Manual Scavenging in India: A Grim Reality and Legal Perspectives – Srusti Mishra


The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Act, 2013 defines a manual scavenger as as “a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of the Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit, sewer, or in a manhole or in any other form of an open drain.” The practice of manual scavenging, the manual cleaning and disposal of human excreta, entrenched in historic and socio-economic factors, continues to plague India despite legislative efforts and social awareness campaigns.

The interface between law and the practice of manual scavenging is complex and has developed over a long period of time, delving into an intricate play of multiple factors including class, caste, gender. This article aims to provides an in-depth analysis of the prevalence of manual scavenging, the associated challenges, and the legal framework designed to eradicate this dehumanizing occupation.

History & Socio-Economic Factors

Manual scavenging has deep historical roots in India, closely tied to the caste system. Those engaged in “India’s dirtiest job” are predominantly Dalits and other Scheduled Castes, who have historically been relegated to the lowest rungs of society, experiencing social exclusion and violence, forced into occupations deemed impure, including manual scavenging due to their caste identity.

The practice, however, was paid little attention to by the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial government. The practice has often been glorified, a dangerous narrative to form towards an occupation which takes the lives of many, while also undermining the casteism and violence of its history.

Untouchability has been legally abolished by the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955. However, the social stigma associated with this occupation has perpetuated its continuation despite the abolition of untouchability in the Indian Constitution. Many in the outlawed profession today do it because of their identity.

Further perpetuating this practice are socio-economic factors which push these individuals into the profession. Limited access to education and employment opportunities, coupled with economic deprivation and social stigma, leaves individuals with few alternatives. The lack of development in modern sanitation infrastructure and technology exacerbates the problem, as many are compelled to engage in manual scavenging due to the absence of hygienic facilities.

Legal Framework towards Manual Scavenging

The Indian legislature has made multiple attempts to eradicate the inhumane practice of manual scavenging and further protect the lives of those employed in the profession. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, was the first significant legislative step in this direction. However, the Act fell short in achieving its objectives due to inadequate enforcement mechanisms and a lack of comprehensive rehabilitation measures.

In 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Act was enacted, repealing the 1993 Act. The new legislation aimed to strengthen the legal framework by imposing stringent penalties, introducing rehabilitation programs, and incorporating measures to monitor and enforce the prohibition of manual scavenging.

Prevalence of Manual Scavenging

Despite the presence of the legal frameworks discussed above, and even after the outlawing of the profession, the practice continues in the present day. Manual scavenging remains prevalent in various parts of India. The lack of accurate data is a challenge in determining the exact extent of the problem, as manual scavenging often goes unreported. However, reports from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and independent studies shed light on the grim reality.

Cases of manual scavenging are particularly prominent in rural areas and smaller towns, where outdated sanitation facilities persist. The hazardous nature of the work, coupled with the lack of protective gear, results in health risks for those engaged in manual scavenging. Instances of manual scavenging in urban areas, though less visible, also contribute to the overall prevalence of the practice.

A majority of manual scavengers in India are women, facing double discrimination because of their gender, their community as well as their profession. They earn meagre amounts and aside from the financial burdens and economic concerns, manual scavengers face dangers to their life, including irreparable damage to health and the bleak possibility of dying inside the manholes they are subjected to clean.

All this stands in violation of both provisions of right to equality as well as that of right to life and personal dignity under the Indian Constitution.

The term “life” as interpreted in Kharak Singh v. Union of India does not allude to a “mere animal existence”. The right to life encompasses to live with dignity.


Despite the existence of legal provisions, the implementation of laws addressing manual scavenging faces numerous challenges:

  1. Social Stigma and Discrimination:
    • Deep-rooted social attitudes and caste-based discrimination perpetuate manual scavenging.
    • The stigma associated with the occupation hinders the acceptance of alternative livelihoods among affected individuals.
  2. Inadequate Rehabilitation Measures:
    • Rehabilitation programs outlined in the Act often lack proper funding and implementation.
    •  Insufficient skill development initiatives and alternative employment opportunities limit the effectiveness of rehabilitation efforts.
  3. Lack of Awareness
    • Many individuals engaged in manual scavenging are unaware of their rights and the provisions of the Act.
    • Public awareness campaigns are essential to educate both the affected communities and the broader society about the legal implications of manual scavenging.
  4. Enforcement and Monitoring
    • Weak enforcement mechanisms and a lack of accountability contribute to the persistent practice of manual scavenging.
    • Monitoring mechanisms need strengthening to ensure compliance with the Act at the grassroots level.
  5. Health Risks
    • Manual scavengers face severe health risks, including exposure to toxic gases, infections, and diseases.
    • Lack of protective gear and safety measures exacerbates these health hazards.
  6. Economic Deprivation
    • Manual scavengers often live in poverty, with limited access to education and employment opportunities.
    • The economic deprivation resulting from the practice further entrenches social inequality.
  7. Violation of Human Dignity
    • Manual scavenging is a blatant violation of the basic human right to live with dignity.
    • Eradicating the practice is not only a legal imperative but also a moral obligation.

Relevant Cases

Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India (2014)

  • The Supreme Court, in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by the Safai Karamchari Andolan, directed the government to take immediate steps to identify and rehabilitate manual scavengers.
  • The case highlighted the inadequacies in the enforcement of the 1993 Act and underscored the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address manual scavenging.

Bezwada Wilson v. Union of India (2019)

  • Activist Bezwada Wilson filed a petition urging the court to address the continued practice of manual scavenging despite the existence of the 2013 Act.
  • The case shed light on the challenges faced by manual scavengers, including the lack of protective equipment, and emphasized the need for effective implementation of rehabilitation measures.

National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and Allied Workers v. Union of India (2020)

  • This case highlighted the hazardous nature of sewer cleaning and sought judicial intervention to ensure the safety and dignity of those engaged in such work.
  • The court emphasized the need for technological solutions to eliminate manual scavenging and protect the rights of sewerage and allied workers.

Dr. Balram Singh v. Union of India (2023)

  • This case before the Supreme Court of India challenges for better provisions for implementation of laws relating to manual scavenging.
  • The Supreme Court in a judgement in 2023 put forward guidelines regarding the same.

Recommendations for Comprehensive Eradication:

To address the challenges and improve the implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Act, the following recommendations are proposed:

  1. Strengthening Rehabilitation Programs: Allocate sufficient funds for the effective implementation of rehabilitation programs, ensuring they encompass skill development, education, and healthcare.
  2. Public Awareness Campaigns: Conduct extensive public awareness campaigns at both the national and grassroots levels to educate communities about the illegality of manual scavenging and the available support mechanisms.
  3. Enforcement and Accountability: Strengthen enforcement mechanisms, ensuring that local authorities actively monitor and penalize instances of manual scavenging; Hold public officials accountable for lapses in enforcing the Act.
  4. Promoting Alternative Technologies: Invest in research and development of sanitation technologies that eliminate the need for manual scavenging, promoting the adoption of modern and hygienic practices.


Despite the outlawing of the occupation, the reality remains that the practice of manual scavenging continues to this day. Efforts to eradicate this deeply rooted practice of manual scavenging must go beyond legal frameworks to encompass social awareness, community engagement, and economic empowerment. By addressing the root causes and implementing the recommended measures, India can take significant strides towards eliminating manual scavenging, ensuring the dignity and well-being of its citizens.

The video by Vox attached below showcases the practice and struggles of those who are employed in this work even in the present day despite the outlawing of the profession by multiple laws.