India's manual scavengers: Instead of focusing on 'disgusting practice', it's time to discuss worker who dies anonymously cleaning our filth

Editor's note: This is the opening article in a seven-part series on manual scavenging in India. It examines the practice from a socio-political point of view.


In spite of all the socio-political, demographic, territorial, cultural and language differences that constitute the "unity" of India, people's behaviour and attitude towards sanitation remain the same — which is a lack of sense of hygiene and sanitation. Governments, past and present, have failed to promote sanitary practices to achieve total sanitation.

In India, most people defecate in the open. This has a larger impact on achieving total sanitation. People's behaviour towards toilets and the modalities of achieving conditions of hygiene and sanitation are related to Hindu caste-based norms and practices. Until 1993, different governments employed manual scavengers to remove human filth from every house. Widely referred to as dry latrines, people defecated in a bucket and this bucket was later removed by municipal servants who were called manual scavengers. Though this is officially banned, it still continues.

Before 1993, studies on sanitation such as Scavengers Son (1947) focused on the plight of manual scavengers and their work. Such works focussed mostly on the inhuman working conditions of the workers and mainly, the habits and cleanliness of the workers themselves.

Later studies on sanitation such as India Stinking, Endless Filth (2000) focused on the continuing practice of the degrading human labour in the removal of human waste and the non-implementation of law in banning such occupation. During this period, the discussion moved from the issue of cleanliness of the worker to the government's negligence in implementing the law.

 Indias manual scavengers: Instead of focusing on disgusting practice, its time to discuss worker who dies anonymously cleaning our filth

Representational image. PTI

The Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000, which witnessed the participation of 189 countries, promised to achieve its target goals by 2015. This forced the ruling government to introduce programmes to achieve its target. One of them was to provide safe access to sanitation and drinking water. As a result, the government introduced subsidised water closets to discourage people from defecating in the open. However, this achieved minimal success.

Committees and commissions were constituted to study the failure of people in accepting the water closet and The findings of the committee pointed towards individual behaviour preferring open defecation. Recent studies have also pointed out that people prefer to defecate in open because they prefer filth being far away from their homes.

In 2014, Narendra Modi introduced Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, which for the first time made sanitation a public issue, involving all stakeholders, public, government, celebrities, institutions, etc. He declared that by 2019, India will achieve Clean India which is the best way to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi Jayanti, he said.

While the government planned flagship schemes, an alarming spike in manhole deaths became a serious concern, however, the discussion still remained focussed on failure of the government in implementing the law which banned such practices. These discussions have reduced the issue of sanitation to government inaction.

The discussion rarely talks about the act of a worker entering a manhole — what happens before and after — rather the discussion of the death in the manhole is restricted to the manhole.


"4 workers die after entering to clean the manhole."
"Two conservancy workers and a contractor who had hired them died of asphyxiation inside a Panvel sewage line manhole"

These headlines are regular in the media. News reports usually describe the issue by saying, "He entered a manhole and came out dead", or, "to your conspiracy of silence on the septic tank deaths". Authors often refer to the deaths of manual scavengers as "India's shame".

However, in these stories, we reduce the workers' (or scavengers') lives just to their dead bodies. In the process, we bury their language, culture and their personal history which eventually pushed them to death.

We refuse to discuss the factors that keep forcing a person to enter the manhole. This approach of focusing only on death is counter-productive as it does not critique any of the factors that go into making the cyclical deaths of manual scavengers.

While discussing the 'dead manual scavenger', mechanisation of work is proposed as a solution to manual scavenging. In recent times, we have seen IIT researchers discovering new technology to remove the sludge in the manhole. It forces us to wonder how manholes across the world are being cleaned without human casualties, while only in India we somehow need new technology. The question that we should ask is: Has the government used the existing technology to clean the sludge?

The second popular narration is to point out the failures of the government machineries to implement the law. For example, the 2017 documentary on manual scavengers Kakoos discusses the issue but also reinforces the misguided belief that manual scavengers are untouchables because of the dirty work they do.

Until the ban on manual scavenging in 1993, the members of the scavenging castes had to fill the empty baskets. However, now the workers enter the manhole to empty the drain.

Bezawada Wilson's organization Safai Karamchari Andolan in 2014 burnt these baskets as a show of protest. Following this, scavengers of Savanur, too, protested, by smearing shit all over themselves when they were being forcefully evicted.


In a populistic narration, focus is usually on: "Why did he enter without safety gear?"; "Is this a failure of the abstract government machineries?"

In 2014, D Ravikumar considered a Dalit intellectual from Tamil Nadu and a newly-elected member of Parliament, wrote this on his Facebook account:

"People don't do this disgusting work/job to support their families. They do it only to drink (alcohol), they can do this job only after drinking - if they do it, they can drink. As long as they believe it, no law can free them from this job/occupation."

It is a stereotype that Dalits are drunks and that they do not have any ambition in life other than drinking. Many among the Dalits (non-scavenging castes) say that manual scavengers do what they do voluntarily and do not want to quit the occupation. An extension of such an argument would be of Modi's views expressed in his autobiography Karmayog:

"I do not believe that they have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. Had this been so, they would not have continued with this type of job generation after generation. At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmiki's) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods."

The pioneer of this opinion was none other than Mahatma Gandhi. In the infamous article, 'The Ideal Bhangi', Gandhi wrote:

"A Bhangi does for society what a mother does for her baby. A mother washes her baby of the dirt and insures his health. Even so the Bhangi protects and safeguards the health of the entire community by maintaining sanitation for it."

He further wrote:

"My ideal Bhangi would know the quality of night-soil and urine. He would keep a close watch on these and give a timely warning to the individual concerned. Thus he will give a timely notice of the results of his examination of the excreta."

Gandhi's position needs to be considered even today because his ideas on manual scavenging are reinforced through government actions. Gandhi was against machineries, and the government, therefore, feels no motivation to introduce technology.

Until the system was banned in 1993, government, in fact, collected "scavenging tax".

This series will focus on different aspects of the life of a scavenger and his work. It will also attempt to analyse the issue of manual scavenging and why it is crucial to uproot the practice from its very roots. It will bring in focus that section of our society which is yet to get even a reference in our everyday debate. It will discuss religion, visual representation, technology, education, Gandhi, non-governmental organisations, language, history, and migration, all in the context of the living manual scavenger.

Research supported by Shankar Narayan Memorial Library

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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2019 12:30:08 IST