What is the situation of Manual Scavengers in India?

India Jan 03, 2021


“Like a weeping fish at the sea,

Collecting by hand, the human society’s poops & pee

For our livelihood, go into manholes as bare-bodies

Mostly get out as dead-bodies”

Lakshmi Nanda, a victim of manual scavenging received Rs 500 from former President Pratibha Patil for reciting her heart-breaking poem.

Manual scavenging is an illegal profession in India, which refers to manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling, human excreta from unhygienic places like dry latrines. It is our privilege that makes us question why manual scavenging is still practiced.

Even if these people wanted to choose a different lifestyle, they couldn’t! Manual scavengers suffer from a lack of acceptance. They are even subject to violence due to being born in a ‘lower’ caste.


Historically these people were also known as ‘bhangi’ which is a Sanskrit word for ‘broken’ and in Hindi means ‘trash’. Manual scavenging couldn’t break free from caste discrimination as it is still firmly set in certain areas only which were created about 3,000 years back.

Once when the caste system was glorified, the ‘untouchables’ had limited professions and in order to survive had to pick shit, quite literally. All these centuries back when life expectancy was low and death rates high, it made sense to segregate people prone to spreading infections.

However, this practice was prohibited in 1993 by the govt. of India and employment of manual scavengers to clean out ‘dry toilets’ was made illegal.

Numbers to leave you wondering

The government announced 54,000 manual scavengers are officially identified as per the survey of 2019. The manual scavengers engaged in cleaning sewers and septic tanks have been recorded 814 deaths in India from 1993 July to 2019 in 20 states.

Details of compensation received by the family of the deceased are available for only 11 States, from 20 states. This indicates the possibility of poor reporting skills and degraded journalism in the number of manual scavengers identified and the number of deaths.

However, a 2013 law denying work of manual scavengers. An administrative survey identified 54,130 individuals occupied with this employment starting in July 2019. The figure is downplayed as the survey was done distinctly in zones where "there are no reasons to accept the presence of manual scavengers".


Even in this advanced era where people are busy propagating the importance of human rights and other socially relevant issues, it is embarrassing to know some of the fellow beings are still treated as untouchables and are forced to clean the excreta of others to earn their daily bread. This reflects a clear-cut image that India is still suffocating with the evils of the caste system.

This article has been written by Amritsawan Bhanja and Smaran Kulkarni for The Paradigm

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