Manual Scavenging in India: A Critique


Our struggle does not end so long as there is a single human being, considered untouchable on account of his birth”- Mahatma Gandhi

When a man/woman cleans, carries and disposes human and animal excreta from dry latrines, sewers and streets, this practice is known as “Manual Scavenging”. Though this practice is illegal in India, still over 1,80,000 people are employed in this practice. Most of them are Dalit women, women constitute 95% of the manual scavengers. As per the census of 2011 Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have the highest number of manual scavengers. Mostly Valmiki community of the Hindu religion which comes under Scheduled Caste Category and Haila Community of the Muslim Religion which comes under Other Backward Classes (OBC) category are involved in this practice as it is a caste-based practice. Manual scavengers use a broom to clean the excreta and then they store it in a bucket to throw it in the drain or dumping areas[1]

As the UN Commission on Human Rights notes: "By reason of their birth, Dalits are considered to be "polluted" and the removal of human and animal waste by members of the "sweeper” community is allocated to them and strictly enforced." This kind of caste-based practice has a lot of stigma entailed with it. The Life of manual scavengers is way more difficult than people think because filthy working conditions are followed by ostracization. People earning their bread and butter from carrying on this practice are verbally abused by upper caste people. They are refrained from touching anything other than apparatus required for their work and even at the tea stalls, there are separate cups for these people. Various laws and schemes outlawed this practice from the past 60 years like:

        The Protection of Civil Rights Act (1955) made it an offence to compel any person to practice manual scavenging[2]

        The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act (1993)[3] punished the employment of manual scavengers or the construction of dry latrines with imprisonment for up to one year and/or a fine of 2000 rupees.

        The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act (2013)[4] superseded the 1993 Act and criminalized all types of manual scavenging, recommending punishments for the individuals who sustain the training and ensuring the individuals who take part in it. This rule additionally focuses on giving interchange occupations and other help, (for example, money instalments, grants for youngsters, lodging and other lawful and automatic help) to help restore previous manual scavengers. In any case, it is up to the state and the neighbourhood governments to uphold these principles – similar establishments have neglected to authorize the past laws to prohibit manual scavenging.

The author through this blog will cover the rising manual scavenging in India and throw some light on major law violations involved in the practice of manual scavenging. Finally, the author will end the blog with a conclusion and his outlook.


Despite a lot of development in the jurisprudence of laws regarding the prohibition of Manual Scavenging, this problem is on a rise. This practice should be eradicated from its root cause because such kind of practice fuels the sense of caste discrimination in the minds of people and promotes untouchability in the society, which in itself is against the constitution of India. Even though the stringent laws are in force, the deaths due to manual scavenging have increased over the past few years. In 2019, 110 people were killed while cleaning sewers and septic tanks, which is the highest number of the past five years. This is a 61% increase from the deaths recorded in 2018. According to the data of the year 2018, Uttar Pradesh has the highest number, i.e., 29,923 of manual scavengers in India[5].    


  • Obligations under Domestic Law 

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act (2013) is the current prevailing law in India which defines manual scavenging as “Illegal”[6]. Section 5 (1) (b) of this statute provides that any person employed as a manual scavenger shall be released immediately. Section 6 (1) of this act provides that any contract entered for manual scavenging before the commencement of this act shall lapse and section 6 (2) further explains that a master can retain the servant but he cannot make him do manual scavenging. Section 7 of this act prohibits any person from hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. Whoever violates the rules and regulations mentioned in article 5, 6 and 7 will be punished as per section 8 and 9 of this statute and penalty can go up to 5 years of Imprisonment or 5 lakh rupees fine or both[7].

Apart from this act, the Indian Constitution also provides provisions like prevention of discrimination on grounds of caste or race in Article 15 and abolition of untouchability in article 17[8]. All these laws are brutally transgressed in the practice of Manual Scavenging. Furthermore, under the Constitution, human dignity is an inalienable right which is part of the fundamental right to life. The Courts have held human dignity to be the most important, fundamental[9], inalienable and transcendental of rights. ‘Dignity’ has been interpreted to include equal treatment and respect, and equal protection of the law. Right to life does not mean living lives like a mere animal, it means living the life with dignity[10]. Making someone jump in a hole filled with human and animal excreta is a treatment not even fit for animals so, why one should expect a human to do such thing, this practice is an assassination of a person’s Right to life which is a fundamental right and as said in Kesavanand Bharti case judgment[11], Fundamental Rights form the basic structure of our constitution and that is why they cannot be abridged from a citizen. 

  • Obligations under International Law 

The practise of manual scavenging puts a scar on the spirit of dignity and violates some basic human rights which will be discussed as follows:-

UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

    Article 1 of UDHR guaranteed equal liberty for all. This provision gets violated the moment, a human being enters a manhole or sewer to clean it[12].

        Article 22 of UDHR guarantees that all the social and economic rights should be given to everyone for protecting one’s dignity. Any expressed or implied contract, forcing any person to get involved in manual scavenging is violating this right[13].

Though UDHR is not a binding treaty, it should be followed to maintain an appropriate social order. A binding treaty known as “ICCPR” is also signed and ratified by India. This covenant also provides some human rights, which are grossly violated in the practice of manual scavenging.

ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights)

        Article 2 (1) of this convention guarantees that everyone irrespective of his race will be entitled to all the rights guaranteed under this convention[14].

        Article 6 (1) of this convention guarantees that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of his inherent right to life. A practice like Manual scavenging brutally kills this human right[15].

        As manual scavenging is also a hazardous, inhumane and degrading activity so, no one should be engaged in it as described under Article 7 of this convention[16].

        Every person has an inherent dignity as described under Article 10 (1) of this convention. Stigma attached to manual scavenging destroys the dignity of a person[17].


Conclusively, the author wants to say that a practice like Manual Scavenging must be completely eradicated. Putting someone in a manhole or sewer so that person can clean your excreta is the acme of inhumanity and humiliating someone. It does not just end with a threat to health in such filthy surroundings, but it is followed by the stigma of caste division and untouchability, which are very harmful for a society. Robots should be used to do such a thing as it was recently done in Kerala when some engineers made a robot named “Bandicoot” to clean the sewers[18]. This is a commendable step and appreciating this step the government should introduce a scheme for making such robots, which can be used for cleaning the sewers. Everyone has a right to employment, but that employers must ensure dignity. We are living in 2020, there should be no place for caste discrimination and untouchability in our society. In a nutshell, a practice which is violating the existing law of the land and the basic human rights of an individual should not be promoted and encouraged but it should be finished. 

[2] The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 (Act 22 of 1955).

[3] The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 (Act 12 of 1993)

[4] The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013

[6] Court on its own motion vs. Union of India and Ors. (03.10.2019 - PHHC) : MANU/PH/1486/2019


[8] The Constitution of India, arts. 15, 17.

[9] The Constitution of India, art. 21.

[11] Kesavananda Bharati Sripadagalvaru and Ors. v. State of Kerala and Anr.(1973) 4 SCC 225: AIR 1973 SC 1461

[12] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, art. 1.

[13] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, art. 22.

[14] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1976, art. 2(1).

[15] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1976, art. 6(1).

[16] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1976, art. 7.

[17] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1976, art. 10(1).

[18] Kerala engineers who developed robot to clean manholes are on a mission to end manual scavenging, available at: visited on 24 July 2020)