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Manual Scavenging in India: Illegal, yet in Practise

In India, we continue to practice manual scavenging, a derogatory practice, confined to people belonging to lower castes and resulting in their deaths.

On June 26th, 2019 four people from Rohtak died due to suffocation while they were cleaning the septic tanks without adequate safety gears. "They informed the operator Neeraj Kumar that there may be poisonous gases inside. So we cannot do the work. But he told them, that they still had to do it",  said Sunil Pradhan, a sanitation worker. 

The number of deaths of sanitation workers has risen over the years despite the ban on manual scavenging. Every year, hundreds of manual scavengers die due to asphyxiated by poisonous gases in septic tanks. 

Manual scavenging was banned 26 years ago with the passing of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Yet, this demeaning job of cleaning, carrying and disposing of human excreta with bare hands is being practiced. An estimated, total of 1760 sanitation workers have died since 1993, and most of these families have not been provided with compensation. The act which was passed in 1993, was again amended in 2013 to form the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. It focused on increasing the punishment for manual scavenging, and on rehabilitation and employment of those involved in manual scavenging.

Manual scavenging is a caste-based occupation, and it is definitely an acute problem, as to whom we ask to enter and clean the septic tank. According to the law, any person who enters the sewage tank for cleaning, he/she should be given a special suit, an oxygen cylinder, a mask and gumshoes to be used. Moreover, ambulances are ordered to be notified, well in advance, so that they can be in the location, in case of emergency. However, on the account of all the death incidents, claims that neither government or private organisations provide these safety gears. 

Sumit, who a sanitation worker from Rohtak, said “This is a mistake of the authorities. They don’t give us gas masks and other safety equipment. 

Further, the government also promised the compensation of Rs.10 lakh, for the families of victims, but the bigger question of ending the practice of manual scavenging is escaping. Considering the dangers involved in this occupation, and then stating a compensation seems like a highly inappropriate measure. Prime Minister, Narendra Modi who is running an ardent Swachh Bharat Abhiyan campaign, called to build two crore toilets, also haven’t changed the situation of manual scavenging in the past few years. What is worse is that these perils of manual scavenging in our country still stay unaddressed. The government talks about building new toilets, which is again spawning more septic tanks and sewers, thereby continuing to employ manual scavengers. The priority should be given to the dry latrines which flush waste in the open and opt for bio-toilets and leach pits. 


Video made by Community Correspondent Reena.

Article by Grace Jolliffe, a Member of VV Editorial Team.

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