"If anyone in the society is fighting for their basic human rights, then
that society was never free
India is the world's largest democracy, where we hear news about developments
and growth in different sectors now and then. We started from temporary roads
and today we have grown to the level of constructing 12 lane highways, quite a
development indeed. Perhaps, an inhumane practice like manual scavenging did not
matter to any of the governments and will not matter to the coming many because
let's be honest! Manual scavengers do not matter and nor do their pain and
They are not a topic that can gain votes from the governments and fulfil their
political needs, but if the foundation of this nation is based on equality and
freedom as declared by the preamble, then the very prevalence of manual
scavenging is a matter of national shame and failure.
Imagine, standing between
tons of human excreta or in a manhole, this very thought brings a disgusting
expression on our faces, now imagine, doing this work daily as a source of
livelihood, Sickening and pathetic, are the words which come in the mind. Now,
what if I tell you that around 15 lakh people are involved as manual scavengers
in India, will you still consider this country as developing?
Manual scavenging means, "storage, transfer, transportation, collection,
separation, treatment, disposal and handling of social waste and excreta
manually." In India, such service is required mainly to clean the dry latrines,
manholes, and drains. Further, this practice is mainly driven by evils like casteism and Patriarchy. In earlier times, people involved in this work were
called the "untouchables" or the people who should not be touched.
They were considered to be the lowest in the varna system and were often
disdained. Even today, not much has changed, Panchayats and municipalities look
for people belonging to the scheduled classes or the Dalits to be appointed as
Manual Scavengers. As the saying goes, not every Dalit is a scavenger, but every
scavenger is a Dalit.
It seems like Untouchability was banned under Article 17 of the Indian
constitution, but unfortunately, it is not banned from the minds of society.
Another, regretful factor of this job is that while men are paid, a women
scavenger is denied any kind of wage and is expected to beg for grains and
leftover food from the houses, she is employed in. This situation is worse in
villages, where women scavengers are not allowed to even show their faces or
make any sound while traveling and cleaning the dry latrines. It's funny, how we
call these people filthy when we are the ones who are creating the filth.
Manual scavenging is not just an inhumane practice, but it is also a risky job.
Studies show that most people indulged in this work die from various diseases.
The reason behind the health hazards of this job is working conditions.
Some of the health issues which a scavenger can face are as follows:
- As there is direct exposure to harmful gases like methane, Hydrogen and
Sulphide, there is a high risk for cardiovascular diseases
- There can be various skin problems for the people involved in this job.
- They are highly vulnerable to diseases like hepatitis, leptospirosis,
helicobacter, respiratory system problems, and altered pulmonary function
- There is a high risk of TB, Breast malignant growth, campylobacter
contamination, cryptosporidiosis, giardiasis, hand, foot, and mouth
sickness, hepatitis A, meningitis (viral), rotavirus disease, salmonella
disease, shigella contamination, thrush, viral gastroenteritis, worms, and
- Sewage laborers ordinarily have had cuts, wounds, irritation in eyes and
related medical issues.
- They are highly vulnerable to Helicobacter pylori infection that causes
Further, this practice is harmful to the environment as well. The very
prevalence of Dry Latrines signifies a lack of sanitation structures. It leads
to various health issues as well as environmental problems.
Some of the environmental concerns are as follows:
- Waste disposal is an essential part of maintaining sanitation and
cleanliness in the environment. Studies show that manual scavenging is the
poorest form of waste disposal. It further leads to water and air pollution.
- Dry toilets are another cause of concern, places where groundwater is
available extensively, people use simple pits toilets as they are cheaper
and this practice can lead to pollution of groundwater from the various
pollutants from the excreta stored.
- Human waste leads to an imbalance in the food pyramid of the place it is
- Water pollution from this practice can further lead to various
water-borne diseases like typhoid and diarrhoea.
Laws related to manual scavenging in India
Now that we are familiar with the meaning of manual scavenging and the status
quo, the next question which comes in the mind is "Are there no legislations
related to it?". So, since the very beginning, various legislation was passed
against this inhumane practice.
The major ones are as follows:
- The Employment of Manual Scavengers and construction of dry Latrines
(Prohibition) Act 1993
- Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation
- Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS)
- National Commission for Safai Karmacharis (NCSK)
- National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation
- Swachh Bharat Abhiyan
The supreme court of India in the case of Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union
of India abolished manual scavenging as a profession. But, even today, there are
around 1.2 million manual scavengers, but only 43,797 are registered. Even
though the employment of manual scavengers was banned in 1993, the
municipalities, panchayats, and municipal corporations continue to hire people
for this work. This is a classic example of the mismanagement between the making
of laws and the implementation of laws.
There are cases in which people who refused to do this were socially excluded
and not given any other job. People were threatened to return as scavengers and
authorities ignored these atrocities and did not indulge in the proper
rehabilitation of such people, especially in rural areas. This indeed is a very
saddening situation and it forces me to think how brutal and sadistic our
society is as a whole.
In my opinion, Manual scavenging does not have a place in any free and liberal
society. It is not a source of livelihood but a way of punishing people for who
they are. It's been more than 70 years since we gained independence, and thus it
is vital to get rid of this bestial practice. What is required today, is a
complete ban on this practice and proper rehabilitation of such people, but more
than legislation, society needs to change its outlook toward this occupation and
end the social stigma around it.