Manual Scavenging: Women Face Double Discrimination as Caste and Gender Inequalities Converge

Of the 1.2 million manual scavengers in India, about 95% to 98% of them are women. Despite their overwhelming numbers, there is hardly any research or a governmental report shedding light on these women. In addition to caste-based solutions, a gender-sensitive approach is required to put an end to this abhorrent practice.  


“I had to work with my head veiled. During the rains, my clothes would become drenched with excrement. They would not dry. The house would smell. I started to get skin disease and even to lose my hair.”
Badambai, Neemuch district, Madhya Pradesh, January 2014 (Human Rights Watch 2014).  

Even after 73 years of independence, manual scavenging is a blot on our collective conscience that refuses to disappear, despite the landmark legislation in the form of Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (hereafter, the 2013 act) and a Supreme Court judgment in the Safai Karamchari Andolan and Ors v Union of India and Ors case (2011). Not many are aware of the fact that, of the 1.2 million Indians shackled by this practice, 95% to 98%  are women, who are forced to clean dry latrines, carry loads of excrement in leaking cane baskets, clear sewage, discard placenta post-deliveries, work on railway tracks, exhume dead bodies while enduring sexual harassment, social exclusion, dismal wages, and a lifetime’s worth of trauma (Human Rights Watch 2014; Tandon and Basu 2016). Their children forgo education, and if fortunate enough to go to school, they end up sitting in a corner in the classrooms with minimal interaction with teachers and fellow students. These women are from Valmiki caste, predominantly an urban Dalit community present in Punjab and national capital Delhi; Haila and Halalkhor castes in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and from Mister and Dome castes in Bihar. Derisively, they are called “Bhangis,” which loosely translates as individuals with “broken identities.” They are untouchables among untouchables, and are located at the lowest rung of the social order, and are ostracised by Dalits themselves. Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh have the highest number of female manual scavengers. Additionally, Halalkhor and Haila communities practise Islam, and hence, they do not get any respite from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 as it is confined to Hindu Dalits only.  

The practice of manual scavenging is passed on to young girls post-marriage to work alongside their mothers-in-law, and any resistance to take up the occupation would result in their ostracisation by their families and villages. A 2014 study, which surveyed 480 women from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh reveals that 85% of female scavengers are married women (Jan Sahas Social Development Society 2014). Some women are paid only as little as Rs 10 to Rs 20 a month along with a meal for cleaning a dry toilet during festivals. There are also instances when these women are not paid at all. On the other hand, women who leave the occupation are still stigmatised, and are not allowed to participate in village functions, religious ceremonies, and are kept at a distance. Even if these women leave scavenging for good, the society knows who they were (Bose 2019).

Financial troubles aside, the damage to their physical health is irreparable. Scavenging exposes them to noxious gases, impairing their gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, and reproductive organs. They suffer from rashes, rotting of skin, permanent hair loss, nausea, breathlessness, palpitations, sore throat, loss of libido, and bear frequent infections (Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan 2018). In some instances, these toxins become carcinogenic resulting in fatalities (Tiwari 2008). They have negligible access to healthcare services, benefits of public distribution system (PDS), Anganwadi services, housing schemes, among other government welfare measures. So far, there has been no data from the government on the percentage of female manual scavengers who are deprived of these basic amenities. 

While perusing various journals, reports, and legal reviews, the authors have not been able to find even a single research work dedicated to female manual scavengers. We find that there is a gross lacuna in the government data on the number of manual scavengers, and there are no specific policies to alleviate their misery and to rehabilitate them. Therefore, this article is an attempt to narrate the distressing stories of the most marginalised segment of the Indian society, their legal and human rights, achievements and failures of the government machinery in eradicating the scourge of manual scavenging.

Laws Galore and Enforcement Poor

“In no country in the world, people are sent to gas chambers to die. This is the most inhumane [way] to treat human beings like this.” 
Justice Arun Mishra, Supreme Court, 2019 (Outlook 2019). 

