India has approximately
5 million sanitation workers engaged in 9 different categories of sanitation work.

Source: Dalberg Advisors, 2018

1,82,505 families engaged in some form of manual scavenging

Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) 2011

Government has identified 54,130 manual scavengers from 170 districts across 18 states in the country.

Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (2019)

Who are sanitation workers

Sanitation workers are involved in various tasks across the sanitation value chain, including cleaning toilets and spaces; cleaning and emptying sewers, septic tanks and drains; operating sewage treatment plants, etc. Despite being one of the most important areas of work in society, these are usually looked down upon, and sanitation workers continue to face social discrimination and stigma. Most sanitation workers - especially those among the informal workforce - lack access to decent and regular wages and employment opportunities. Usually coming from specific caste groups and marginalized communities, they also face systemic exclusion from basic health and education services, government schemes, social security measures, and alternative livelihood opportunities. 

One of the most inhuman and undignified forms of sanitation work prevalent in India is that of manual scavenging, wherein persons who clean insanitary dry latrines, clean or repair sewer lines and empty septic tanks, clean railway tracks, etc., come in direct contact with human faeces, without any protective gear or support measures. In addition to the social stigma and isolation, they are also exposed to unimaginable health hazards. A large number of them die, especially those who are engaged in sewer line repair and cleaning, in the absence of critical safety measures and technologies. 

Why you should care: A gender perspective

A 2018 study undertaken by Association by Rural and Urban Needy in partnership with Centre for Equity Studies and WaterAid India, and supported by the European Union, suggests that 1,139 women were engaged in manual cleaning of dry latrines and open drains in just 36 settlements across 4 states. Women engaged in manual scavenging often face added challenges such as discrimination by employers, by government officials and administrators, by the public in general, by their own community and families; and the resulting denial of rights, violence, abuse and sexual harassment.

The video documentation

Their world is hidden

Their world is hidden
Their woes are unseen
Their work is hard to imagine
They need our collective conscience and support
They are the guardians of public and environmental health
Their health, dignity and rights are also paramount

Image: WaterAid/ Sudharak Olwe

Women engaged in Manual Scavenging: Challenges and way forward

Health, safety and dignity of Sanitation workers

Other resources on the issues of Sanitation Workers and Manual Scavenging

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This webpage has been designed as a knowledge repository of resources developed by WaterAid India and other organizations on the issues of sanitation workers and manual scavenging - in order to provide insights and references for organisations or individuals who would like to work on or learn about this very important issue. It has been developed as part of the project 'Strengthening rule of law to advance rights and freedoms of Manual Scavengers in India' jointly undertaken by WaterAid India, Centre for Equity Studies, and Association for Rural and Urban Needy, and supported by the European Commission- European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EC-EIDHR).

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