Death by excreta: The cursed lives of India’s manual scavengers

Deaths of sanitation workers continue even as governments claim (sic) that they have no person involved in manual scavenging

manual Scavengers

“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.”
Dr B.R. Ambedkar

In a report released recently by the ‘Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan’[1], Gujarat reported 62 deaths of manual scavengers, followed by Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh reporting 29 deaths each. Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu followed this ignominious record, reporting 24 deaths each. These figures are in stark contradiction with the state-wise data released by National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), a statutory body set up by an Act of Parliament for the welfare of sanitation workers.

At the same time, an NGO working for the welfare of manual scavengers and eradication of the practice of manual scavenging – Safai Karmachari Andolan[2] – says that 429 deaths from it occurred in Delhi alone from 2016 to 2018. The reports of the NGO say that nearly 2,000 manual scavengers die every year in the sewers, due to exposure to poisonous gases. If the deaths that occur in septic tanks are included, then the number would be even higher.

And in the face of all of this, many state governments in India maintain that they do not have a single person engaged in manual scavenging. With almost all states having tens of thousands of dry latrines, it is impossible to believe the data ‘officially’ given by the States.

The skewed statistics presented by the State seem only the tip of the iceberg if one tries to gauge the apathy, ignorance and impunity with which it lets the lives of the most vulnerable of its citizens choke to death inside poisonous gas chambers.

The Report released by Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan brings out numerous painful observations and ground realities. The report presents statistics based on interviews and surveys which makes its observations credible and resourceful.

Their findings are as follows:

  • The present study identified a total 140 incidents and 302 deaths from 1992 to 2018. Out of 140 incidents a total of 51 incidents were covered by the study in which 97 deaths were reported.

  • According to NCSK’s data, Tamil Nadu reported highest number of deaths (194) followed by Gujarat (122), Karnataka (68) and Uttar Pradesh (51). In our report, Gujarat reported 62 deaths followed by Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh reporting 29 deaths each and Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu reporting 24 deaths   each.

  • Out of the total case interview, in 35% of the incidents the FIR was filed whereas in 59% of the incidents FIR were not filed and in 6% of incidents respondents do not know if FIR had been filed. In the total number of cases where the FIR had been filed (18 cases), the research team was able to furnish copies of the FIR for 13 cases during the investigation.

  • Legal Proceedings:

  1. In the FIRs, section 304 and 304 A of  IPC was charged 77% cases (10 cases  out of 13 cases where FIR was filed and furnished), which is related to death caused due to negligence and for the remaining 3 cases out of 13 cases  where the FIR was filed and furnished, sections 174 of IPC  (Non-  attendance in obedience to an order from public servant) and 284 (Negligent conduct with respect to a poisonous substance) and 7 and 9   of the MS Act 2013 had been charged. But, not in a single case except in that of Bengaluru, the arrest of the employers or the contractors was made. In cases where the FIR had not been filed, the reasons cited by the family were that of compromises being made, pressure and intimidation faced and at times, they have been threatened that they would lose their current jobs.

  2. In the 51 cases interviewed, prosecution did not happen in any of the cases.

  • Compensation: On March 27, 2014, Honorable Supreme Court of India, in a landmark judgment, declared that a person being made/forced to enter into a manhole or septic tank would be considered as a crime even in an emergency situation and in case of death of the person, a compensation of Rs. 10 lakhs would be awarded to the family of the deceased. The judgment also directed states to undergo a survey to identify incidents of deaths from 1993. This research reports that out of a total of 51 incidents, only in 31% of the cases compensation was awarded to the families of the deceased whereas in the remaining 69% of the incident’s compensation was not awarded. It is important to note that in many of the cases where relief amount has been given to the families of the deceased by the employers/contractors, it was underlined with the intention to dispose the cases. Total 48 families out of 95 families in 16 incidents were awarded compensation.

  • Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment also reported 172 deaths in the year 2016 and 323 deaths in the year 2017.

  • During the time this study (January to July 2018) was being undertaken, 46 deaths were reported from states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu. Every 4-day one death cases are reported in last six months.

  • Of the 51 incidents across 11 states that the team investigated, a total number of 70 workers survived minor to fatal injuries.

  • Rehabilitation:

  1. The survey was also aimed at ascertaining implementation of the Self- employment scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) and Pre-Matric Scholarship for the children whose parents are involved in occupation involving cleaning and health hazard.

  2. Not a single family whose members have died while cleaning the septic tank or the sewer received their due rights mentioned in the SRMS scheme. Not a single family was rehabilitated in alternative job, on the contrary; the deceased families have had to start engaging in manual scavenging as there was no alternate job available for their sustenance.