Every day when a woman sets out to clean excrement, a multitude of national and international statutes are flagrantly violated. In the Sabarimala judgment, Justice Chandrachud observed that “the founding faith upon which the Constitution is based [is] the belief that it is in the dignity of each individual that the pursuit of happiness is founded. Human dignity postulates an equality between persons” (Indian Young Lawyers Association and Ors v The State of Kerala and Ors 2006). Articles 14, 15, 17, and 21 are sacrosanct to the Indian Constitution, but they are violated everyday due to the persistence of manual scavenging. The essence of Article 14 is not only to guarantee equality before the law but also to ensure equity, thus securing resources and opportunities for every individual to succeed in life. Articles 15 and 17 bolster Article 14 by outlawing discrimination and untouchability on the basis of caste. Additionally, the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 have been enacted to eradicate manual scavenging. However, when women are forced by their families, villages, railways, and municipal corporations to continue manual scavenging, they are deprived of equality on two counts: on the basis of their caste and also for being a woman. 

These women are also robbed of their right to life vested in Article 21 of the Constitution. The Kharak Singh v the State of Uttar Pradesh and Others (1963) judgment proclaims that the term “life” does not allude to a “mere animal existence,” but it encompasses the right to live with dignity. Furthermore, Justice J Bhagwati in Bandhua Mukti Morcha v Union of India and Ors (1997) case has extended the import of “right to life” to “right to livelihood.” He opined that every worker has the right to be free of exploitation and abuse, and observed that male and female workers should have equal access to opportunities, fair wages, maternity relief, and education facilities. When the occupation of manual scavenging is weighed against the above-mentioned constitutional parameters, it grossly fails in securing dignity, health, education, maternity benefits, fair wages, opportunities, and a safe and congenial working environment to about one million women.

Since these women are employed in the unorganised sector, they are divested of minimum wages, emoluments, benefits, allowances, pensions, gratuity, indemnity, according to the Employees' Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952 and the Workmen's Compensation Act, 1923. They are also not eligible for average daily wage for a period of six weeks post-delivery, which is promised under Section 5 of the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 for women employees.  On the contrary, these women are found lifting heavy baskets of faeces on their hips and head even during pregnancy. The  Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 also does not guarantee them safety from daily abuse, as the term “employer” does not encompass independent households.

Measures to Eradicate Scavenging Remain Inadequate 

"If these machines had been brought in before, my children’s papa would not have left them. Now they are not of any use to me, but they will at least be useful for other women. Their men will not die in the sewers. No one should have to suffer the way I do” (Singh 2019). 

The suffering of female manual scavengers is not new. However, it would be incorrect to state that no measures have been taken so far to eradicate it. The executive and legislature have devised a number of policies and legislations. Following the resolutions passed by the legislatures of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, West Bengal, and Tripura against manual scavenging, Parliament enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 (hereinafter, the 1993 act). However, the particular legislation has certain flaws making it ineffective. One such flaw has been that it was passed under Article 252 (the power of Parliament to legislate for two or more states by consent) of the Constitution. The major flaw with such a legislation is that as public health and sanitation fall under the domain of states, it became difficult for the union government to come up with any controlling or regulatory mechanism to enforce the legislation. Besides, the legislation is limited in scope as it defines manual scavengers as only those employed to clean dry latrines, but not other unsanitary latrines, sewers, septic tanks, pits, etc (Hindu 2016). To tide over these problems, the union government, with the consultation of the National Advisory Council, enacted the 2013 act under Entry 97 of the union list. This has ensured the easy monitoring of such cases, besides enabling the centre to make centralised schemes applicable across the country.  

On the other hand, Section 5 of the 2013 act prohibits local authorities from constructing unsanitary latrines and employing labour in the form of manual scavengers. However, as per the 2018–19 Report of  the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, there are about 50,000 manual scavengers[1] and about 26 lakh unsanitary latrines in India (Department of Social Justice and Empowerment 2019). The data from the government sources is inconsistent when compared with the United Nations Human Rights Watch Report, which affirms that the number of the manual scavengers remains at 1.2 million. This demonstrates the under-reporting of data by the government, and its commitment to the cause of manual scavengers. As a result, there have been no convictions so far against those who flouted the guidelines of the 2013 act.   

Although the 2013 act also mandates rehabilitation for manual scavengers, no measures were taken until 2014, when the Supreme Court had to intervene and direct the states to conduct a survey of manual scavengers to identify and initiate a process of rehabilitation. Despite manual scavenging has been made illegal and prohibited since 1993, the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 (SECC-2011) data of manual scavengers, released by the Ministry of Rural Development, suggests that there are 1,82,505 manual scavengers, that too only in the rural areas. It has further revealed that there are more than 2.6 million functional dry toilets in India where women constitute the majority of the workforce. The government data reveals that 636 people died between 1993 and 2018 while working in sewers or septic tanks (NCSK 2018).

