Is the fight far from over? – Sustainable development goals amidst Manual Scavenging in India

July 04, 2020

New Delhi :Despite a lethargic leadership geared towards complete eradication of this menace, several strides have been made to counter the spread of Manual Scavenging. This practice is dated to hundreds of years ago. An act that primarily entails people from the lower caste groups working as manual laborers to carry, dispose and handle in any manner human waste, cleaning dry latrines, septic tanks and sewers. Manual scavengers are amongst the most disadvantaged in the communities. With the aim to achieve SDGs in the long run, clean water and sanitation, decent work, reduced inequality, good health and well-being, is the fight towards manual scavenging far from over?

Historically till date, millions of people in India continue to be affected because they are born in underprivileged backgrounds. The overwhelming emotion becomes neither resentment nor buoyancy, but despondency. This work is one of the occupations culturally regarded in India’s caste system to be polluting and thus socially despised. According to the caste system, it mandates the division of labor and allocation of occupation based on one’s caste. Many of these barriers persist in modern times.

The Indian caste system survives by and large in the rural and urban areas despite modernity. The occupations are grossly unsanitary, unhygienic for the workers. These workers do not have access to protective gears thus the implications that come along with it are not only physical but psychological stigma as well. Moreover those who have such occupations get very low wages that are not even able to cater for an ounce of their daily needs and necessities. With earnings of less than a dollar a day, the incentive to remain in such occupations is propelled by the need to feed their families and have a source of livelihood.

Manual scavenging is a violation of human rights. According to the United Nations Human Rights Watch, every human being is entitled to the right of sanitation. However it is estimated that 1.3 million dalits (in which more than 80% are dalit women) make their living through manual scavenging. Legally, this inhumane practice was abolished by Law in India in 1993, however it is still deeply entrenched in many societies. The prohibition of employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, seeks to address this menace and to counter its spread. Despite penalties for the same being clearly depicted, a lot needs to be done.

Does this question the ideology of the Rule of Law? More than 7 decades after independence and having established democratic institutions, yet, many generations of the dalit people have been denied their human rights and dignity. Manual scavenging stretches from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, backward states to developed states. It is more predominant in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar and Maharashtra

Nonetheless, many schemes have been put in place in order to curb and rehabilitate those who have been affected by the practice. Firstly, Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation Schemes of Manual Scavengers ( SRM) initiated by the Indian Government who allotted Rs.735 Crores for the rehabilitation of the affected 3,42,468 individuals. However only 78,941 individuals instead benefitted. Secondly, other rehabilitation packages included, ensuring discrimination free and secure livelihood by providing skills and vocational training to women and linking them up with government employment schemes in order to secure alternate modes of livelihood. Thirdly, by sensitizing the community and creating awareness on the dangers that come alongside this practice. Lastly, by having leadership capacity programs for the dalits with a focus on the women in order for them to be empowered so as not to settle for less.


Moreover under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, the Swachh Bharat Mission - Urban (SBM-U), launched in 2014, aims to achieve scientific management of municipal solid waste in towns in India, eradication of manual scavengers and to ensure healthy sanitation practices. However one of the biggest threats lies with the Indian Railways with many having toilets which drop the excreta from trains on the rail tracks and employs scavengers to clean the tracks.

Moreover, several campaigns have been spearheaded to fight against this practice. A 65 day Mail Mukti Yatra was organized in 200 districts of 18 states in India in which so many took to the streets and protest. On the 3rd June, 2014 students of Ambedkar University Delhi took to the streets to protest in solidarity with the workers who had been forcefully made to engage in manual scavenging. Despite not having violent protests, they were shunned away by police officers.

Towards the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals, there is inclusion of eradication of such practices. Some of the SDG’s recommendations to end any form of caste based discrimination include: ending excessive poverty propagated by caste, ensuring healthy lives and promoting the well-being of everyone, inclusion and equitable opportunities for all, promote gender equality and empowerment of all women and ensuring sustainable management of sanitation for all.

According to the Global concern index 2016, 18 million people out of the world’s total 46 million people live under conditions of slavery in India. Some are domestic laborers who engage in manual scavenging this act is an injustice akin to slavery. The fight is also against modern slavery caused by one’s surrounding or conditions. Most of these manual laborers do it because that is the only means of earning wages that they have. Moreover with families and responsibilities that come along with sustaining them, they end up doing anything thus being slaves of the external environment to make ends meet.

The central and state governments as well as the international community have a key role to play. Putting proper laws in place without ensuring adherence does not help. Signing of agreements and having dialogues without performance is unnecessary. People are disillusioned and need better standards of living, they want to see change, actions being taken and strides to ensure equality for all regardless and in the long run, a better society

What is even more funny and hard to understand is the fact that manual scavenging is initiated by the proletariat and the elite in the society. Reputable institutions and organizations are fond of hiring such labor yet they claim to be at the forefront of eradicating this practice. The local authorities fail to intervene when the laborers are faced with threats from the households they serve. The abuse of rights suffered by people who practice manual scavenging are mutually reinforcing. Discrimination extends to all facets of their lives including basic necessities and access to education for their children. Moreover, the police force who have equal power in fighting against it are being used to suppress demonstrations, rebellions and the voice of citizens who are concerned about this menace.

(Yvonne Wanjiru is an intern at OneWorld Foundation India)


1. Freedom form manual scavenging by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment published by Press Information Bureau Government of India, Independence Day Special Feature, 14th August 2015.

2. Gazette of India No 35, Part II section I: the ‘Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’ published by New Delhi Authority, 19th September 2013.

3. Journal of Politics & Governance, Vol. 6, No. 1 page 13-23 published by G. Palanithurai & G. George, 1st March 2017.

4. The Hindu, Article on ‘Manual scavenging law not implemented effectively’, by staff reporter New Delhi, 25th September 2015 (Accessed 3rd July, 2020)

5. 'Cleaning Human Waste', Human Rights Watch, 2014