Manual Scavengers: A Blind Spot in Urban Development Discourse

Shaileshkumar Darokar ( is at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
4 June 2018

In the wake of the recent deaths of manual scavengers in Mumbai and Bengaluru, this article focuses on the life of conservancy workers and highlights the challenges they face through a few narratives of the workers themselves. It is based on the Baseline Survey of Conservancy Workers of MCGM which was conducted in 2015 by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and was sponsored by the Tata Trusts.

Four contract workers fell to their death on 1 January 2018 while repairing a nine metre-long sewer line in Powai, Mumbai (Johari 2018). The cable of the crane which was lifting the workers from the manhole snapped, causing their deaths. Less than a week later, three manual scavengers in Bengaluru died of asphyxiation, a common cause of death among the workers (New Indian Express 2018). This is routine news for the workers—the unappreciated, true foot soldiers of “Swachh Bharat” who dive into manholes with minimal protective gear and put their lives at maximum risk.

Manual scavenging is a hereditary, caste-based occupation that predominantly involves forced labour. More than an occupation, it has been a custom or practice that has continued uninterrupted despite all the available technology and alternatives. It is also the most dehumanising and degrading practice in the country and is undertaken mostly by Dalits. The news of these deaths just shows us that nothing has changed in recent times. 

What is the need of the hour? We need to plan multiple interventions to reduce and eventually eradicate the inhumane, undignified, and unsafe practices in manual sanitation work in Mumbai. This article provides the low-down on what it is like to be a conservancy worker,[1] why things have remained the same over the years, and what can be the way forward.

Mission Garima 

Padma Shri Sudharak Olwe captured the hard-hitting realities of the daily lives of about 38,000 conservancy workers employed in Mumbai in his photo documentation project “In Search of Dignity and Justice—The Untold Story of Conservancy Workers.” The project began in 1994 when Olwe, a photojournalist, tried to capture the experiential realities of the day-to-day lives of conservancy workers. 

Two decades later, in June 2014, this powerful imagery documented by Olwe led to the launch of Mission Garima (Mission Dignity), a collaborative effort of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM/BMC) and the Tata Trusts, Mumbai. This mission aims to eliminate or reduce unsafe practices of manual scavenging in Mumbai.

Baseline Survey

In order to plan the interventions and other strategies for achieving the said goal, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences was requested to carry out a baseline survey[2] with three broad objectives: i) determine the exact number of workers doing manual conservancy work of any form in Mumbai; ii) categorise the total number of workers based on wards, type of job, work profile, and department; iii) identify the basic problems that lead to manual conservancy in order to plan intervention. Thus, the survey explored aspects such as working conditions, tools/equipments, conditions at chowki,[3] health, housing, alcoholism, and indebtedness. 

The methodology of the baseline survey was designed in such a way that the data collection covered all the conservancy workers engaged in the following departments of the MCGM: solid waste management (SWM), storm water drains (SWD), and sewerage operation (SO). The baseline survey attempted to cover permanent conservancy workers, including leave reserved (LR) workers[4] and those deployed by community based-organisations (CBOs)/non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It was found that the nature of work of the SO and SWD departments was more or less similar, and it differed from the SWM workers. As far as the strength of workforce was concerned, a larger number of workers was concentrated in the SWM department in comparison to SO and SWD. A total of 39,729 workers were surveyed, of which 82% (32,588) were interviewed, and 18% (7,141) were not interviewed. The number of permanent workers across departments was 28,847. Among the total number of workers surveyed, 80.3% were male and 19.7% were female.

Life of Conservancy Workers in Mumbai

As far as the working conditions of the conservancy workers are concerned, the workers reported very little or no change over the last few years (especially since the mid-2000s when Olwe documented their lives). The nature of their work and the tools they use have remained the same but the quantum of work has increased. Some of the old areas of the city are infamous for theit house gullies.[5] Neither the house gullies have changed nor have the lives of the house gully workers. Similarly, for manhole workers there is hardly any change in the way the task is done. There are machines, but they have not yet simplified the lives of these workers who still have to compulsorily enter the manholes. There is no change even in the tools they use—spliced bamboo, rods, spades, and buckets. 

Govind,[6] a motor loader safai karmachari, working at P L Lokhande Marg says:

The BEST workers have a lot of facilities. But for us there is no facility, no soap, no uniform, and no safety gears. The rooms provided to the workers are usually filthy, with no proper toilets and bathrooms, dysfunctional fans, and no desks. Very few karmacharis even have their own lockers. We earn less but expend more.

