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

More than 90% manual scavengers were never recorded through the PEMSR Act

By Pragya Akhilesh
Published: Tuesday 14 December 2021
India’s biggest shame: Bonded and working as child labour, manual scavenging far from being eradicated. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

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.

This is far from reality as 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. 

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. 

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.” 

More than 480,000 manual scavengers are directly in the category (as of 2021) and more than 1.5 million manual scavengers working across categories are not included under this Act. 

Further, false claims by the government that 550,000 sanitation workers linked to social welfare schemes under the mission statement of Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) 2.0 further worsens the conditions of both the sanitation workers and manual scavengers in India. A third of the labourers are working as manual scavengers below the age of 21 in both recognised and unrecognised categories. 

Each of the 58,098 government-identified manual scavengers may reveal that 10 other unidentified manual scavengers live in their settlement areas, if they are surveyed. This can help circumvent the challenge of identifying manual scavengers.

More than 90 per cent of the manual scavengers were never recorded through the PEMSR Act. This is the reason why over 600 people have died in the hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks in the last five years since more than 20 percent of these deaths have never been recorded through the PEMSR Act.

Again, ask these manual scavengers and they all know of at least one case in the last 2-3 years that has not been recorded through the Act. 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. 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.

The reverse is also true: 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. 

Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu having the highest number of ‘unidentified’ manual scavengers — crossing 400,000 combined, according to RRI, India. Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have the most number of dry latrines — more than 61,700 combined. 

This does not include the hanging toilets and sanitary toilets constructed under SBM, which have become ‘dry latrines.’ 

The 2011 census recorded 2,607,612 dry latrines in India. Even after the PEMSR Act, 2013, at present, there are more than 1.4 million dry latrines in India. This means that only around 1.2 crore dry latrines have been demolished so far. 

Since the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic struck, 6,723 dry latrines have been built in just the semi-urban and rural areas of Khagaria, Begusarai, Supaul, Chandauli, Badaun and Sitapur, making Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states with highest number of ‘new’ 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. 

Another important aspect is even if the government has identified dry latrines and has demolished some of them, how can the field visits verify the non-existence of other dry latrines?

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? 

Children forcefully working as manual scavengers is the biggest shame for the Narendra Modi government that has been repeatedly lying about the abolition of manual scavenging in India.

With every new statement it is becoming clearer that this government has no intention to eradicate this malpractice. 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

Pragya Akhilesh is the National Convenor of Bhim Safai Karmachari Trade Union and is known as the 'toilet woman' (sanitation crusader) of India.

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