India’s manual scavengers invisible even in death

Cleaning sewage by hand without protective equipment is illegal in India, but many are still forced into the practice – and the government denies the deaths that ensue.

The Indian government has denied that anyone has died from manual scavenging in the past five years. This is despite its admission that hundreds of workers who clean sewers and drains have died across the country. The contradiction is hinged on a technicality the government uses to define “manual scavenging”, a caste-defined activity outlawed in 2013. Rights campaigners have condemned the denial, arguing that it deprives victims of the inhumane practice dignity even in death.

Manual scavenging is the removal of human waste with bare hands from toilets, septic tanks and sewers and includes accessing underground tanks, sewerage systems and drains to clean them, frequently without the use of protective equipment. But the Indian government does not recognise people who enter septic tanks and sewers as manual scavengers. Their cause of death is “hazardous cleaning of septic tanks and sewers”.

Opposition members of Parliament had asked how many manual scavengers had died and what the state of rehabilitation of these workers was. In response, India’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment informed Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament, on 28 July that no deaths had been reported in the past five years. But in another response, the ministry told the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, in February that 340 people had died over the past five years while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

Manual scavenging was banned under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. It deems manual scavengers to be persons engaged or employed by an individual or local authority for “manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling, in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain” before it fully decomposes. The act further states that the person must be engaged or employed on a regular or contract basis, and that a person involved in cleaning excreta with the help of “devices and using protective gear” cannot be deemed a “manual scavenger”. According to the ministry’s latest annual report, 66 692 manual scavengers had been identified in the country. 

‘The practice is inhuman’

Challenging the government’s claim that no deaths from manual scavenging had been documented in the past five years, rights activist Bezwada Wilson said that at least 472 workers had died cleaning human waste in this time. 

“The statement itself is a very inhuman statement. The practice is inhuman, of course, but the statement is very inhuman and cruel. They know that people died, and they reported it in the last Parliament, and now in this Parliament are saying that nobody died,” said Wilson, who is the convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (Sanitation Workers Movement), a non-governmental organisation working to eliminate manual scavenging.

The award-winning activist said that instead of putting out the real data on manual scavenging, the Indian government is not even acknowledging the problem. He accused the government of “manipulating the definition” of the term manual scavenging, noting that the question did not refer to those who clean dry latrines, which are not connected to septic tanks or sewerage systems and require daily manual cleaning, nor to those forced to clean septic tanks and sewers. Employment of both is prohibited under the 2013 Act.

25 September 2018: People hold placards during a protest against the use of manual scavengers at the Jantar Mantar observatory in New Delhi, India. (Photograph by Sushil Kumar/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Sanjeev Kumar, the secretary of Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch, an empowerment and rights forum that works with sewage workers, said the number of deaths is already underreported. “In Delhi alone, there have been so many such deaths. It is very sad that the government is not acknowledging their deaths,” he said. “Those who lost their lives are being robbed of dignity even in their deaths.”

The National Human Rights Commission voiced concern about manual scavenging in the country in July, stating that the “widespread persistence” of the practice, despite laws and guidelines for its abolition, not only violated the Constitution but also numerous national and international rights. “Manual scavenging and hazardous cleaning still remain a stinking truth of our nation,” commission chairperson Arun Mishra said, adding that authorities need to adopt “more scientific and innovative techniques to end the inhumane, discriminatory and hazardous practice of manual scavenging”.

Related article:

The commission also noted in January that the “tall claims” made by Indian states that they have no manual scavengers and zero insanitary latrines were “far from truth”. The commission had made a number of recommendations to the government to eradicate manual scavenging, including new laws on hazardous cleaning and taking strict action against local authorities that employ people as manual scavengers.

The 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census highlighted the existence of at least one person in every 180 000 households in rural India engaged in manually cleaning excreta from dry latrines, open drains and pit toilets.

The official count on the number of manual scavengers declined sharply from 770 338 in 2008 to 42 303 in 2018. But a World Health Organization report from 2019 said the practice had not been curtailed but rather forced underground. Some suggest there are as many as 1.2 million manual scavengers in India.  

Rooted in caste

Manual scavengers are often from groups traditionally consigned to the bottom of India’s caste system. The existence of caste-based work exemplifies how the social concept of caste continues to permeate economic activity in India, promoting discrimination, exclusion, ostracisation and victimisation. This sort of prejudice stems from notions of purity, defilement and untouchability, which are firmly ingrained in the minds of the country’s caste upholders.

Manual handling of excreta was outlawed in 1993. But it was only after an amendment in 2013 that its more perilous form, cleaning sewers and septic tanks, was also banned. Despite severe legal regulations, local councils and private contractors mostly hire so-called lower-caste Dalits – Valmiki, Mehtar, Dom, Bhangi, Har, Hadi, Ghasi, Olgana, Mukhiyar, Thoti, Hela and Halalkhor – to carry out these hazardous activities. 

According to a recent article in the Economic and Political Weekly, 95% to 98% are women who belong to Dalit castes. “They are untouchables among untouchables, and are located at the lowest rung of the social order, and are ostracised by Dalits themselves.” These workers face prejudice on two fronts, as women and as members of the most marginalised social group.

Related article:

A 2018 paper in the Journal of Public Health notes that manual scavengers are often exposed to health hazards, primarily chemical and biological, as they are in contact with sewerage lines containing a mix of human waste, kitchen waste, industrial waste and other solid waste not intended for disposal through the sewer. 

“Exposure to inhaling harmful gases such as hydrogen sulfide, methane, carbon dioxide and ammonia in high concentrations can be fatal, while lower continuous exposure usually results in respiratory diseases,” the authors wrote, adding that bacterial infections are frequently reported among the workers, as well as viral problems like hepatitis and various skin- and respiratory-related problems.

The Safai Karamchari Andolan, along with six other organisations and seven individuals belonging to a community of manual scavengers, first filed a petition in December 2003 on the grounds that manual scavenging was illegal and unconstitutional since it violates fundamental rights. In its 2014 judgment, the Supreme Court came down strongly on state governments asking them to abide by their duty in implementing the law. It termed manual scavenging a clear violation of Article 17 that abolishes “untouchability”.

A Supreme Court bench castigated the Indian government in 2019 over the deaths of workers engaged in manual scavenging and sewerage cleaning. “In no country in the world, people are sent to gas chambers to die. Four to five people are dying due to this every month,” members of the bench said.

“In the context of manual scavenging, where there have been frequent deaths due to social pressure to enter into the septic tanks and manholes, preserving human dignity is not considered a priority,” wrote Shaileshwar Yadav of the Centre for Research and Studies in Human Rights in his article for the London School of Economics’ human rights blog.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.