There has been some progress on the rehabilitation front later, after the intervention of the apex court intervention in 2014. On 11 December 2018, the Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, in a reply to a question in Parliament, stated that 24,853 manual scavengers were provided one-time cash assistance of Rs 40,000, and 13,587 manual scavengers were trained under skill development programmes, and another 955 manual scavengers were granted capital subsidy for self-employment projects under the Self-employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) until 30 November 2018. Besides, the government has been collaborating with the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan and the Safai Karamchari Andolan to identify and consolidate the data on manual scavengers from across the country. 

There are also a few state governments that have been proactive in eradicating the practice of manual scavenging. The Kerala Startup Mission and Kerala Water Authority have provided the engineers of a robot manual scavenger “Bandicoot” with infrastructural facilities in a 5,000 square feet area to enable the development of India’s first manhole cleaning robot (Preet and Chaturvedi 2019). The Telangana government, for its part, introduced 70 mini sewer-jetting machines in 2017. These machines were allocated to each division of the water board in Hyderabad (Hindu 2017). The Delhi government, in 2019, following the Telangana model, allotted 200 sewer cleaning machines to the members of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families who had lost their kin to manual scavenging. It also wants the ownership of these machines to be with the community to encourage entrepreneurship, and to give way to rehabilitation as specified in the 2013 Act. 

An International Perspective

“I was three or four months pregnant. There was no one to help me carry the heavy baskets. We then had to collect the faeces, carry it on our head and our hip, and then go and throw it somewhere else. Because of that reason my baby miscarried.” 
 -Kiran, Maharashtra (Human Rights Watch Report 2014)

While we still seek to find a permanent solution to this abhorrent practice, it is useful to look at the situation in other nations. Malaysia had this abhorrent practice for about 30 years from 1950s to 1980s where Chinese migrants were compelled to do the repulsive chore (Dwivedi and Singh 2017). However, the political will of the Malaysian government to transform the country into a tourism hub has led to the phasing out of manual scavenging. Consequently, the Malaysian government has adopted mechanised solutions to deal with the issue of sanitation. It has scaled an arduous climb through strong policies, legislations, and executive mechanisms to manage septic tanks and faecal sludge. Today, 99% of Malaysia’s population has access to urban toilets, and only 1% of the population practise open defecation (Lalwani 2018). However, on the contrary, not more than 30% of sewage is actually treated in India (Down to Earth 2016).

The federalisation of urban sanitation and waste water management in Malaysia have proven to be successful. There has been a clear demarcation of roles to prevent the overlapping of supervision. An effective communication strategy has been devised through social media and television to change habits, customs, and mindsets. Capacity building has been given importance by training sanitation workers and their supervisors, and there has been a constant innovation in sanitation technologies, bringing about a radical change in the on-ground situation (Karunanithi 2017). The privatisation of waste water management sector with effective guidelines and standardised protocols for planning and designing have proven to be beneficial for the health of citizens, with a radical increase in the life expectancy from 55.8 years to 73 years, and a sharp decline in the infant mortality from 80 deaths per 1,000 to five deaths in the years between 1957 and 2005 (World Health Organization 2014). 

Closer home, Pakistan and Bangladesh do not offer any inspiration. The 80% of manual scavengers in Pakistan are from minority communities, like Churhas, Christians, and a sizable number of them are women (Abbas 2019). In Bangladesh, Dalit women are forced into manual scavenging, prostitution, burials, and street-sweeping (International Dalit Solidarity Network 2016). The Dhaka City Corporation assigns the task of cleaning filth, dead cattle, clogged sewers on the streets to low-class Hindus and female sweepers, who also are sexually harassed.  
Europe, too, had a history of manual scavenging, but it has been completely done away with it. Earlier, in England, “Nightmen” or “Gong Farmers” were forced to clean sewers and human excrement late at night.  

As we seek to outlaw this abhorrent practice through our constitutional provisions, due regard should be given to the plethora of international documents that mandate India to put an end to manual scavenging. Accordingly, Articles 1 and 23 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights mandate dignity and equality, fair remuneration, and social security measures for all human beings. The Preamble, Articles 3, 7, 10, 11 and 13 of the International Convention for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also envision equality, dignity, decent living standards and maternity relief for women. Further, the Preamble, Articles 2, 3, 6, 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibit discrimination to envisage a free, equal and democratic society with respect for life and liberty. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination also aims to eliminate gender- and caste-based discrimination, and advocates punitive action against perpetrators. Although India has been one of the initial signatories of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), we are yet to deliver equality, quality of life, social security, education, rehabilitation and employment to women manual scavengers. 

