Menace of Manual Scavenging

Context: The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has taken Suo moto cognisance of media reports about the deaths of seven sanitation workers in two different incidents in Jhajjar and Bharuch districts of Haryana and Gujarat, respectively on April 4.

Manual scavenging is the practice of removing human excreta by hand from sewers or septic tanks. India banned the practice under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSR). The Act bans the use of any individual for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta till its disposal.  

Major features of Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013

  • The Act prohibits the employment of manual scavengers, the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment, and the construction of insanitary latrines.
  • It seeks to rehabilitate manual scavengers and provide for their alternative employment.
  • Each local authority, cantonment board and railway authority is responsible for surveying insanitary latrines within its jurisdiction.  They shall also construct a number of sanitary community latrines. 
  • Each occupier of insanitary latrines shall be responsible for converting or demolishing the latrine at his own cost.  If he fails to do so, the local authority shall convert the latrine and recover the cost from him.
  • Offences under the act shall be cognizable and non-bailable. 

Reasons for persistence of Manual scavenging:

Narrow definition of Manual scavengers: 

Under the act, “manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.

– The definition of manual scavengers as per the Act above is narrow and excludes a wide variety of work done by diverse people in terms of numbers employed, gender, and location. The current definition describes them as a single amorphous category, but leaves out other types of sanitation work such as drain cleaning or even the cleaning of toilets by domestic help; septic tank cleaners, sewage treatment plant workers. (It excluded many sanitation workers)

– a person engaged or employed to clean excreta with the help of such devices and using such protective gear, as the Central Government may notify in this behalf, shall not be deemed to be a „manual scavenger.

  • Inadequate rehabilitation: Though the act mandated rehabilitation of manual scavengers, they were unable to take up non-sanitation related occupations due to social stigma attached to them. Even the mechanisation of sanitation work had little impact as the underlying issue of sanitation work being a caste-based occupation will not be tackled by making descendants of manual scavengers continue the same work in a different form. So, mechanisation can only save them from health risks but may not address the stigma or results in occupational mobility
  • Lack of legal responsibility on the government: Neither the state nor the centre is mandated under the Bill to provide financial assistance for the conversion of insanitary latrines.  This adversely impact implementation of the act.
  • Failure of swatch Bharat to eradicate manual scavenging:  Toilets that are built under SBM are mainly pit based toilets that are not linked to the sewer network. As long as households remain unconvinced about or unmotivated to construct twin pit latrines, the risky work of manual scavenging (performed largely by Dalits) is likely to continue.

A technical solution to a social problem will have limited impact. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The maximum upload file size: 20 MB. You can upload: image, document, archive, other. Drop files here

Online Counselling
Table of Contents
Today's Current Affairs
This is default text for notification bar