Rights defenders in India are calling on the Indian Government to outline a concrete action plan within one month to end the dangerous and demeaning practice of manual scavenging, the manual removal of human excrements, primarily carried out by Dalits.

The call comes following the death of 27 manual scavengers in India within the span of one month, outlined in a press release by rights NGO Safai Karmchari Andolan (SKA). In response, the New Delhi Government has since imposed a blanket ban on manual cleaning of sewers, saying offenders are to be booked under culpable homicide, which if implemented is an important step in the right direction.

Rights organisations estimate that around 1.3 million Dalits in India are forced to carry out manual scavenging. The practice includes removing human excrement from dry toilets and sewers using basic tools such as thin boards, buckets and baskets and without protective gear. Manual Scavengers fall seriously ill and risk death by doing this work. Those engaged in cleaning sewers may die instantly from being lowered down into poisonous gas in the sewers, which is what has caused the surge in deaths the past month. In the past month Dalits engaged in manual scavenging 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.

The practice persists despite being legally outlawed. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993 and Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 hold the executive authorities responsible for the implementation of the law. According to the press release issued by SKA no prosecutions and no punishment has been awarded to any person so far, either for sending people into the sewer lines and septic tanks or for the causing 1470 deaths in the country.

According to a Times of India news report, “The government has stated that safety standards in the cleaning of sewer and septic tanks are alarmingly low across the country in the wake of 10 people falling prey to cleaning sewers in a month in the capital. A review of the “Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013” (MS Act) has found that there is no information available about the cases lodged for engaging sanitation workers in “hazardous cleaning“.”

The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, also made the following statement,

”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.”

So while the latest move to book those violating the law under culpable homicide shows there is will to follow through on the legislation, campaigners will continue to monitor the situation to see whether this is in fact implemented. Furthermore there are several other demands outlined in the press release including that,

“The government should immediately:

  • Stop these killings, which have been occurring because people are being sent down into sewer lines and septic tanks.
  • It must prosecute and punish those responsible for these killings.
  • The Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers of the States must prepare and announce a comprehensive action plan within a month.”

In the meantime organisations such as SKA and Jansahas continue to support manual scavengers in leaving the practice and finding alternative sources of income. In a recent special feature by NDTV we meet some of the Dalit women that IDSN member Jansahas have supported to break out of the dangerous and humiliating practice of manual scavenging. See the video report here.