Despite a ban on manual scavenging, 88 sanitation workers have died while cleaning septic tanks and sewers in the past three years, according to the Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry.


  • Manual scavenging refers to the south Asian practice of humans cleaning dry toilets and sewage systems. It is often based on India’s age-old caste system, with most people involved in the task belonging to the Dalit community.
  • Manual scavenging is perpetuated by private firms and local administrations.
  • India generates approximately 1,33,760 tonnes of municipal solid waste daily, of which approximately 91,152 tonnes is collected and around 25,884 tonnes is treated.
  • While in India only 33 percent of houses (Census 2011) are connected to sewer systems, only around 38 percent use septic tanks. These septic tanks do not treat waste and have to be emptied periodically.
  • As per a report by Human Rights Watch Report, on an average, women get paid as little as between Rs 10 and Rs 50 every month, which is less than men who earn up to Rs 300 a day for cleaning sewer lines.
  • Since 1993, 620 cases have been reported, of which 88 occurred in the past three years.
  • The compensation had been given in 445 cases, partial settlement in 58 cases, while 117 cases were pending.
  • In 445 cases the full amount had been paid, while partial compensation had been given in 58 cases, the reply said.
  • Of the 15 States and Union Territories that submitted details to the Ministry, Tamil Nadu had the highest number of sewer deaths with 144 cases, followed by Gujarat with 131.


  • Septic tanks are enclosed areas made for the accumulation of decomposed domestic wastes, sewerage, and its resultant gases. Sewers provide a myriad of dangers for those who work within them.
  • Sewer gas is a mixture of Hydrogen Sulphide, Ammonia, Methane, Carbon-dioxide, Nitrogen dioxide, Sulphur dioxide and sometimes, even carbon monoxide.
  • These gases can be toxic as one of its major components is Methane, which can be extremely toxic in high concentration.
  • Hydrogen Sulphide can be poisonous even in small concentrations in the form of irritation of the eyes, shortness of breath and an incessant cough.
  • Toxic gases resulting from cleaning fluids and excrement build up in the sewer, which rises to levels that pose a severe risk to those breathing them.
  • The internal environment poses a severe risk of infection.


  • Article 17: It deals with the abolition of untouchability but not much has been implemented in the country.
  • Article 46: Article 46 provides that the State shall protect the weaker sections, particularly the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, from social injustice and all form of exploitation.
  • Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993: Manual Scavenging was banned 25 years ago with the passing of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 but it still continues to find practitioners.
  • Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013: In 2013, the ‘Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’ came into force. However, this law leaves people “helpless”.
  • Supreme Court (SC): In March 2014 the Supreme Court ruled that the practice of manual scavenging was prohibited in India under various international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

However, the dehumanizing practice still persists in various parts of the country. The present Act does not address the critical aspects of provisions like the rehabilitation of those who were liberated from manual scavenging before passing the law in 2013.


  • For Employment: In India, over a lakh, rural households are dependent on manual scavenging for income, according to the 2011 socioeconomic and caste census.
  • Unsanitary Latrines: The occupation of manual scavenging still persists mainly because of the continued presence of unsanitary latrines. There are about 2.6 million unsanitary latrines (dry toilets) that require cleaning by hand in the country.
    • According to the House Listing and Housing Census 2011, states such as Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal account for more than 72% of the unsanitary latrines in India.
  • Structural Problems: There are structural problems as well, which forces people to enter septic tanks as they are designed badly. They have engineering defects which means that after a point, a machine cannot clean it. The situation could go from bad to worse as millions of septic tanks are being built in rural India under the Swachh Bharat Mission.


  • Technological Intervention: In order to abolish the practices of manual scavenging, the foremost alternative proposed by various stakeholders was of technological intervention.
  • Sensitizing the Issue: It is very essential that the government and authorities are sensitized to recognize the intensity of the issue and see the system as dehumanizing and unconstitutional.
  • More Funding: Over the years, budget allocation for prevention and the implementation of the Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) has reduced drastically. Adequate budget allocation for the schemes should be the urgent need of the authority.
  • Awareness: Furthermore, the local bodies or sanitation inspectors should be trained about the acts present for them, safety procedure, and technical know-how of cleaning devices.


In India, the very existence of manual cleaning of sewers, septic tanks, and manholes, along with the alarming death rate, is an open secret. Though this occupation is hazardous, unsafe, unsanitary, undignified and above all, legally banned by the government, but, it still plays a major role in the Indian sanitation sector’s everyday affairs. Year after year, the pervasiveness of the deaths of manual scavengers has become prosaic reality. The perils of this century-old custom will stay unaddressed until the society changes its perspective and government works towards strict implementation of policies to eradicate the problem completely.

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