Explained: What is manual scavenging, and why is it still prevalent in India?

Even though manual scavenging is banned in India, the practice is still prevalent in many parts of the country.

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What is manual scavenging?

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.


In 2013, the definition of manual scavengers was also broadened to include people employed to clean septic tanks, ditches, or railway tracks. The Act recognizes manual scavenging as a “dehumanizing practice,” and cites a need to “correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by the manual scavengers.”

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Why is manual scavenging still prevalent in India?

The lack of enforcement of the Act and exploitation of unskilled labourers are the reasons why the practice is still prevalent in India. The Mumbai civic body charges anywhere between Rs 20,000 and Rs 30,000 to clean septic tanks. The unskilled labourers, meanwhile, are much cheaper to hire and contractors illegally employ them at a daily wage of Rs 300-500.

Last year, activist Bezwada Wilson from the Safai Karmachari Andolan, said on Twitter that 472 deaths due to manual scavenging had been recorded from 2016 to 2020.

472 deaths from 2016 to 2020 and 26 deaths this year till date due to manual scavenging are recorded with details of each incident sent to central government! Still it keeps denying even a single death!! Shameful!!#ManualScavenging #stopkillingus

Explained: What is manual scavenging, and why is it still prevalent in India?

— Bezwada Wilson (@BezwadaWilson) July 31, 2021

Past incidents

In January 2019, three labourers suffocated to death while cleaning a sewage treatment plant on Mira Road.

On May 3, 2019, three labourers choked to death while cleaning a septic tank in a private society in Nalasopara, near Mumbai. On May 11, three men in their 20s were killed after they inhaled toxic fumes while cleaning a septic tank at a housing society in Thane. A BMC worker, who had entered a manhole at Nana Chowk in Mumbai, died after inhaling toxic gases. And four other workers were hospitalised.

In February 2017, three labourers suffocated to death while they were cleaning a septic tank of a residential society in Mumbai’s Malvani area. In Dombivali, a son and father died while cleaning a septic tank.

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After a two-year-long wait, widows of the three workers who died while cleaning a septic tank in May 2019 were set to get compensation from the state government’s social justice department issuing a Government Resolution (GR). As per the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act, 2013 and the Supreme Court’s decision in the Safai Karamchari Andolan v/s Union of India case, a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each was awarded by the High Court to the three women. The GR is a huge win for safai karamcharis within the state because it acknowledges the role of the State even when deaths occur in private societies. Many deaths recorded are in private societies, where labourers are illegally hired.

Steps taken by BMC

Following the death of at least 12 labourers in 2019, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) had, in January 2020, published a notice informing residents that cesspool vehicles and CP lorries will be available in each of Mumbai’s 24 wards for the cleaning of septic tanks in public or private premises.

A civic official had then said, “The notice will help to create public awareness about the topic. The machines are available in each ward but people hardly know about them. So, they hire daily wage labourers to clean septic tanks, which is an illegal practice and, in many cases, has led to accidents.”

In February last year, the BMC decided to buy 37 high-tech machines for the purpose. The officials said that while 24 machines will enable cleaning sewers in compact pipes or narrow lanes with a diameter of 300 mm, seven quick response machines for cleaning up quickly in case of urgent calls like a choke up, three 600 mm high capacity main sewer cleaning machines and three others for sludge and silt dewatering that will be used for cleaning septic tanks.

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