The sweepers (designated as scavengers) revealed that there has hardly been any change in their daily work of sweeping roads, and collecting and disposing waste in community bins or at collection points. Even their tools (broom, wooden plate, pushcarts or two-wheeled bins) are the same. 

The quantum of garbage generated in Mumbai has increased substantially. In 2004, the city generated around 7,800 metric tonnes of waste per day (Mahadevia et al 2005). This increased to 9,400 metric tonnes per day in 2017 (Telang 2018). However, the strength of the workers has more or less remained the same.[7] The city has witnessed an uninterrupted process of construction and reconstruction of buildings. The tasks of toilet cleaners (known and designated as halalkhors[8]) are of the same nature as in the colonial times. The lack of water storage facilities at public toilets is an age-old problem and it continues to add to the difficulties of workers. The tasks of drain cleaners have not changed much, but they have to face unique challenges: structures/tenements in slums do not remain static; the gullies have become narrower over time; and water pipes and cables run through the drainage lines (Bjorkman 2015). In some slum areas, the drainage lines are covered with cement and cleaning these drains, given the congestion, is a big challenge. The drain cleaners face all kinds of problems from the residents too. The workers do not get protective gear or equipment on a regular basis and complain that the equipment given is often of inferior quality. 

Change and Continuity in the Last 15 Years

Ajay, a safai karmachari working with the BMC, while cleaning a small gutter with his bare hands says: 

Aamchi pidhi hech kaam karat hoti, ani pudhe suddha hech kaam karnar aahe (Our entire generation has been doing this work, our next generation will also inherit the same work.) The locals call us kachre wala or gutterwala. They say that the municipal corporation pays you for doing work. We know that we clear garbage and clean gutters, but that does not mean that the people will address us by our occupation. We are also humans. We have feelings too. What they don’t know is that we don’t have basic bathroom and toilet facilities, no changing rooms, no place to have food or even to rest.

In a few words, Ajay summed up what it means to be a safai karmachari or a conservancy worker in the financial capital of the country. Further, it also highlights the plight of safai karmacharis in the wake of Swacch Bharat which has invisibilised the work and condition of the worker. The Swachh Bharat Mission focuses only on cleanliness, but the workers carry the real burden of this cleanliness on their shoulders. They are the backbone or foot soldiers of such a campaign. However, the campaign has mostly been about politicians taking selfies but no discussion on eradicating manual scavenging has been forthcoming (Durgesh 2016).

The biggest problem in Mumbai is the city’s shrinking land space for development. Despite being the financial capital of India, more than 42% of Mumbai’s population lives in slums and is said to be crammed in about 8% of the city's land (Ashar 2016). In such a situation, it is a huge challenge for the MCGM to provide basic amenities, services, and shelter to the citizens. The findings of the survey have highlighted that the working conditions of conservancy workers have improved very little over the years and have remained hazardous. Conversion of mill lands into commercial buildings, increase in floor space index, and slum rehabilitation projects have changed the landscape of the city, but in terms of the sanitation infrastructure, dumping sites, garbage collection points, chowkis, equipments, and communities doing the sanitation work, there has been no change.

Poor Equipment

Conservancy workers are exposed to raw garbage due to the absence or inadequacy of safety gears and proper equipment. The equipments or tools provided to the workers are outdated, damaged, inadequate, or ineffective for performing their designated tasks. Safai karmacharis do not get safety gears such as gloves, masks, safety belt (for manhole workers), and safety shoes on a regular basis. About 69.1% (22,508) of the interviewed workers received safety gears. It is reported that masks and hand gloves are distributed across the departments; but since the quality of same is reported to be poor and not user-friendly, a majority of the workers hardly make use of these safety gears. Workers also revealed that they never get this equipment on time and on demand. Aprons (16.9%) (used mainly by scavengers, motor loaders, drain cleaners, house gully workers and Raste Swachhata Yojana workers), safety belt (1.2%) (mainly used by SO workers) and helmets (0.6%) are reported to have been distributed among the workers. There are nine divers working in Mumbai and only one diving suit is available. 

Health Hazards

Civic bodies in India are required to conduct health check-up of the workers at regular intervals but never do so.[9] Some of the common health problems faced by motor loaders and manhole workers are skin and respiratory tract infections, malaria, dengue, back and knee pain, paralysis, hypertension, asthma, tuberculosis and noise pollution causing hearing impairment. About 31.1% (10,122) workers reported being ill during the period of the survey (2014–15). 

