By Khushi Pamnani, Research Associate, Human Rights and Social Justice Policies

The UN defines manual scavenging as the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. Upon collection of the excreta in containers like thin boards, baskets, and buckets, manual scavengers are then responsible to carry them on their heads to locations that are several kilometers away from the latrines. The demand for manual scavenging still persists due to a lack of functional and sanitary sewage systems. 

Reports indicate that 99% of manual scavengers are Dalits and among them 95% are women. The 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) identified 1,80,657 households of manual scavengers across India which clean 9.6 million dry latrines. However, Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organization that advocates for the rights of sanitation workers, claims that the real number is approximately six times what the SECC claims. The International Dalit Solidarity Network asserts that most of these workers are paid less than one rupee per day, significantly lower than the minimum wage. This leads to them being bonded by debt to facilitate basic sustenance. These workers rely on manual scavenging as their primary form of livelihood due to being shunned from other places of work. It has been an uphill battle to find the right policy to eradicate a phenomenon so deeply ingrained in the system of the country. 

The first policy to pave its way to abolish manual scavenging came about in 1993 in the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act. While this Act prohibited the practice of manual scavenging and further construction of dry latrines, it was seen as narrower in its scope. This is because it provided stringency to employing manual scavengers and building dry latrines by imposing a heavy fine and imprisonment in the case of violation, but it fell short in providing socio-economic rehabilitation of families liberated from scavenging who have no alternative stream of employment. The 2007 Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) was then put in place in order to help manual scavengers attain other dignified work opportunities. This was carried out by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment through providing manual scavengers and their dependents cash assistance, project-based back-ended capital subsidy up to Rs. 3,25,000, training/skill development during which a stipend of Rs. 3,000 per month is provided and concessional loan which can be issued to start one’s own venture. 

Thereafter, the 2013 Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, forbade the employment of manual scavengers. However, this failed to reap results due to the several legal loopholes that it comes with. Firstly, Section 2(1)(e) of the Act states that “provided that a water flush latrine in a railway passenger coach, when cleaned by an employee with the help of such devices and using such protective gear, as the Central Government may notify in this behalf, shall not be deemed to be an unsanitary latrine.” This creates a technical issue of properly categorising the challenge of manual scavenging since government-run Indian Railways accounts for a large number of manual scavengers as reported by the Safai Karamchari Andolan. Additionally, the term ‘Scheduled Castes’ throughout the Act, as per the official definition, selectively pertains to Dalit Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. This definition fails to include Dalits from Muslim and Christian communities. Furthermore, Section 2(1)(d) of the Act states ‘hazardous cleaning’ by an employee, in relation to a sewer or septic tank, means its manual cleaning by such employee without the employer fulfilling his obligations to provide protective gear and other cleaning devices and ensuring observance of safety precautions, as may be prescribed or provided in any other law, for the time being in force or rules made there under”. This legalizes manual scavenging in case of the provision of protective gear. The Act fails to explicitly mention as to what exactly is deemed as ‘protective gear,’ leaving this up to the interpretation of the employers. This opens up a legal loophole for further exploitation.

Owing to these gaps, manual scavenging continued to exist. The exponentially increasing death toll led to the Supreme Court intervening in 2014 by reinforcing the States to conduct a survey of all manual scavengers, facilitate rehabilitation and submit it to National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, making it a top priority for the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Before the Supreme Court’s intervention, the authority of the surveys lay with the State governments which found it in their best interest to understate the number of manual scavengers in order to save face. Post identification, the manual scavengers amounted to roughly 13640 in 2018 can be seen in their reports regarding the issue. The problem doesn’t lie in the lack of legal and policy framework, it lies in the inconsistencies and loopholes of the Act and the inaction of the government. In addition to being a problem of caste based exploitation, a labor rights infringement issue, it is also a fatal health risk.

Room for Change

While looking at other countries who had issues with waste management, Mexico showcases a successful model with the help of their ecological sanitation which ties in the loop on sewage treatment. Ecological sanitation refers to a waste management system that treats human excreta, wash water and urine like an agricultural resource which can be safely collected, stored and treated for use. A report by India Spend which is based on the data released by the government in December 2015, states 70% of India’s sewage is untreated. When the Central Pollution Control Board carried out an inventory of sewage treatment plants in the country in 2015, it was found that there were 816 sewage treatment plants, out of which only 522 are functional, remaining plants were either not functional or under construction.

Another country we can look for inspiration is Malaysia, where there has been a clear evolution in sewerage management from primitive systems to automated systems since their independence in 1957. This has been confirmed from a study conducted in 2017. The research suggests that in the 1950s Chinese migrants were used for manual scavenging, but the political will to eradicate this practice came from the government trying to promote Malaysia as a tourist spot. The Malaysian government attained this feat by highly subsidising construction and maintenance of sewage plants. Additionally, various surveys and outreach programmes were conducted in order to educate citizens regarding the frequency of cleaning that septic tanks required. The government also gave people enough time to adjust to the tightened standards. Additionally, the research shows that countries like Europe and America have a number of safeguards in place in sewage treatment plants with effect to their industrial safety standards. This is done with the placement of certain lamps within the plant, which determine the presence of harmful gases. These safeguards are rarely, if ever, seen in India. Addition of such safety standards using addition of these lamps could help waste management.

The principal reason why manual scavenging still persists is because there is a demand for it. The demand arises from lack of waste management and existence of unsanitary toilets. Therefore in order to put an end to this issue, there needs to be a multifaceted approach. One way to do so could be to use technology as a tool with the help of government initiatives to invest in innovations which can deploy machinery as a substitute to manual scavenging. It’s important to note that this doesn’t require groundbreaking technology. In fact, during April of 2019 a group of IIT Madras students made a septic tank robot which can clear the thickest of drains and is currently being tested in drills. If such robots are to be deployed, cleaner’s work would be merely to ensure the functioning of the robot from a distance that ensures their safety without compromising their health. 

Another prerogative is to address the lack of enforcement of the legal framework protecting manual scavengers. The government should form a monitoring committee consisting of public representatives, State representatives, community representatives and civil society organizations to ensure complete eradication of this inhumane practice. This monitoring committee would take up the responsibility to ensure identification of manual scavengers and their safety with the help of regular inspection of work sites and surveys. Having such a mechanism in place with a wide range of representations may further help in upholding the rights of the victims by helping in identification and further pursuing rehabilitation of such workers. Since the existing legal framework for manual scavenging is flooded with loopholes which might not go as far to protect manual scavengers who are already people that have little to no bargaining power themselves, a powerful tool could be a trade union of sanitation workers who can uphold their rights. Trade unions can identify this as a labour issue and therefore work on rehabilitation of manual scavengers with help of a mass mobilization. There is a dire need for people to first be aware of the issue at hand and in doing so be sensitized to the plight of these workers and the risk they face everyday. This can happen with the help of awareness campaigns which enlightens people about their hardships. In order to completely put an end to the problem, there needs to be a more supportive legal backbone. This can be achieved by the existing Act including the process of clear standard operating procedures to be followed at every stage for efficient implementation. The Act currently contains provisions for ‘protective gears’ and ‘safety devices’ being deployed while cleaning, which discounts the process by failing to define such workers as a ‘Manual Scavenger’. Amendments to the Act will help further the cause of abolition of manual scavenging. Such measures and proactive monitoring of their implementation may help to bring us a foot forward towards eradication of a practice that might as well be called modern day slavery.