Manual scavengers: Existing in the shade

Several government departments continue to maintain silence on plight of manual scavengers, despite an array of schemes for them 


During a ground survey on sanitation status in Bihar’s Bhagalpur one Saturday, we stumbled upon a filthy place where pigs were being slaughtered. That was when we met Raja.

Raja is a manual scavenger — called a dom — but he also runs a meat shop. His regular morning routine includes performing household chores (when forced by his mother and two sisters), visiting houses to collect mal or faecal matter / faecal sludge and later managing his shop.

He is not alone; hundreds like him from his community are confined to this occupation considered too ‘lowly’.

But Raja didn’t seem unhappy. His family is so dependent on this occupation that he felt threatened when we told him what he was doing was illegal. “If we don’t do this work, we might lose our home, our shop, our everything,” he said.

And even if he does other jobs, his status in the society will remain the same.

Manual scavenging continues in India despite ongoing programmes / policies / norms on the safe management of human excreta. These programmes lack both in a holistic vision and commitment to eliminate the plight of manual scavengers.

Manual scavengers, according to the law

The Indian law describes manual scavengers as:

A person engaged or employed on a regular or frequent basis by an individual or a local authority or a public or private agency, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner,  human excreta in an insanitary latrine or an open drain or pit into which human excreta from insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on  a railway track before excreta fully decomposes

The local authority outright denied the existence of any such community or toilets that required manual intervention for cleaning.

Over the years, we have observed that septic tanks have bad designs and vacuum tankers fail to extract faecal sludge from them. That is when manual cleaning becomes a necessity. And not just toilets, people cleaning public sewers, open drains, open defecation sites and railway tracks are equally prone to health hazards due to the exposure to toxic gases and pathogens.

The responsibility of providing safety gears as well as educating them on the importance of its use is upon the local government or the private contractor. 

Bittu, who works in ‘Samvidha scheme’ as a sanitary worker in Uttar Pradesh’s Jhansi, said he hardly earns enough to feed his family. They have to manage some extra income and emptying septic tanks manually in congested areas helps with that.

Sometimes they get orders from sanitation supervisors to complete the task silently when the receipt has already been generated by urban local bodies (ULB) to empty a septic tank in a congested area with narrow lanes. Bringing mechanically operated emptying machines in those lanes is not possible, said Bittu.

So, ULBs informally rely on them for completing the task. Bittu belongs to the dom community and said more than 300 people in the city work on a similar pattern. That is, they go in a group of three-five persons to  empty a tank and charge around Rs 400-600 per feet depth of the tank. They then divide the earnings equally among themselves.

Sometimes, the tank user provides separate space for discharging of emptied faecal sludge. But In most cases, the user signals them to come in at late hours so that the faecal sludge emptied could be discharged in the nearby open drains in darkness, said Bittu.

Areas where one finds a high number of subsidised built-in toilets call for more emptying as their tanks are small.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship programme claims to have built millions of toilets, but these subsidised affordable toilets often have single pits or twin-pits as containment systems; the funds provided under the scheme have been insufficient to build a sanitary toilet that does not require manual cleaning.

The programme contradicted its objective of safe sanitation practice because building a toilet without considering the emptying service provision would just mean storing the problem for some time, but eventually defecating in open only.

About manual scavengers in UP, Bihar

  • In the report on assessment of excreta management of 66 cities of Uttar Pradesh, the study done by Centre for Science and Environment in 2018 revealed that there are around 18,000-19,000 manual emptying service providers working in these cities
  • Almost a fourth of these manual emptiers are working with ULBs either on contract basis or on special requests. The report also highlighted the safety standards followed by them while emptying and transportation of faecal sludge and brings shocking results
  • A survey by National Safai Karamchari Finance & Development Corporation (NSKFDC) in 2018 identified approximately 11, 230 and 137 karamcharis in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar repectively. These numbers included manual scavengers.
  • The report claims of giving them one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000 as a livelihood enabler. It also described the efforts done on training them on skills development and opportunities in other sectors.

The number of manual scavengers identified by NSKFDC does not keep with the ground reality, as reported by CSE’s study. Bhagalpur alone reported 300 people engaged in this work; the figure for Bihar was at 137.

How did the schemes dissolve

Though funds may come for rehabilitation and improvement of living standards of manual scavengers, the government fails to find the actual numbers of persons who are working as manual emptiers. The management of faecal sludge is considered ugly, so several government departments avoid talking about it, forget working on them.  

Moreover, they believe that they cannot do any other work as their community has been doing this work for ages. Most of them are not even aware of rehabilitation schemes.

It is very important to establish a robust system to include each and every manual emptying labour in the schemes.

What can be done?

An interdisciplinary approach with multi-stakeholders involvement is required to tackle the issue. Stakeholders should be from urban local bodies, health sector, community leaders, private contractors who provide labours for sanitation, all working in conjunction to develop a system to uplift their lives.

It would have been good if schemes such as National Urban Livelihood Mission identified them as one of the stakeholders, as it not only supports financially, but also helps in providing skills across multiple fields.

Above all, acknowledging their existence needs to be the first step towards providing a life of dignity for them.

Points to ponder and act upon

  • Manual scavengers exist — not by choice, not because they are poor, weak or illiterate — but because someone else thought they were good for this only
  • The law exists, but not a single government officer has been tried for violating it yet
  • They are invisible. Authorities need to identify, accept and recognise them
  • Can technology be used? There is enough evidence on how robots can be used to mechanise the process of declogging sewers and emptying septic tanks
  • Is strategy used by NSKFDC sustainable? We may need to look for long term solutions that also includes sensitisation, skill building, social aspects over and above just financial assistance
  • A proper montoring channel should be aligned to schemes such as NSKFDC to get better results on ground
  • Schemes such as National Urban Livelihood Mission should also identify manual scavengers as important stakeholders
  • There’s an urgent need to change general public’s attitude towards these people
  • Can the quality and accessibility of containment systems be improved as a long-term solution, so that there is no need for manual cleaning of these systems

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