- GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.
- GS-1: Social Empowerment
What is manual scavenging?
- The Manual scavenging is the practice of removing human excreta by hand from sewers or septic tanks.
- India banned the practice under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR).
- The Act bans the use of any individual for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta till its disposal.
- In 2013, the definition of manual scavengers was also broadened to include people employed to clean septic tanks, ditches, or railway tracks.
- The Act recognizes manual scavenging as a “dehumanizing practice,” and cites a need to “correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by the manual scavengers.”
Issues with Manual Scavenging
- Manual scavengers are at risk of death from asphyxiation due to poisonous gases and are often exposed to diseases such as cholera, hepatitis, meningitis, jaundice, skin disorders and even cardiovascular diseases.
- They often lack access to proper safety gear and equipment.
- Lack of precautions, such as taking lamps down in sewers with a large concentration of methane gas, is responsible for accidents
- Manual scavengers are usually from caste groups customarily relegated to the bottom of the caste hierarchy. Their caste-designated occupation reinforces the social stigma that they are unclean or “untouchable” and perpetuates widespread discrimination.
Why is manual scavenging still prevalent in India?
- The lack of enforcement of the Act is one of the reason why the practice is still prevalent in India. While the central government enacts laws, representatives at local level too often not only fail to implement prohibitions on manual scavenging by private households, but also perpetuate the practice.
- A 2019 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) said “weak legal protection and lack of enforcement” of the laws, as well as the poor financial status of sanitation workers, contributes to the practice still prevailing.”
- The Mumbai civic body charges anywhere between Rs 20,000 and Rs 30,000 to clean septic tanks. The unskilled labourers, meanwhile, are much cheaper to hire and contractors illegally employ them at a daily wage of Rs 300-500
- Many who refuse to work as scavengers face coercion and threats from dominant castes, according to a Human Rights Watch report published in 2014.
- People remain unaware of their right to refuse this role, and those who do refuse may face intense social pressure, including threats of violence and expulsion from their village, often with the complicity of local government officials.
- Some states including Delhi have launched the use of sewage cleaning machines for this purpose. However, they are not widely used across the country. Moreover, narrow lanes prevent access for larger machines while poorly designed septic tanks make it difficult for machines to function.
What measures are required to end this inhuman practice?
- Identify all individuals currently engaged in manual scavenging and those who have engaged in the practice since it was outlawed under the 1993 Act (so the latter are entitled to benefits under the 2013 Act).
- Ensure that rehabilitation entitlements under the 2013 Act—including financial assistance, scholarships, housing, alternative livelihood support, and other important legal and programmatic assistance—are available to manual scavenging communities.
- Take immediate steps to ensure that officials effectively intervene to stop communities from being coerced to practice manual scavenging.
- Strictly enforce the law against local government officials who themselves employ people to work as manual scavengers.
Connecting the dots:
- SC/ST atrocities law
- National Commission For Safai Karamcharis