Prelims level : Governance- Policies Mains level : GS-II Mechanisms, Laws, Institutions and Bodies constituted for the protection and Betterment of these vulnerable sections.
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  • The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has responded to Rajya Sabha that there were 282 deaths cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the country from 2016 to 2019.

State Wise Figures:

  • Tamil Nadu has recorded 40 deaths, the highest in number, in these four years. This is followed by Haryana with 31 deaths, and Gujarat and Delhi with 30 deaths each. Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have recorded 27 deaths each in the same period.

What is Manual scavenging?

  • Manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers.
  • The practise of manual scavenging is linked to India’s caste system where so-called lower castes were expected to perform this job.
  • Manual scavengers are amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in India.
  • Frequent deaths occur as manual scavengers don’t even have adequate tools and protective gear to clean the manhole. It often involves using the most basic of tools such as buckets, brooms and baskets.

Problems faced by Manual Scavengers:

  • Manual Scavengers in India does the work without any safety equipment, which puts them under the risk of infections and asphyxiations (deprived of oxygen), which are often become fatal.
  • They are exposed to most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections that affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.
  • Statistics prove that 80% of India’s sewage cleaners die before they turn 60, after contracting various infectious diseases.
  • Their Children are also caught up in the plight and make it impossible for them to continue their education.
  • The job is still being performed by communities who are considered untouchables or lower castes. Hence they still face social inequality and exclusion from society.
  • They are denied access to places of worship, public sources of water. They are excluded from cultural events etc.
  • Due to the patriarchy in society, most manual scavengers who clean dry latrines are women. But here also, women are being discriminated against and are paid meagrely.

Why Manual Scavenging still Persists in India?

  • Manual scavenging exists mainly due to the continued presence of unsanitary latrines where human waste has to be cleaned physically, rather than by a machine or sewage system. The majority of such unsanitary latrines are dry latrines that don’t use water.
  • Even if they want to leave their profession, their untouchability and un-cleanliness tag and the resultant social stigma makes it impossible for them to find alternative jobs.
  • Increasing urbanization in the country requires more manual scavengers for the cleaning of sewers or septic tanks.
  • Low education level, low awareness of their rights & laws, job risks and low self-esteem force them to take such work.
  • Lack of empathy among the government, contractors and household members employing manual scavengers, who fail to understand their plight.
  • Poor enforcement of existing laws is also a reason for the continuance.
  • Manual scavengers are not an organized group and don’t have any significant voice in the political and government structures. Hence their problems are not considered a Major Issue.

Legislative Framework regarding Manual Scavenging:

  • Sanitation is a State subject, the people for cleaning of sewers and septic tanks are employed by local bodies.

1. Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 provides for the prohibition of employment as manual scavengers, rehabilitation of manual scavengers and their families.

  • Under this, no person, local authority or agency should engage or employ people for hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.
  • Mechanised cleaning of septic tanks is the Prescribed Norm.
  • When human intervention is unavoidable, safety gear is Mandatory.
  • A violation can be punished with 2 years of Imprisonment or fine or both.
  • It also prohibits the construction of insanitary latrines.
    • However, the law is not Properly Enforced and people are forced to do manual scavenging.

2. National Commission for Safai Karmacharis (NCSK):

  • NCSK is a statutory body established under National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act, 1993 to deal with the grievances of persons engaged in manual scavenging.
  • It aims to promote and safeguard the interests and rights of Safai Karamcharis( Sanitation related workers) and Manual Scavengers and works for the welfare of both.
  • It is mandated to work towards the elimination of inequalities in status, facilities, and opportunities for Safai Karamcharis.
  • It has an important role to ensure the rehabilitation of all identified manual scavengers on a time-bound basis.
  • Under Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, NCSK perform the Following Functions:

1.Monitor implementation of Act.
2.Enquire into complaints regarding contravention of provisions of Act.
3.Advice Central and State Governments for effective implementation of Act.
4.Working for the welfare of Safai Karamcharis/Manual Scavengers.

3. Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS),

  • It was introduced in 2007 with the aim to rehabilitate remaining manual scavengers and their dependents in alternative occupations, in a time-bound manner.
  • The responsibility of rehabilitation of the identified manual scavengers is given to the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation which was established to safeguard the interests and rights of Safai Karamcharis (Manual Scavengers).

4. Swachh Bharat Mission focusses on the conversion of insanitary latrines into Sanitary latrines.

5. Scheme of “Pre-Matric Scholarship to the Children of those engaged in

occupations Involving Cleaning and prone to Health Hazards”,

  • Under this, children of manual scavengers are provided Scholarships.
  • It is being implemented by the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment

How is the Implementation?

  • Despite a large number of schemes and provisions, the inhuman practice of manual scavenging still continues.
  • The National Safai Karmachari Commission has not been functioning properly. Its website has not been updated about recent developments and initiatives.
  • Protective gears such as gloves, gas masks, and boots are often not provided by employers, in violation of the 2013 Act. This resulted in diseases and even deaths. There is no proper accountability mechanism in place.
  • The Act allows manual scavenging if the employer provides protective gear. However, the Act doesn’t define what constitutes protective gear = employers exploit this provision.
  • Municipalities don’t have enough funds to use machines for cleaning the sewers and also to provide safety gear. Also, they generally blame contractors for any loss of life.
  • States and UTs are slow in the identification of insanitary latrines and manual scavengers since there is no time-bound plan for doing that.
  • Furthermore, many states hesitate in reporting the existence of unsanitary latrines and manual scavengers in their jurisdiction due to the fear of contempt of the court.

Rehabilitation works are also very slow due to various challenges as follows:

1.Lack of Budgetary Support,
2.Manual scavengers are generally uneducated,
3.They have no exposure to other works,
4.Many of them are old particularly women
5.They lack confidence in doing self-employment and
6.Many of them do not come forward to avail of any skill development training
7.Banks are unwilling to provide a loan to manual scavengers due to the low rate of recovery of a loan from them.

What can be Done?

  • The law on manual scavenging must be enforced in letter and spirit both by the Centre and State governments.
  • No person, agency or authority shall employ people for manual scavenging.
  • Local Authorities must find resources to employ machines for cleaning of septic tanks and sewers.
  • The Swachh Bharat Abhiyanshould make expansion of the sewer network a top priority and come up with a scheme for scientific maintenance of tanks as it will also help in ending manual cleaning of septic tanks.
  • Two components of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBM) i.e. SBM-Ruraland SBM-Urban must look into the issue of sanitation and use funds available for SBM in providing mechanised way of cleaning septic tanks.
  • Mechanised cleaning of sewers and tanks will Reduce Inequalityespecially for such communities who have been traditionally involved in Manual Scavenging.

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