INCLUDING THE EXCLUDED: Unpacking Challenges and Framing Solutions for Manual Scavengers and Sanitation workers in India

28 June 2019
Human rights
Unpacking Challenges and Framing Solutions for Manual Scavengers and Sanitation workers in India
Image: WaterAid/ Srishti Bhardwaj

WaterAid India aims to build a shared understanding of the several challenges and crisis of health, safety, dignity and rehabilitation faced by manual scavengers and sanitation workers in India. 

India has taken significant strides to improve access to sanitation, particularly through the Swachh Bharat Mission. However, critical stakeholders engaged in sanitation work still face numerous challenges around safety, health, dignity, and rehabilitation. Despite the enactment of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR 2013) in India, and efforts to eradicate these practices and to rehabilitate workers involved in it, the inhuman practices of engaging workers as manual scavengers continues. 

The Socio Economic Caste Census of India 2011 had identified 1.82 lakh manual scavengers across the country. In 2018, an inter-ministerial task force found that there are over 53,000 people practicing manual scavenging, in just 121 out of over 600 districts in the country. Deaths of people engaged in manual scavenging/ sanitation workers continue unabated – in sewers and while cleaning septic tanks. 

In this context, WaterAid India, supported by the European Commission – European Instrument of Democracy and Human Rights (EC-EIDHR), and in partnership with Association of Rural and Urban Needy (ARUN) and Centre for Equity Studies (CES), is implementing a three-year (2018-21) project on ‘Strengthening rule of law to advance rights and freedoms of Manual Scavengers in India’. The project aims to study issues around implementation of PEMSR 2013 and demonstrate possible community based and systemic measures to strengthen the implementation of the act.

The project involved a baseline study to understand the situation of manual scavengers, with a focus on women manual scavengers, in 36 urban locations across Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and an implementation analysis of the PEMSR 2013 Act. Based on these learnings, the project will now focus on engaging with government and other actors for strengthening the implementation of the Act and on community level initiatives led by the women manual scavengers and their families, for improving the life conditions of these workers. 

As part of this process, WaterAid India organised a consultation ‘INCLUDING THE EXCLUDED: Unpacking Challenges and Framing Solutions for Manual Scavengers and Sanitation workers in India’ on 28 June 2019. Participants from civil society, multi-lateral institutions, research institutions and individuals came together to propose the following recommendations: 

  • Any direct contact between human and faecal matter should be abolished by law

  • Rehabilitation of the manual scavenging community in order to pull out one generation from this inhuman practice and ensure them the best possible education that can act as an enabling factor for alternate livelihood options

  • Revise the building bye-laws in a way that buildings of a particular size  should have mandatory decentralised wastewater management systems 

  • Identification and mapping of different forms of sanitation work and workers and incentivising officials for doing this while making them culpable if they fail to do so

  • Exploring technology-centred alternatives to reduce the risks of sanitation work 

  • Ensuring social security provisions like pensions for sanitation workers, especially female manual scavengers – not as an entrepreneurial support but as a regular income

  • Need to build public consciousness around the issue of manual scavenging and rights of sanitation workers

Shri Rajendra Pal Gautam, the Minister for Social Welfare, SC & ST, Gurudwara Elections, Water, and Registrar of Cooperative Societies, Government of NCT of Delhi said:

Not one year has passed by where death incidents of manual scavengers has not been reported but municipals bodies still report absence of manual scavenging. Delhi government is open to exploring and investing in technology options that can prevent this inhuman practice.

Harsh Mander, Centre for Equity Studies, while discussing law, governance and inclusion said:

Law, budget and conversation exists around manual scavenging but the practice still continues reflecting how deeply embedded is the idea of caste in our society. Newer challenges are emerging as we are modernising our cities but the paradox is that we are still not bothered what happens once we flush our toilets, where does the faecal waste go and who cleans it ultimately – such is our cultural comfort that the feeling that they could be our brothers and sisters is terribly missing.

Bezwada Wilson, Safai Karamchari Andolan, while discussing solutions and way forward said:

After 35 years of raising this issue, the responsibility for solutions to manual scavenging still falls back upon the community which is not acceptable. What is the point of having such a skilful scientific community, bureaucracy and leadership if this pathetic situation of such a vulnerable community could not be addressed. Technology alone cannot be a solution. Solutions also need to be human-centred.

Raman VR, Head of Policy at WaterAid India said:

WaterAid India firmly believes that the inhuman practice of manual scavenging, which is banned by the law in the country, should be eradicated by all means through joint efforts of the administration and civil society. The workers engaged in this work should be properly identified, supported and rehabilitated in a dignified manner. Governments at different levels should identify and deploy new and improved measures and assistive technologies for ensuring sanitation and cleanliness in our urban and rural areas, ensuring decent work, safety, health, dignity and equity of the workers involved. This issue needs to be seen in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as the achievement of SDGs will not be possible without addressing the issue of proper sanitation, as well as decent work, rights, equality and justice of these workers. We are committed to this important cause and will provide all possible support for governments and other actors towards fulfilling this. To this end, WaterAid along with its partners will take up this issue at the High Level Political Forum on SDGs, to develop a greater understanding and commitment towards the issue.

Documenting the life of manual scavengers and sanitation workers in India for about two decades, Photojournalist and Padma Shri awardee Sudharak Olwe travelled across Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to bring forward visual narratives of the complexity of this problem with a focus on women manual scavengers. 

Sudharak Olwe while speaking about his experience documenting their life said:

Countries like Sweden and Netherlands have invested on this issue sufficiently and upheld the human dignity and safety issues to the height possible. However, I found no substantial change in the working methods of manual scavengers and sanitation workers in our country despite the overall technological advancements in the last 20 years while documenting their lives.

INCLUDING THE EXCLUDED: Unpacking Challenges and Framing Solutions for Manual Scavengers and Sanitation Workers in India exhibits visual narratives captured by him showing the reality regarding their safety, health, dignity, and rehabilitation. The week-long exhibition is on till 4 July 2019 at Open Palm Court Gallery, India Habitat Centre.  


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WaterAid is an international not-for-profit, determined to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. Only by tackling these three essentials, in ways that last, can people change their lives for good. Working in India since 1986, WaterAid has successfully implemented water, sanitation, and hygiene projects, extending benefits to some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities. For more information, visit, follow @WaterAidIndia on Twitter, or visit us on Facebook.