Bonded labour, child labour: Manual scavenging in India far from being eradicated

  • IASbaba
  • December 15, 2021
  • 0
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(Down to Earth: Governance)

Dec 14: Bonded labour, child labour – https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/governance/bonded-labour-child-labour-manual-scavenging-in-india-far-from-being-eradicated-80673 


  • GS-2 – Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.

Bonded labour, child labour: Manual scavenging in India far from being eradicated

Context: The Union government, in response to a question in the Lok Sabha during the Winter Session, said it has achieved the target of abolishing manual scavenging. But this seems far from reality –  manual scavengers in the country are not only working as contractual, migrant and casual workers and labourers but also as bonded labourers in Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Odisha, Tripura and Bihar.

What are the issues?

  • The State with the highest numbers: Jharkhand, with 763 manual scavengers working as bonded labour — the highest in India — puts the new labour codes to shame. Over 30,356 children in the state still work as labour engaged in direct scavenging; sweeping; railway track, sewer and septic tank cleaning; and assisting jobs. 
  • Lack of categorization:  The government not only cannot distinguish between “manual scavenging – a caste-based practice of people cleaning human excreta by hand — and the practice of cleaning sewers and septic tanks, but also needs to add newer categorisations in The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) ACT, 2013.” 
  • Insanitary places: Manual scavenging also persists due to the continued presence of “insanitary latrines,” where human waste has to be cleaned physically and not by a machine or sewage system. The majority of such latrines are dry latrines, which don’t use water. According to the 2011 Census, there are about 2.6 million dry latrines in India.
  • Lack of Protective Gears and lack of proper definition for it: Protective gear like gloves, gas masks and boots are often not provided by employers, in violation of the 2013 law, leading to diseases and even death. There is no proper accountability system in place. The 2013 Act allows manual scavenging if the employer provides ‘protective gear’; However, the Act does not define what constitutes ‘protective gear,’ creating a possibility for employers to exploit this provision.
  • Forced employment: Sanitation workers below 16 are also twice more susceptible to be forced to work from time to time as manual scavengers. Girls suffer the most and even receive  rape threats if they refuse to clean the dry latrines. The newer dry latrines also become the hotbed for illegal contractual pre-conditions and arrangements, with children forced into labour. This makes manual scavenging one of the largest employers of children in India, with a share as high as the agricultural sector. But what makes it more severe than the agricultural sector is that over 97 per cent of all these children belong to scheduled castes.
  • Social Welfare schemes: The assistance programme for rehabilitation has failed lakhs of manual scavengers in India who are still waiting for any kind of primary support, even as the government states that the identified and eligible manual scavengers have been provided assistance for their rehabilitation.
    • More than 20 per cent of the manual scavengers were never recorded through the PEMSR Act. 
    • In the last five years, over 600 people have died during the hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks. 
    • Over 40 per cent of these 58,098 manual scavengers have not received any form of one-time cash assistance (OTCA) or compensation. 
    • Only 17,660 below the age of 21 have received OTCA.

Way Ahead

  • Re-Evaluating the State of Toilets: The dependence on unimproved water sources in rural India even within sanitary toilets increases the need to re-evaluate the obsession with toilet construction in India. 
  • Reforms for Sanitation Labours: The sanitation system needs to go hand in hand with the water system, combined with an assessment of sanitation behaviour and sanitation labour reforms in India, at every single step.
  • Eradication of Dry Latrines and Hanging Toilets: The usage of both dry latrines and hanging toilets puts the communities around them at high risk of illness, beyond Covid-19. Therefore, both the construction and usage of these units needs to be eradicated.


The mere circulation of a national policy on mechanisation does not ensure the implementation on the ground. The questions that arise are: 

  • What steps has the government taken to ensure implementation? 
  • If manual scavenging is abolished, who are these people still forced to clean these 1.2 million dry latrines? 
  • The government also needs to give a response on manual scavengers working forcefully as bonded labour in India and how will the new labour code fix it?

Mahatma Gandhi: “Everyone must be his own scavenger.”

Can you answer the following question?

  1. Human dignity remains a far-fetched utopia unless and until the poorest of all are forced to adopt manual scavenging as a means to subsistence. Comment. 
  2. Why even after complete ban and strict penal provisions, the demeaning practice of manual scavenging persists in India. Examine.
  3. Elaborate upon the measures adopted for the betterment of manual scavengers.

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