  1. The same goes for the pre-Matric scholarship also. Not a single child of the families who are involved in this hazardous and demeaning practice have received the scholarship for their children. As the pre-Matric scholarship is demand driven, not a single state has raised their demand for the scholarship in the year 2014-15 to 2018. Same goes for the year 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 except for Gujarat in the year 2015-16 and Maharashtra in the year 2016-17.

  • The highest death rate of 37% was recorded in the age group of 15-25 followed by 35% and 23% in the age group of 25-35 and 35-45 respectively.

  • 67% of the total deceased were married. Valmiki, Arunthutiyar, Dom, Mehtar, Rukhi, Kumbhar, Matang, Meghwal, Chambar, Rai Sikh and Hela are the communities engaged in cleaning and sanitation related work in the different states covered by the research.

  • 94% of the families of the deceased belong to the Scheduled Caste category, 4% to   the Other Backward Classes and 2% to the Scheduled Tribe.

  • Out of the 94% Scheduled Castes families of the deceased, 65% of the families’ interviewed belong to the Valmiki caste, a group pushed to engage in sanitation and cleaning related work mostly in the northern parts of the country.

  • 49% of the deceased were found to have studied below the 10th standard whereas another 45% were uneducated.[3]


Human Rights Watch also found some instances in which women and men from the Valmiki caste are engaged by urban municipal corporations, both directly by the government and through contractors, to manually clean excrement.

 A municipal corporation worker, who has worked as a safai karmachari, or sanitation worker, for the Bharatpur municipal corporation since 2004 explained her work:

 I clean my area, these two lanes. I clean twice a day because it is so dirty. I sweep the roads and I clean the drains. It is extremely dirty because the houses here flush the excrement from the toilets directly into the drains. I have to pick out the excreta, along with any garbage from the drains. I have to do it. If I do not, I will lose my job. Some women said they faced threats of violence when they refused to practice manual scavenging.

 In November 2012, when Gangashri along with 12 other women in Parigama village in Uttar Pradesh’s Mainpuri district voluntarily stopped cleaning dry toilets, men from the dominant Thakur caste came to their homes and threatened to deny them grazing rights and expel them from the village. Despite these threats, the women refused to return to manual scavenging. Soon after, some 20 to 30 upper caste men from Parigama confronted the community.

Gangashri recalls: They called our men and said “If you don’t start sending your women to clean our toilets, we will beat them up. We will beat you up.” They said, “We will not let you live in peace.” We were afraid.

Such threats have been particularly effective in binding communities to manual scavenging because the affected communities face extreme difficulty in securing police protection. They are especially vulnerable to police refusal to register complaints due to caste bias by police and local government officials.[4]

NCSK Report points out that “The manual scavengers, who are mainly women, are doing this unhygienic work to earn their livelihood, but in most of the cases, even now, they are paid in kind after six months or so without getting any wages on regular basis. (10Kg grains to one family or even one or two basi roties – District Ghaziabad, Meerut etc.)[5]

This translates that they earn only about Rs.300 a month in the form of grain and do not get any cash. Even in this day and time no thought has been given as to from where expenditure for their other needs will come from? In other cases where monthly wages are paid for such a lowly and inhuman work to the manual scavenger these are as low as Rs.One per day (wages range from Rs.15 – 25 a month per family).”

The Commission has found during its tours that dozens of deaths are occurring in almost all the States which are covered up by the administrative machinery, urban local bodies and these deaths remain unreported and non-compensated most of the time. No remedial measures are taken at District, State or Central level even when these deaths of safai karamcharis are reported in national newspapers. They are usually hired on daily wages through a contractor. These safai karamcharis are neither trained to do the job nor provided with any equipment, what to say of life saving paraphernalia. The person, here, has to enter into the sewer/drain, without any mask or equipment and remains within it till he cleans it manually or is killed by the poisonous gases.

In December, 2003 the Safai Karamchari Andolan along with six other civil society organizations as well as seven individuals belonging to the community of manual scavengers filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution on the ground that the continuation of the practice of manual scavenging as well as of dry latrines is illegal and unconstitutional since it violates the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 17, 21 and 23 of the Constitution of India and the1993 Act.

Based on the data submitted by the petitioner, the court observed on 27 March, 2014 that

The aforesaid data collected by the petitioners makes it abundantly clear that the practice of manual scavenging continues unabated. Dry latrines continue to exist notwithstanding the fact that the 1993 Act was in force for nearly two decades. States have acted in denial of the 1993 Act and the constitutional mandate to abolish untouchability.