Manual scavenging, especially by women, is also in contravention of the guidelines of the International Labour Organization’s various conventions: Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No 29); Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (C100); Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No 105), and C111—Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No 111). 

The Road Ahead

“All human beings are made of the same earth and they have the right to demand good behavior.”
B R Ambedkar (NCSK 2018). 

So far, policies and laws have failed to address the problems faced by women engaged in this hazardous occupation, and there is a pressing demand to cater to their specific needs. Most of the academics and researchers, despite accepting the caste-based approach, have brushed aside the need to devise gender-based strategies to tackle the social menace. We believe, as the majority of those employed in this occupation are women, it is important to draft policies catering to their specific concerns.

We suggest a four-step agenda that can be incorporated, along with the existing Self-employment Scheme Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers, into streamlining the process of rehabilitation. The union government, with the help of respective state governments, must first identify the women who are still engaged in this profession, including those who carry excrement in baskets, clear sewage and gutters, and also those working on the railway tracks. This can possibly be done in two ways. One way is to identify them through the census conducted once in 10 years, and the other way is through surveys. It must be noted that both these processes of identification are already in place though the veracity of such data is highly questionable, as both the data sets are overtly contradictory. For instance, as per the SECC-2011 there are 1,82,505 manual scavengers in the rural areas, while the data compiled by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment states that there are about 50,000 manual scavengers as on 31 March 2019. Clearly, we need credible data from the government to proceed with the reforms.  

Second, as per Health, Safety and Dignity of Sanitation Workers: An Initial Assessment report of World Bank et al (2019), the government should promote gradual formalisation and mechanisation following the identification process. We should learn from the examples abroad where formalisation has helped a great deal. Further, mechanisation and investment in high-end technology are the only ways out for a long-term solution. A few state governments have already commenced the task of automating sanitation, but to provide concrete benefits to the women involved, gender-specific solutions are needed. For instance, providing sewer machines through easy loans to women who have been practising scavenging will make them the owners and entrepreneurs from being labourers. Granting them technical training to operate these machines would also make them the skilled workers to enhance their status and the standard of living. 

Third, there is a need for decentralised governance. Panchayati Raj institutions and municipal bodies can play an instrumental role in ensuring the effective implementation of rehabilitation schemes and compliance of laws, operational guidance and standard operating procedures for septic tanks and sewage workers. Such supervision is important as it ensures that no one is excluded from or exploited during the rehabilitation procedure. One may argue that a village panchayat itself harbours caste-based sentiments and only facilitates forced manual scavenging, and consequently, shouldering the responsibility of acting as a watchdog would render the whole idea ineffective. To counter the same, there can be an engagement of self-help groups and civil society members. They can oversee the functioning of panchayats and municipal bodies, can also aid in creating awareness, and provide evidence-based guidance on incorporating protection and safeguard mechanisms in villages and municipal towns as well.  

Four, increasing awareness in the society at the large about this abhorrent practice will also be of great help. The success achieved in polio eradication and creating, at least partial, awareness about menstrual hygiene can be credited to the pan-India advertisement campaigns launched by the government. Similar techniques can be adopted by the union and various state governments to raise consciousness. Some of these could include: (a) acting against the engagement of any form of manual scavengers, (b) providing assistance regarding rehabilitation measures, and (c) setting up a grievance-redressal mechanism in case of any aggrieved person is denied rehabilitation, or is compelled to work as manual scavenger. 

The 2020–21 union budget has allocated Rs 28,600 crore for the upliftment of women in the areas of safety, education, and employment (Ministry of Finance 2020: 20). However, yet again, the incumbent government has not earmarked any monetary contribution towards the automation of sanitation and rehabilitation of manual scavengers. For a nation aspiring to achieve a $5 trillion economy, manual scavenging is a blot on its conscience. The sight of a woman carrying excrement on her head undermines the idea of India. Above all, as a nation, we cannot deny a sizable portion of our population their right to life, liberty, dignity, and equality.  

The authors would like to thank Anurag Bhaskar of the Jindal Global Law School and Deesha Dalmia of the University of London for their support in writing this article.
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