In a corner of Bangladesh, manual scavenging is impacting a treatment plant’s sustainability

Manual scavenging is still the mainstay of faecal sludge management in Lalmonirhat near the Indian border; the town’s FSTP is not able to work to its full capacity while the stigma of caste is perpetuated

By Sarim
Published: Tuesday 09 January 2024
Truck-mounted vacuum tanker procured by the Lalmonirhat municipality is unable to provide desludging service in narrow lanes. Photo: Sarim / CSE

The safe, sustainable management of faecal sludge has become a major and difficult challenge as many developing countries begin to implement universal sanitation programmes. Bangladesh, which has recently had one of the most remarkable growth stories, has taken on this challenge head-on. The complexity of the task has been exacerbated by elements such as dense population, unplanned and fast growth, insufficient and frequently inaccessible service provisions and restricted sewage coverage.

Bangladesh has made considerable progress in extending the coverage of sanitation during the past 10 or so years. But sanitation remains one of the country’s biggest concerns. The main drivers behind the increase in coverage of sanitation are government as well as non-governmental organisations, and other development partners working together in a well-coordinated manner.

Due to the consistent efforts of all these stakeholders, 100 Faecal Sludge Treatment Plants (FSTPs) for treatment and management of septic tank waste are in the pipeline to be constructed across various towns by 2025.

Around 30 FSTPs have already been constructed. Only 15 of these are functional at present. As FSTPs are now being mostly operated and maintained, it is crucial to tackle the operationalisation hurdles and ensure smooth operations when the FSTPs are handed over to the municipality.

Ground situation

One of the 15 functional FSTPs is in Lalmonirhat district situated in the Rangpur division of northern Bangladesh, near the Indian border. The FSTP of 5 kilolitre per day capacity serves the district with a population of 75,000.

The plant, constructed at a cost of 10 million Bangladesh Taka (BDT) or INR 75,54,000 under the Urban Governance Infrastructure Improvement Project (UGIIP-III) funded by Asian Development Bank, has been operational since August 2022.

It is currently operated and maintained by the local municipality through its own revenue. As the FSTP is located within an existing solid waste landfill site, the resources are shared. The operator managing the landfill site handles the FSTP operations. 

Since commissioning, the plant has been facing challenges of low sludge load. It receives an average of two-three tanker trips or five kilolitres of sludge per week. This is way less than its designed capacity.

Since Lalmonirhat has a population of around 75,000, the daily desludging potential — in the absence of a sewerage system — is around four-five trips per day. This gap in sludge load is hampering the efficient working of the plant besides posing a threat to its sustainability.

The question around sustainability prompted Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) to visit Bangladesh, to understand the ground situation and propose remedial actions. The intention of the trip was to explore the physical and financial sustainability of their faecal sludge and septage management projects. However, it revealed something more: sustainability was linked with untouchability in Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country.

Stigma of untouchability

There are around 800-1,000 Dalits in Lalmonirhat. They are all involved in activities related to sanitation. Some 50-60 are actively engaged in manual scavenging. Their ancestors were non-Bengalis who were forced to migrate from the northern and southern parts of India (present-day Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh) to East Bengal (now Bangladesh) under the pretext of permanent government jobs by the British before the 1947 Partition of the subcontinent.

The community lives a bittersweet life. On the one hand, they are the only ones entrusted with the cleaning of septic tanks. Manual cleaning of septic tanks is prevalent in approximately 50 per cent of the area since the households in Lalmonirhat are built and narrow lanes which vaccum tankers cannot access.

The Dalit community is getting work on a daily basis and is earning as high as 40,000 BDT, which is a respectable amount in Bangladesh.

On the other hand, they have forced to take up this work for generations, continue to live as the most marginalised and deprived section of Bangladeshi society, being termed ‘Untouchables’.

“We are trapped in this infinite loop and our coming generations will be no different,” Bijoy, one of the manual scavengers working at the landfill site, told CSE. Bijoy is one of the few workers at the landfill site, who entertain demand-based emptying requests from locals.

Even if someone from the community endeavours to take a different path for feeding their family — like opening up a small grocery shop or eatery or selling fruits or vegetables — the social discrimination and stigma associated with their traditional profession make it difficult for them to succeed.

While the Dalits of Lalmonirhat continue to survive through regular boycott and everyday hardships, their livelihood is impacting the proper functioning and sustainability of the FSTP.

As opposed to 10-15 desludging services per month provided by the municipality through 1,500- and 2,000 litre-capacity vacuum tanker vehicles, these people are called up for manual emptying of 40-60 septic tanks and pits per month. This averages 1-2 cleanings per day.

Two-three scavengers are involved in each emptying activity and are paid 2,500-4,000 BDT, equally spilt among them. The sludge is either dumped in nearby open areas or disposed in dug holes, which are covered afterwards near the households by the scavengers.

The FSTP, located on the outskirts of town, doesn’t provide conducive reason for the scavengers to take sludge to the plant as they don’t have any vehicles or hand-operated trolleys with them. In addition, lack of efforts from the municipality to guide or enforce them to take the sludge to the treatment plant also contribute to less sludge volume.

Two of many inaccessible narrow lanes in Lalmonirhat, Bangladesh. Photo: Sarim / CSE


The sustainability in question here is operational in nature rather than financial. While there may be other reasons that affect it, manual scavenging is the one which requires the most attention at the moment.

At the institutional level, Bangladesh has the Labour Act, 2006 and 2015, National Occupational Health and Safety Policy, 2013 and The Dhaka Institutional and Regulatory Framework for Fecal Sludge Management, 2017.

All these include guidelines about occupational health and safety for pit-emptying services. These provide formal manual scavengers with guaranteed income and partial health insurance. But they do not mention anything about informal workers.

Article 15 of the Constitution of Bangladesh indicates that it is the fundamental responsibility of the State to attain steady improvement of standards of living through ensuring the right to work with reasonable wages in regards to quantity and quality of work. In reality, the misery of scavengers has remained static.

Specific laws and regulations for the well-being of a sanitation worker are still non-existent. The existing laws have not talked much about enforcing mechanisms for the well-being of manual scavengers. There are a few non-profits — HEKS-EPER, Gram Bikash Kendra and Eco-Social Development Organization — who are working for uplifting the lives of these people. However, their efforts are contained, leaving a lot to be done. 

Lessons from neighbour India

Bangladesh could learn a lot from India’s endeavour towards eradicating manual scavenging. While a lot could be said about India’s approach to tackle manual scavenging and its results, the resolve to address the issue by the government is unquestioned.

In 2013, India passed the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act. This law effectively banned the employment of manual scavengers, the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment, and the construction of insanitary latrines.

The Act’s amendment, passed in 2020, added modernisation of the existing sewage framework, the inclusion of non-sewage areas, proper treatment of faecal waste, and trained response units in case of an emergency.

Meanwhile, the Centre undertook the process of mechanisation and rehabilitation under the National Action for Mechanised Sanitation Ecosystem (NAMASTE) scheme, 2021.

National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation (NSKFDC), under the aegis of the Centre, acts as an apex corporation for the all-round socio-economic upliftment of sanitation workers, scavengers and their dependents throughout India, through various loan and non-loan based schemes.

Apart from this, several national level campaigns to raise awareness about the issue have been launched till date: Safai Karmachari Andolan, Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan and Maila Mukti Yatra by Jan Sahas. While these were not overwhelmingly successful, steps in the right direction were initiated.

For Bangladesh, the road to eradicate manual scavenging is a long one, filled with challenges along the path. However, in order to sustain the Faecal Sludge Management journey they have undertaken, measures to address manual scavenging should be on their priority list.

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