 For over a decade, this Court issued various directions and sought for compliance from all the States and Union Territories. Due to effective intervention and directions of this Court, the Government of India brought an Act called The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 for abolition of this evil and for the welfare of manual scavengers. The Act got the assent of the President on 18.09.2013. The enactment of the aforesaid Act, in no way, neither dilutes the constitutional mandate of Article 17 nor does it condone the inaction on the part of Union and State Governments under the 1993 Act.

 What the 2013 Act does in addition is to expressly acknowledge Article 17 and Article 21 rights of the persons engaged in sewage cleaning and cleaning tanks as well persons cleaning human excreta on railway tracks.”

Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act (PEMSR) was passed by both the Houses of Parliament on September 7, 2013. The PEMSR Act,
2013 received assent of the President on September 18, 2013 and subsequently published in the Gazette of India on September 19, 2013.

· The Act prohibits the employment of manual scavengers, the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment, and the construction of insanitary latrines.[6]

· Its main objectives are:

i. Prohibition of employment as manual scavengers;

ii. Rehabilitation of manual scavengers.

· The Act recognizes the link between manual scavengers and weaker sections of the society. It therefore, views manual scavenging as being violative of their right to dignity.

· Under the Act, each local authority, cantonment board and railway authority is responsible for surveying insanitary latrines within its jurisdiction. They shall also construct a number of sanitary community latrines.

· Each occupier of insanitary latrines shall be responsible for converting or demolishing the latrine at his own cost. If he fails to do so, the local authority shall convert the
latrine and recover the cost from him.

· The district magistrate and the local authority shall be the implementing authorities. · Offences under the Bill shall be cognizable and non-bailable, and may be tried

· It provides for detailed vigilance mechanism and monitoring committee at district, state and central level.

· The Act specifically provides for carrying out surveys for identifying persons employed as manual scavengers.


Some of the suggestions from the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan Report are as follows:


  • Technology induced intervention

  • Training of the workers and Sanitation Inspector

  • Proper awareness and sensitization of the authorities



  • Providing relief certificate

  • Ensure compensation for the families

  • Comprehensive Rehabilitation of the families

  • Coverage of worker who has met the fatal injuries

  • Scholarship for the children



  • The Police to register FIR along with invoking appropriate sections of the MS Act 2013 and The POA Act 1989.

  • Penalizing the implementing the agency: the authorities must be held accountable and responsible for the deaths and must be penalized, as per MS Act 2013 and recent amendment of POA Act in relation to manual scavengers


Standard operating Procedures (SOP):

  • Standard operating Procedures for sewer and septic tank cleaners

Inspite of all safeguards are legislative provisions, the humanly degrading practice of manual scavenging is rampant. The primary reason for it seems to be the fact that the ost vulnerable amongst the vulnerable groups are engaged in this practice, ie, majorly Dalits of Valmiki caste, and a significant number of them being women.

It thus becomes an easy task to hush them up by various means: violent threats, fear of unemployment, token payment and in other cases, washing their feet and declaring their job to be a “spiritual experience”, right after cutting their rehabilitation funds by half. [7]

While there exists penal provisions and fines for employing anyone to clean septic tanks, under the Government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2 crore new toilets were built but they did not come with the better infrastructure or design than traditional toilets and have added on to the misery of the manual scavengers. Many newly built toilets in urban households are spawning more septic tanks and sewers, thereby continuing the practice of employing manual scavengers to clean them.

It will take much more than lip service and feet washing for us to realise that the our society has been committing millions of its least empowered people to death in order to maintain our so called ‘hygiene’ with their blood.


[1] The “Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan” (National Campaign for Dignity) launched by Jan Sahas in 2001 has proven to be a very innovative and effective program to end manual scavenging. The Abhiyan has liberated 31,828 manual scavengers in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

[2] Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), is an Indian human rights organization that has been campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging, the construction, operation and employment of manual scavengers which has been illegal in India since 1993.

[3] Report by Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan,  “Justice Denied: Death of workers engaged in manual scavenging while cleaning the Septic tank or Sewer”.

[4] Cleaning Human Waste “Manual Scavenging,” Caste, and Discrimination in India: Human Rights Watch Report (2014)

[5] National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, Annual Report 2005-2006 & 2006-2007 (Combined)

[6]Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, s. 5.

[7]The Telegraph India, “Why it won’t wash Prime Minister” (



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