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Photo: Jakob Carlsen

Manual scavenging, the removing of human excreta from dry latrines, railroad tracks and sewers by hand, is a caste-based and hereditary occupation form of slavery reserved exclusively for Dalits

It is estimated that around 1.3 million Dalits in India, mostly women, make their living through manual scavenging – a term used to describe the job of removing human excrement from dry toilets and sewers using basic tools such as thin boards, buckets and baskets, lined with sacking, carried on the head.

Manual scavengers earn as little as one rupee a day. Dalit scavengers are rarely able to take up another occupation due to discrimination related to their caste and occupational status, and are thus forced to remain scavengers. They are paid less than minimum wages and are often forced to borrow money from upper-caste neighbours in order to survive and consequently they end up maintaining the relationship of bondage.

Manual scavenging is not a career chosen voluntarily by workers, but is instead a deeply unhealthy, unsavoury and undignified job forced upon these people because of the stigma attached to their caste. The nature of the work itself then reinforces that stigma. Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2013

Though this vile and inhumane practice was abolished by law in India in 1993 the practice is deeply entrenched in South Asian societies.

The 2014 Human Rights Watch report Cleaning Human Waste: “Manual Scavenging,” Caste, and Discrimination in India documents that manual scavenging’ persists with the support and collusion of local officials. The report is a key resource in learning more about this practice.

In 2013, the Indian parliament enacted The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act (the 2013 Act) outlawing all manual excrement cleaning. The 2013 Act also recognized a constitutional obligation to correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by these communities by providing alternate livelihood and other assistance.

In March 2014, the Supreme Court of India ruled that manual scavenging violates international human rights law. The court called for effective remedy. The new Indian government elected in May has pledged to address the needs of India’s marginalized communities, but has yet to take any new measures to end manual scavenging.

“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.” Gangashri, Uttar Pradesh, 2014

People who have left manual scavenging, even those who had the support of community-based civil society initiatives, report significant barriers to accessing housing, employment, and support from existing government programs. Notably, under the 2013 Act, rehabilitation provisions are left to be implemented under existing central and state government schemes – the same set of programs that have not thus far succeeded in ending manual scavenging.

In March 2012, a National Public Hearing on “Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers and their Children in India” was held to increase the political will to address the issues and sensitize other sections of the society and involve them rehabilitation efforts. Read report

In September 2012, a new and expanded bill on manual scavenging was submitted to the Indian Parliament. It is likely that it will be adopted in 2013.

In December 2012, a two-month long march to end manual scavenging – the Maila Mukti Yatra – crossed 18 Indian states and liberated thousands of Dalit scavengers. On the final day of the march, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, issued a statement of support to the participants.

  •  “I clean toilets in 20 houses every day. I use a tin plate and broom to remove the excrement that has collected in the toilet, I collect the excrement in a basket, and then I take it and throw it away. This work is so awful I don’t feel like eating.” —Manisha, Mainpuri district, Uttar Pradesh, January 2014 © 2014 Digvijay Singh
    “I clean toilets in 20 houses every day. I use a tin plate and broom to remove the excrement that has collected in the toilet, I collect the excrement in a basket, and then I take it and throw it away. This work is so awful I don’t feel like eating.” —Manisha, Mainpuri district, Uttar Pradesh, January 2014 © 2014 Digvijay Singh
  • “They do not give money. Sometimes they give two rotis, sometimes just one. One house did not give me anything for two or three days. So I stopped going there. If they give me nothing, why should I go? I didn’t go for two or three days, then they came to threaten—‘If you do not come, we will not let you on our land. Where will you get food for your animals?’ Together, we own four buffaloes. I went back to clean. I had to.”

  • “The panchayat [village council] hires people to work as water suppliers, messengers, clerks, garbage collectors, and this work I do—cleaning toilets. You see, what happens here, if you are from the Mehatar caste, you have to do this work. You are not told this directly, but it is what you are hired to do and what is expected, even from the villagers. If there is excrement to clean, they will come and call us to do it.”
  • “They (the village council) brought our family here to clean the dry toilets, water toilets, wada toilets, and open defecation. I collect all the excrement and throw it elsewhere. We actually want to go back home. We don’t like it here... Because of this work, my health has declined. I eat very little food. It is very dirty work. But people are saying, the panchayat [village council] will not allow us to leave and that is why they are not giving us full payment.”
  • “I left manual scavenging when Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan [National Campaign for Dignity] told me that I could leave and this work was against the law. Before that, we were told we had to do it. There was no one who told us we didn’t have to do it.”