Sushant, a karmachari working in Amrut Nagar says

There are so many cases of injury on a daily basis, but BMC hospitals are not concerned. Once the BMC hospital staff comes to know that the person in front of them is a conservancy worker, then they treat the worker very badly.

Conservancy workers have been given the responsibility of keeping the city clean. They do their job, but the price they pay is the damage to their own health. The MCGM lost 2,614 conservancy workers between 2004 and 2013. This means that an average of 261 workers die every year (Makne 2014). Almost one-fourth (8,003) of the workers who were interviewed reported that a family member had died during service as a conservancy worker. Basic compensation is also not paid to the workers if they are injured during work. 

Meenal, a scavenger working at Khar Bridge Chowki, met with a train accident. She lost one leg and sustained fractures in her other leg and her waist. The BMC hospital that she had approached referred the case to a private hospital. 

The cost went up to Rs 5.5 lakh. The physiotherapist charges Rs 300 for one sitting. I had to discontinue my treatment as I couldn't afford it. There was no medical compensation. 

MCGM is touted as the richest civic body in India, and its annual budget crosses Rs 30,000 crore (Financial Express 2017). However, in 2016–17, the civic body could spend only Rs 69.7 crore (43%) of the total Rs 122 crore allocated for SWD by the third quarter (Pinto 2017). It is unfortunate that a civic body with such a large budget spends meagrely on improving the working conditions of conservancy workers. This money could also be utilised for laying better infrastructure and acquiring new machinery. 

Perhaps the MCGM can learn from the Kerala Water Authority which recently announced that a fully equipped robot called “Bandicoot” would soon be used for cleaning the sewers in the state, relieving manual scavengers from this menial job (Wire 2018). 

An Occupation Inherited by Caste

These occupations are considered the social obligations of Dalits. To date, large sections of society and its members harbour preconceived notions about manual scavengers. Some think that it is an age-old occupation and scavengers are doing a great service to the society.

Another reason for the continuity of this profession is the absence of substantial or collective backing from human rights activists. Over the past few years, the cause of cleanliness seems to have been reduced to celebrity events and photo opportunities. Rather than contributing superficially by clicking selfies, a proactive approach would be to stop the authorities who allow manual scavenging to continue. This would be a real shot in the arm for people like Bezwada Wilson of Safai Karmachari Andolan, who have been working on this issue for several years. 

M K Gandhi and B R Ambedkar also had contrasting views on manual scavenging. Ambedkar emphasised that caste and jobs like manual scavenging go hand in hand, and unless you annihilate caste, you cannot eradicate manual scavenging or change the perception of the society towards Dalits. On the other hand, Gandhi believed that behavioural change in the society would happen eventually, although it might take its course. During a speech in Thandakarancheri on 3 February 1934, Gandhi said,

I call scavenging one of the most honourable among the occupations to which mankind is called. I do not consider it an unclean occupation by any means. That in performing the cleaning operation you have to handle dirt is true. But, that every mother has to do, every doctor does. But, nobody says that a mother’s occupation when she cleans her children, or a doctor’s occupation when he cleans his patients, is an unclean occupation.[10] 

Ambedkar (1990) in dissent reiterated, 

Under Hinduism scavenging was not a matter of choice, it was a matter of force. What does Gandhism do? It seeks to perpetuate this system by praising scavenging as the noblest service to society! … What is the use of telling the scavenger that even a Brahmin is prepared to do scavenging when it is clear that according to Hindu Shastras and Hindu notions even if a Brahmin did scavenging he would never be subject to the disabilities of one who is a born scavenger? For in India a man is not a scavenger because of his work. He is a scavenger because of his birth irrespective of the question whether he does scavenging or not. 

Manual scavenging, therefore, has remained a hereditary, descent-based, or caste-based job, exclusively carried out by Dalits. Interestingly, one would find that those who are generally opposed to reservation never protest 100% reservation for Dalits in this occupation.

