Scavenging For Humanity

Manual scavenging is a grave example of the deep seated social exclusion rampant in our society from times immemorial. A lot has been spoken and written on this subject but many are still unaware of the bitter reality of this profession and the daily struggles of these workers. Having worked closely with persons belonging to the Dalit Community, and having discussed and dealt with issues regarding temple entry in Uttarakhand and bonded labour, I have come to realise the existing paradox of caste apartheid in modern India. By means of this article I wish to shed some light on the lesser known evil of manual scavenging, which most of us working in swanky offices and high rises would not care enough to know much or, in some cases, know nothing about.

The phrase ‘Manual Scavenging’ means the removal of human excreta from dry toilets. Dry toilets are toilets without a flush system, the kind usually found in villages and rural areas or the fringes of big cities. This practice was introduced during the colonial era by the British. In the present scenario it can be linked directly to a lack of basic sanitation facilities and proper functioning toilets, and raises serious questions about those in power. Though legally the practice of manual scavenging is banned in India, the figures tell a different tale. As per the House Listing and Housing Census of 2011, conducted by the Registrar General of India, there are some 2,600,000 insanitary latrines in the country, 800,000 of which are serviced by humans. Uttar Pradesh leads the charge with 17,388 such toilets, followed by Tripura with 17,333. As per the Socio Economic and Caste Census of 2011, scavengers still continue to be employed, and a total of 182,505 exist in the rural country side.

In 1993, the Parliament enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act and it received the President’s assent on 5th June, 1993. This Act prohibited the employment of manual scavengers as well as the construction or continuance of dry latrines, and also regulated the construction and maintenance of water-seal latrines. This Act, however, was enforced only in 1997. The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act of 1993, in its 3rd and 4th reports to the Parliament, noted that the Prohibition of Scavenging Act was not being implemented effectively. An estimated 9,600,000 dry latrines were found to be operational and a total of 577,228 manual scavengers were identified. Another shocking revelation was the employment of scavengers by the army, Indian Railways, public sector undertakings, the military engineering works, and many other public bodies.In 2003, the office of the Comptroller Auditor General (CAG) evaluated the ‘National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their Dependents.’ It concluded that this scheme “has failed to achieve its objectives even after 10 years of implementation involving an investment of more than Rs. 600 crores.” The CAG further noted that there was a “lack of correspondence between liberation and rehabilitation,” and that “there was no evidence to suggest if those liberated were, in fact, rehabilitated.”

In 2003, the Safai Karamchari Andolan, along with six other civil society organizations as well as seven individuals belonging to the community of manual scavengers, approached the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution. A writ petition was submitted on the grounds that the continuation of the practice of manual scavenging and dry latrines are illegal and unconstitutional, violating fundamental rights and the Prohibition of Scavenging Act. The Supreme Court took notice of these practices and directed State Governments and Union Territories to fully implement the Act, and take appropriate action against non-implementation and violations of the provisions of the Act.

A progress report by the Survey of Manual Scavengers and their Dependents from 2014 states that only a miniscule proportion of the number of people engaged in scavenging have been identified, which is different from the ground realities reported in the Safai Karachari Andolan Survey.

It is now abundantly clear that the practices of manual scavenging continue unabated. Dry latrines continue to function regardless of the fact that the Act of 1993 was in force for nearly two decades. Even after setting up the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis by the Ministry of Social Justice in 2004, and the Act of 2013, not much has changed in the country. These Acts lack proper implementation, as many states have still not appointed District Vigilance Committees as mandated. A truly sorry state of affairs. These scavengers will remain impoverished unless the authorities seriously implement the provisions in true letter and spirit.


The author, Ayush Negi, is an Advocate in the Supreme Court. His work focuses on social justice reform for the underprivileged.

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