  • “When I left, one of the people I cleaned for warned me, ‘Now, if you come to my farm, I’ll cut off both of your legs.’”

  • “We left this work with help from Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan. We always wanted to leave and we were looking for some support. ... When we left they came to our houses and threatened us: ‘If you do not clean our toilets, we will not allow you to use our fields for defecation. We will hit you with sticks and stones.’ Then after a week, six of us women were called to the meeting and told that if we didn’t do this work they would beat us up. They said, ‘We will not let you live in peace.’”
  • “I learned my daughters were being made to sweep the floors in school because I would give them a bath, but they would return dirty, with dust in their hair. I went to the school and asked why my children were being made to sweep. First, the teacher said—‘They are not being singled out.’ Then, she said, ‘What do you expect? Your caste is responsible for this work.’”

  • “We told the police, ‘We are being forced to do this illegal work and want to file a report.’ The police officer would not file the complaint. We took support from Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan and reached the Superintendent of Police who came to our village and told the Thakurs [upper caste group] that the threats must stop.”
  • “I was sitting with my friends and touched a bowl belonging to an upper caste boy. It was an accident. The boy ran to the teacher and told him.
  • “I was made to sit separately while eating. Finally one day I got too frustrated by this. I threw my food down. Then I lost marks for speaking out against the way I was treated. I said to my teacher, ‘If you mistreat me, and then fail me for responding, I won’t come.’ It did not get better for me in school. In sixth standard I left.”
  • “We have land on paper from the government, but we cannot use it because another family says it is their land. Though it is our land, the other family is using it and we are not allowed to enter. We went and asked the patwari [land registrar] in Dewas district. The patwari said, “We have done our work, now it is your responsibility to take your land or not.”
  • “Ten years after we left scavenging, our community has a fishing collective and a government contract so we can fish on this lake. A group of us, women who had been doing manual scavenging, went together to the collector and explained that we need this contract. We have a joint bank account where we deposit all the money we earn from selling fish in the market. We use this money to buy eggs to stock the lake, and to pay everyone who is part of the collective a daily wage.”
  • “I learned my rights and left manual scavenging in 2008 with help from Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan. In 2010, I was elected to a seat reserved for women, representing my ward. I have had proper drains and roads constructed and helped 10 people to get ration cards. I’ve done good work, so why wouldn’t people praise me?”
  • “The manual carrying of human feces is not a form of employment, but an injustice akin to slavery. It is one of the most prominent forms of discrimination against Dalits, and it is central to the violation of their human rights.”


Database

IDSN has created an extensive database on caste-based discrimination.

All documents on manual scavenging 

Campaigning to stop manual scavenging

Several national and international campaigns have been launched to eliminate manual scavenging. In 2007, the ‘Liberation movement of those employed as scavengers’ (Safari Karamchari Andolan-SKA) launched an international campaign – ‘Action 2010’ demanding an end to manual scavenging by the October 2010 Commonwealth Games, in Delhi.

The same year, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Committee of Experts urged the Government of India to, “take decisive action to eradicate manual scavenging and to report on nation and state-wide action taken to put an end to this practice and on the progress made in the identification, liberation and rehabilitation of scavengers.”

DSN-UK’s FOUL PLAY campaign was launched in solidarity with the SKA and made a number of recommendations to the Indian and the UK Governments, as well as the Commonwealth Secretariat which they are expected to fulfil before hosting the 2010 games. DSN-UK supported SKA in its demands including the release of over Rs. 800 crores for the rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers.

Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan – Jan Sahas is a national level movement which works for the total eradication of manual scavenging and the empowerment of Dalits and other vulnerable section of society. It is a partner of the ILO in India.

Safai Karmachari Andolan – a movement to eradicate manual scavenging in India

Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan – Jan Sahas

Dalit Solidarity Network UK

Maila Mukti Yatra – a march for the eradication of manual scavenging, taking place in November 2009

Videos – Manual Scavenging

Below is a video dealing with manual scavenging. Visit IDSN’s YouTube Channel for more videos on other themes/countries.

Documentation

Latest documentation links on manual scavengin

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Older references on manual scavenging

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