Failure of Legal Measures 

In India, it is often found that the laws for ensuring social transformation lack social conscience. On the issue of manual scavenging, the nation has always lacked the political will and hence, the legislations to abolish this practice could not be converted to social justice for millions of manual scavengers.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was enacted in 1993. It was drafted by the Ministry of Urban Development as an issue under item 6 “Public Health and Sanitation” of the state list. As a result, the act gave importance to public sanitation and placed only marginal emphasis on the objective of liberating persons employed as manual scavengers. Another reason was the narrow definition of a manual scavenger did not cover scavengers other than those cleaning dry latrines. It excluded manhole workers (sewer workers), scavengers cleaning septic tanks, open defecation, and railway tracks. The act also lacked a clause on rehabilitation of manual scavengers. The law could have instead been legislated under “human dignity” in the union list.

Since the 1993 act was a state subject and not mandatory, several states refused to adopt it, while others framed their respective acts. Several states such as West Bengal, Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir, and Chhattisgarh refused to adopt it while others like Bihar and Rajasthan framed their own acts. In fact, the legislation would have had weightage if the central government had rooted the act in the problem of caste instead of merely addressing it as an issue of sanitation. Since its implementation, not a single case was registered across India under the act and the government had no option but to bring in a new law in the ambit of human dignity.

New Legislation and its Limitations

The new legislation—the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013—has been enacted under entry 24 (welfare of labour) in the concurrent list by the union government.
It prohibits the employment of manual scavengers, the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment, and the construction of insanitary latrines. It seeks rehabilitation of manual scavengers in alternative employment. 

Section 2 (g) (b) of the act mentions that “a person engaged or employed to clean excreta with the help of such devices and using such protective gear, as the central government may notify in this behalf, shall not be deemed to be a manual scavenger.”

What constitutes protective gear is not explained here. It could just be a helmet, or a mask, or only gumboots. A worker may be provided only a safety belt but not the helmet, waterproof apron, or headgear. It defeats the whole purpose of safety from hazardous work and does nothing to maintain the dignity of a sewer worker. Clause 2 (g) of the act explains “manual scavenger” as “a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this act or at any time thereafter.” This has implications for rehabilitation as the cases will only be considered after the enactment of the act. The state government can grant judicial power to the Executive Magistrate to try offences under the act. This may create a conflict of interest if the Executive Magistrate is also the implementing authority.

Sewer Workers: A Neglected and Vulnerable Workforce

Among all the categories of conservancy workers, the most dangerous work is that of the sewer workers. From time to time, the Supreme Court, high courts, human rights commissions, and appointed committees have issued guidelines for the protection of vulnerable sewer workers.

In Delhi Jal Board v National Campaign Etc and Ors (2011), it was observed that

The human beings who are employed for doing the work in the sewers cannot be treated as mechanical robots, who will not be affected by poisonous gases in the manholes. The state and its agencies/instrumentalities or the contractors engaged by them are under a constitutional obligation to ensure the safety of the persons who are asked to undertake hazardous jobs.

This has not been implemented because there is no political will among the bureaucracy, politicians, civil society or even the judiciary. They are all complacent in their positions and power. Ignoring the Supreme Court's order can be considered to be contempt of court, but no action has been taken against any state.

In Conclusion

The news of deaths such as the ones in Mumbai and Bengaluru raises an important question: how many of the judgments and guidelines are followed? 

The urban poor in India do not have access to dignified sanitation facilities. Cramped spaces in cities like Mumbai (with a high influx of migrants) have public toilets which are not connected to sewer lines and do not have enough space. Many men and women in slums choose to go out in the open for defecation as their homes do not have toilets and the condition of public toilets is deplorable. This compounds the plight of scavengers responsible for cleaning the cities. 

In a technology-driven world where India aspires to become a super power, it is shameful that we still ask fellow humans to descend into manholes. We have not produced technology which can liberate them from this inhuman and hazardous task of cleaning the dirt that is created by all of us. We feel safe that at end of the day it is not us or our family members who are made to do this, and that it is a “reserved” section of our society that does as is ordained to them. It is very normal even in metropolitan, “modern” cities like Mumbai that someone is “assigned” this task and does it religiously.

It is easy to sympathise with or hate and degrade a manual scavenger from a safe distance. It is hard to imagine what goes through the mind of the worker when he descends into a manhole or sewer or cleans someone else’s dirt. After all, writing and venting about these issues will not make a difference unless concrete actions and measures at the policy level are implemented. 

To end, it is pertinent to quote Singh (2017),

It is a fact that without addressing the issue of caste it is impossible to deal with the question of cleanliness in our country.

The author would like to thank Durgesh Solanki for his comments on the first draft of this article and the editor of this article for their feedback.

Shaileshkumar Darokar ( is at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
4 June 2018