GIZ, Eschborn, Germany
  23. ^ "Cleaning Human Waste". Human Rights Watch. 25 August 2014. Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  24. ^ "Manual scavenging: A caste-based discrimination that persists in Pakistan". The New Indian Express. Retrieved 30 September 2020.
  25. ^ "A Situational Analysis of Waste Management in Freetown, Sierra Leone" (PDF). Journal of American Science. 2010;6(5). 1 October 2020.
  26. ^ Kannadasan, Akila (25 January 2012). "Remembering a great man". Features - Cinema. The Hindu. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  27. ^ "Crusader against caste oppression and untouchability". The Hindu. 5 February 2007. Retrieved 9 September 2015.
  28. ^ "Delhi first state to ban manual scavenging." Hindustan Times. 27 February 2013.
  29. ^ Bhasin, Agrima (5 October 2012). "Washing off this stain will need more". Chennai, India: The Hindu. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  30. ^ "National workshop on decent work for sanitation workers and workers in manual scavenging". 31 October 2012. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  31. ^ "UN News Global perspective, Human stories". 31 January 2013. Retrieved 18 October 2018.
  32. ^ Bhasin, Agrima (3 October 2012). "Washing off this stain will need more". The Hindu. Chennai, India.
  33. ^ "Get serious". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 13 September 2013. Retrieved 16 September 2013.
  34. ^ "Legislature on Eradication of Manual Scavenging". Press Information Bureau. 26 July 2014. Retrieved 26 July 2014.
  35. ^ "The 'untouchable' Indians with an unenviable job". The Independent. London. 15 October 2010.
  36. ^ "Learn More". Movement for Scavenger Community – MSC. Retrieved 18 September 2018.
  37. ^ "Ashif Shaikh". Retrieved 16 October 2019.
  38. ^ Road to Freedom: A Sociological Study on the Abolition of Scavenging in India, Bindeshwar Pathak, Motilal Banarsidass Publisher, 1999. p. 37
  39. ^ Road to Freedom: A Sociological Study on the Abolition of Scavenging in India, Bindeshwar Pathak, Motilal Banarsidass Publisher, 1999. p. 38
  40. ^ Bindeshwar Pathak, Toilet History The Vacuum - Issue 18
  41. ^ Road to Freedom: A Sociological Study on the Abolition of Scavenging in India, Bindeshwar Pathak, Motilal Banarsidass Publishe, 1999. p. 38
  42. ^ The Bhangi: A Sweeper Caste, Its Socio-economic Portraits : with Special Reference to Jodhpur City, Shyamlal, Popular Prakashan, 1992 p. 21
  43. ^ Themes in Indian History, Dr. Raghunath Rai, FK Publications, 2010, p. 246
  44. ^ Scavenging, Volume 17, Bombay (India : State), Government Central Press, 1884, p. 676-679

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