Jobs Cleaning Human Excreta Are Illegal, Yet They Persist

The persistence of manual scavenging is linked to the Hindu caste system.

4 min read
Hindi Female

It is a criminal, non-bailable act, but “manual scavenging” continues unhindered, as this video of three men – all Valmikis, or Dalits, lowest of Hindu castes – working with no protective gear in a sewer in a Gujarat town reveals.

Charu Mori, chief executive officer of Dhangadra municipality in Surendranagar district, spoke to Video Volunteeers, a global advocacy that provides disadvantaged communities with story and data-gathering skills.

We do not have any illegal forms of work, manual scavenging (cleaning sewers and clearing human excreta from open-pit toilets) is a prohibited act.
Charu Mori, Chief Executive Officer

So what are these workers doing? They are employed by contractors, whose responsibility they are, said Mori. The situation in Dhangadra illustrates why thousands across India, almost all Dalits, continue to die in sewers and remove human excreta with bare hands, even in cities, where sewer-cleaning machines are available.

As many as 12,226 manual scavengers were identified across India – 82 percent of these are in Uttar Pradesh – according to a reply to the Rajya Sabha on 5 May 2016, by Minister of State for Social Justice Vijay Sampla. These are clearly under-stated official figures. Gujarat, for instance, admits to having no more than two manual scavengers, according to government data.

The persistence of manual scavenging is linked to the Hindu caste system, with about 1.3 million Dalits, mostly women, make a living as manual scavengers across India.


Primitive Latrines Prime Reason For Manual Scavenging

As many as 167,487 households reported a member of the household as a manual scavenger, according to an earlier reply in the Lok Sabha by the Ministry of Rural Development on 25 February 2016, based on the Socio-Economic and Caste Census 2011.

Manual scavenging is prohibited under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, a law promulgated on 6 December 2013, nationwide, except Jammu and Kashmir.

The prime reason why manual scavenging continues, according to the government, is the existence of primitive “insanitary latrines”, those without water, where the excreta must be physically removed.

Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal accounted for more than 72 percent of insanitary latrines in India, according to a United Nations report, quoting the House Listing and Housing Census 2011.

There are more than 2.6 million dry latrines in India, according to Census 2011. In addition, there are 1,314,652 toilets where excreta is flushed into open drains and 794,390 dry latrines where human excreta is cleaned manually.

According to an earlier IndiaSpend had report, about 12.6 percent of urban households and as many as 55 percent rural households in India defecate in the open. Around 1.7 percent households across India defecate in the open despite having toilets, as sanitation remains a major challenge across the country.


1.3 Mn Dalits Make Living as Manual Scavengers, Most Are Women

Manual scavenging is the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or the handling of human excreta in any manner from dry latrines and sewers. Manual scavengers are from India’s poorest and most disadvantaged communities.

The practice of manual scavenging in India is linked to the caste system where so-called lower castes are expected to perform the job, according to this UN report.

An estimated 1.3 million Dalits in India, mostly women, make their living through manual scavenging.

UP, the state with the most officially acknowledged manual scavengers (10,016), admits to 2,404 manual scavengers in urban areas and 7,612 in rural parts.

The persistence of manual scavenging is linked to the Hindu caste system.
Source: Lok Sabha

UP’s Badaun district reported various health and hygiene issues in 2009 because of the widespread presence of dry toilets. The district reported the highest infant mortality rate (110 deaths of infants per 1,000 births) in the state and frequent outbreaks of epidemics like diarrhoea, dysentery, intestinal worms and typhoid. It also reported more cases of wild polio virus than anywhere else in India.

In 2010, the UP State government launched the Daliya Jalao (Burn the Basket) initiative, a reference to the basket in which excreta is carried.

As many as 2,750 manual scavengers were freed within a year by converting nearly 80,000 dry latrines into pour flush latrines. No new polio cases were reported since 2010. Diarrhoea cases declined by 30 percent in one year from 18,216 in 2009-10 to 12,675 in 2010-11.

Manual scavengers are given a one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 each.

Maharashtra reported the most (68,016) manual scavenger households, accounting for 41 percent of such households nationwide.

The persistence of manual scavenging is linked to the Hindu caste system.
Source: Lok Sabha

Madhya Pradesh (23,105) is next, followed by Uttar Pradesh (17,390), Karnataka (15,375) and Punjab (11,951). These five states account for 81 percent of India’s manual scavenger households.

The government aims to make India scavenging-free by 2019.

The Indian Railways is the largest employer of manual scavengers, with an unknown number on their rolls, IndiaSpend reported.

(This story is the result of a collaboration between Video Volunteers, a global initiative that provides disadvantaged communities with story and data-gathering skills, and IndiaSpend. Mallapur is a policy analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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