Six people have died every month in the last five years while cleaning sewers and septic tanks across India. And while no deaths were reported due to manual scavenging, 62,904 people continue to earn a living from this inhuman practice, cleaning untreated human excreta from bucket toilets or pit latrines by hand.

What Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale admitted in the Lok Sabha in a written answer on Tuesday reflects a stark reality — manual scavenging still continues to flourish even as it has been prohibited since 2013.

The government cited reports by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, which stated that 376 people have died from 2015 to 2019 while cleaning sewers and septic tanks and that no death was reported due to manual scavenging. However, 62,904 manual scavengers have been identified from December 2013 to January 2020.

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According to Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), a movement for the elimination of manual scavenging, one of the main reasons for the continuance of the practice is the usage of dry latrines. According to the 2011 census, there are 26,07,612 dry latrines in India. Manual scavengers are employed in cleaning these latrines.

The SKA website manual on scavenging includes workers engaged in cleaning drains, sewers, septic tanks, railway tracks etc. During festivals and melas, where there are large gatherings of people, the practice of manual scavenging is widespread.

According to SKA data, manual scavengers, predominantly women, are paid ₹180-200 per month per household and their life span is about 40-45 years due to multiple health issues — hepatitis, cholera, meningitis, typhoid, cardio-vascular problems etc. Almost 98 per cent of the people involved in manual scavenging are women and Dalits.

“The main reason for manual scavenging is the existence of unsanitary latrines, which require manual cleaning,” the Minister said, adding that the Swachh Bharat Mission implemented by the government has identified such toilets and converted unsanitary latrines into sanitary latrines to eliminate the need for manual cleaning.

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The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, provides imprisonment up to 2 years or a fine up to ₹1 lakh, or both, if any agency or person engages anyone for manual scavenging.