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Laws against Manual Scavenging- To What Extent Do They Work?

In this blog, the author has focussed on the practice of manual scavenging. Despite the law enforced and the decisions of the Hon'ble Supreme Court, the fundamentally unhygienic practice still finds itself practiced in some places. Read on to know more about it.

India witnessed the first ban on the practice of manual scavenging in the year 1993 with The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. However, years later, the lethal work practice is still in prevalence and is continuing to claim the lives of many. The insanitary work conditions, lack of protective gear, and hazardous exposure to toxic gases, for instance, ammonia, hydrogen disulphide, methane, and carbon (IV) oxide, are only some of the problematic facets of manual scavenging. In fact, a continued inhalation of hydrogen disulphide has been known to result in death by asphyxiation.

What constitutes manual scavenging according to the law?

In layman terms, any individual hired on a regular or contractual basis in order to carry out manual handling of human excreta is considered to be a manual scavenger. According to the legal definition provided in Section 2(g) of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013:-

“manual scavenger means a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify before the excreta fully decompose in such manner as may be prescribed and the expression manual scavenging shall be construed accordingly.”

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013

Superseding The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, the Act of 2013 lays down provisions to prohibit the construction of insanitary latrines and employ any individual as a manual scavenger. The 2013 Act, also makes it mandatory to demolish all the insanitary latrines or to convert them into sanitary ones. On failure to do so, local governments have the authority to demolish the same after a 20-day notice. The employment of any individual to cleanse septic or sewer tank under hazardous circumstances is strictly prohibited under Section 7 of the 2013 Act. Any contravention of the aforesaid section results in “imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to two lakh rupees or with both” As far as the rehabilitation provisions are concerned, any person whose name is present in the manual scavengers list is to be provided with a photo ID and single time cash aid within a period of one month. According to Section 13 of the Act, 2013, a person falling under the aforesaid list shall be provided a residential plot or a ready-built house along with financial assistance. Apart from the subsidy and concessional loan for taking up an alternative occupation, the worker, or one adult member of his family, shall be provided training in a skill useful to earn a livelihood with a stipend of not less than three thousand rupees per month during the training. The above rehabilitation provisions are subject to eligibility and willingness of the manual scavenger or the family member involved and the relevant Central, State, or Local government scheme.

Supreme Court directions

In 2014, The Apex Court had passed certain directions in order to facilitate effective dealing with the issue at hand. The directions also aimed at providing monetary compensation in cases of death of manual scavengers under hazardous conditions of the work. A compensation of Rs 10 Lakhs to the family of the deceased, a direction to railways to put an end to manual scavenging on tracks, support to women working as a manual scavenger, access for manual scavengers to their legitimate due, taking justice and transformation as cardinal principles while rehabilitation, were among the key points of the directions issued by the Supreme Court.

A continuing practice

According to a 2019 report by the World Health Organization in collaboration with World Bank, International Labor Organization, and WaterAid, “despite the prohibition of manual scavenging, 20,596 people identified as manual scavengers in 163 (of the 700) Indian districts”. Pointing out the other estimates, the report also suggests that the aforesaid number could be exceeding 70,000. In February 2020, as per the reply given by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to the Lok Sabha, Gram Panchayats and Municipalities of thirteen states, 14,599 manual scavengers have been identified. The aforesaid data ranges from the period of 2013-14 to January 2020. Furthermore, according to the data provided by National Commission for Safai Karamchari, the year 2019 witnessed a total of 110 manual scavengers losing their lives to the extreme working conditions. The number had been the highest among the previous five years.

The stigma associated with manual scavengers

The roots of this practice can be traced back to the archaic caste-based schema wherein the caste of an individual determined his or her occupation. Being suppressed to the lower section of the society, manual scavengers have been equipped with only a little or no vocational options to carry out their livelihood. Despite the existing regulations, laws, and rehabilitation programs, the redundant and age-old stigma of untouchability still lurks in the social psyche. Given the prevalent social ostracism of manual scavengers, finding an alternative employment opportunity is more challenging than it appears.

Other major obstructions in the eradication of manual scavenging

Apart from the challenge of social stigmatization, another alarming hurdle while dealing with the issue is the psychological subjugation of the workers. It is due to this psychological oppression that they find themselves never-endingly entrapped in the practice. In order to facilitate rehabilitation, there is a dire need for social, economic, as well as psychological upliftment of the manual scavengers. Another major issue which further complicates the matter is the dismissal, by individuals as well as institutions, of the fact that manual scavenging still prevails. This not only minimizes the scope of further measures against the matter but also shoves the issue deeper into obscurity.

Need for inclusion

While it is important to note that the practice finds its foundations in the caste-based hierarchy, the social stigma faced by the workers during rehabilitation cannot be overlooked. Not only is there a need to implement the prevalent laws strictly, but there is also a pressing requirement to make the individuals and families oppressed by this fatal system feel included as a part of the community.

Submitted by,

Yashda Garg,


Punjab University.

(Image used for representation purpose only)


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