Welcome to Human Rights Commision South Asia Official Website  




No end to a shameful practice


Despite laws abolishing the inhuman practice of manual scavenging, over a million dalits in 'superpower India' are caught in a vortex of severe social and economic exploitation. Even the central government pleaded lack of resources in failing to implement the law effectively.

The social, cultural and economic realities of modern India unfold a series of paradoxes. While a parliamentary law bans the manual scavenging and the government approves projects to wean the underprivileged section away from this dehumanising occupation, cruel caste apartheid and brutalising poverty perpetuate the practice. Furthermore, neo-liberal economic policies restrict alternative possibilities of having a dignified livelihood.

The term 'manual scavenging' describes the daily work of manually cleaning and removing human faeces from dry (non-flush) latrines across India. Workers, mostly women and young boys, are also referred to as 'night soil workers', a Victorian euphemism that hides the repugnance of the word 'shit'. In India, manual scavenging is a caste-based occupation carried out by dalits. The manual scavengers have different caste names in different parts of the country: bhangis in Gujarat, pakhis in Andhra Pradesh, and sikkaliars in Tamil Nadu. These communities are invariably placed at the bottom of caste hierarchy, as well as of dalit sub-caste hierarchy. Using a broom, a tin plate and a drum, they clear and carry human excreta from public and private latrines, more often on their heads, to dumping grounds and disposal sites.

Though considered illegal, manual scavenging is forced onto dalits by caste pressure. Scavengers earn anywhere between Rs 20 to Rs 160 a month and are exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections that affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Official figures show that there are still 3.43 lakh scavengers in the country. The national commission for safai karamcharis, a statutory body, pointed in its reports to the use of dry latrines and continued employment of manual scavengers by various departments of the Union of India, particularly the railways, the department of defence and the ministry of industry. While states like Haryana deny employing manual scavengers, other states like Andhra Pradesh employ them through municipalities. The practice is on in almost all states, including Bihar, Maharashtra, Jammu & Kashmir and even Delhi. The Indian railways is one of the largest employers of manual scavengers.

Mahatma Gandhi raised the issue of the horrible working and social conditions of bhangis more than 100 years ago in 1901 at the Congress meeting in Bengal. Yet it took about 90 years for the country to enact a uniform law abolishing manual scavenging. 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. Offenders are also liable to prosecution under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. This Act to eradicate a pernicious practice that only dalits were subjected to, aims at restoring the dignity of the individual as enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution.

Given the high prevalence of the illegal practice, the government launched a national scheme in 1992 for identifying, training, and rehabilitating safai karamcharis and allotted substantial funds for this purpose. However, only a handful of scavengers benefited, and the scheme's failure is evident in that there remain more than one million manual scavengers in India.

The Act, first enforced in Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tripura, West Bengal and all the union territories, made it obligatory to convert dry latrines into water-seal latrines (pour-flush latrines). It was expected that the other states would adopt the Act by passing an appropriate resolution in the legislature under Article 252 of the Constitution.

A petition filed in the Supreme Court in 2003 pointed out that the practice persists in many states of the country, and particularly in public sectors like the Indian railways. The petitioners sought the enforcement of fundamental right of persons engaged in this practice guaranteed under Article 17 (right against untouchability) read with Articles 14, 19 and 21, that guarantee equality, freedom, and protection of life and personal liberty, respectively. They urged the Supreme Court to issue time-bound directions to the Union of India and the various states to take effective steps to eliminate the practice of manual scavenging, and to formulate and implement comprehensive plans for rehabilitation of all persons employed as manual scavengers.

As the hearing of a public interest petition filed by the safai karamchari andolan, six associated organisations and seven individual manual scavengers, in the Supreme Court has revealed, the number of manual scavengers has increased from 5.88 lakhs in 1992 to 7.87 lakhs. Unofficial surveys estimate that over 12 lakh manual scavengers, of whom 95 percent are dalits, are thrust with the task of this 'traditional occupation'. They are considered untouchables by the higher castes and are caught in a vortex of severe social and economic exploitation.