This paper draws attention to one of the most indecent, inhuman
and degrading forms of work performed by dalits (untouchables)
in South Asia - the manual removal of human and animal excreta using
brooms, small tin plates, and baskets carried on the head.
The allocation of labour on the basis of caste is one of the fundamental
tenets of the Hindu caste system. Within this system dalits
have been assigned tasks and occupations which are deemed ritually
polluting by other caste communities - such as sweeping, disposal
of dead animals and leatherwork. By reason of their birth, dalits
are considered to be "polluted", and the removal of human
and animal waste by members of the "sweeper" community
is allocated to them and strictly enforced. Refusal to perform such
tasks leads to physical abuse and social boycott. The perception
of dalits as polluted persons by reason of their birth causes
them to be separated from the rest of caste society and excluded
from social, religious and economic life. Such discrimination has
been declared by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
to fall within the scope of the International Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1965. 1
"Manual scavengers" are employed by local government
authorities and by private households throughout South Asia, and
this paper focuses on the specific situation in India - where their
employment has been declared illegal, and where many manual scavengers
are in debt bondage. The paper is based on first-hand data collected
by member organizations of the International Dalit Solidarity Network,
including Human Rights Watch (United States), Navsarjan (Ahmedabad,
India), and the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (India).
Manual Scavenging in India
According to government statistics, an estimated one million dalits
in India are manual scavengers (the majority of them women) whose
work involves the removal of faeces from public and private latrines
and open sewers, and the disposal of dead animals. Unofficial estimates
of the actual number are much higher.
Public latrines - some with as many as 400 seats - are cleaned on
a daily basis by female workers using a broom and a tin plate. The
excrement is piled into baskets which are carried on the head to
a location which can be up to four kilometers away from the latrine.
At all times, and especially during the rainy season, the contents
of the basket will drip onto a scavenger's hair, clothes and body.
Forty-year-old Manju, a manual scavenger employed by the urban municipality,
described her daily routine and wages:
"In the morning I work from 6.00 am to 11.00 am cleaning
the dry latrines. I collect the faeces and carry it on my head to
the river half a kilometer away seven to ten times a day. In the
afternoon I clean the gutters. Another Bhangi collects the
rubbish from the gutters and places it outside. Then I come and
pick it up and take it one kilometer away. My husband died 10 years
ago since then I have been doing this. Today I earn 30 rupees a
day (US$0.75). Nine years ago I earned Rs. 16, then Rs. 22, and
for the last two years it has been Rs. 30. But the payments are
uncertain. For the last two months we have not received anything.
Every two months they pay, but there is no certainty. We are paid
by the Nagar Palika municipality chief officer. 2
Needless to say, manual scavengers are exposed to the most virulent
forms of viral and bacterial infections which affect their skin,
eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. TB is rife
among the community.
Members of the Bhangi community in Gujarat are paid by state
municipalities to clean the gutters, streets, and community "dry"
latrines. Those working for urban municipalities are paid Rs. 30-40
a day (less than US$1), and those working privately are paid between
Rs. 3-5 (US$0.08-0.13) a month for each latrine they clean. Sometimes
their payment is withheld for bureaucratic or other reasons, and
they survive on the small pieces of roti (bread) they receive
from private households.
A survey conducted by Safai Karmachari Andolan, an NGO movement
for the elimination of manual scavenging, found over 1,650 scavengers
in ten districts in Andhra Pradesh. Many were also engaged in underground
sewage work. The survey also revealed that 98 per cent of manual
scavengers in the state belonged to the dalit community.
Another category of manual scavengers are responsible for cleaning
the railway systems. In Andhra Pradesh they are paid Rs. 300 (US$7.50)
a month with very few benefits. In Gujarat, they are paid Rs. 12
(US$0.30) a day "for unlimited hours of work. They are told
they can stop working when the train comes, but in India you never
know when the train will come." 3
The Sikkaliar (dalit) community of Tamil Nadu are
responsible for removing human and animal waste from the areas occupied
by the Thevar (upper caste) members of villages. For this
they receive Rs. 150 (US$3.75) per month.
The relationship between scavenging and debt bondage
Because they receive a pittance for their work (and even this payment
can be irregular if they are employed as casual workers, or their
wages are not paid on time), manual scavengers are forced to borrow
from upper-caste neighbours for whom they work, and end up in debt
bondage. The rate of interest on their loans is usually 10 per cent,
and few can afford to pay off the loan. Thus, the wages they would
otherwise receive go towards the repayment of the loan, and they
become totally reliant on the few pieces of bread they receive on
a daily basis. Their poverty is so acute that, in desperation, some
Bhangis resort to separating out non-digested wheat from
Failure to implement protective legislation
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry
Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 punishes the employment of
scavengers or the construction of dry (non-flush) latrines with
imprisonment for up to one year and/or a fine as high as Rs. 2,000
(US$50). Offenders are also liable to prosecution under the Scheduled
Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act,
1989. Bonded labour is also prohibited under the Bonded Labour
System (Abolition) Act, 1976. In spite of this, their employment
continues throughout the country.
In 1992 the Government launched a national scheme that called for
the identification, training, and rehabilitation of safai karamcharis
(the official name given to manual scavengers) throughout the country.
However, in 1997 the, reported that progress "has not been
altogether satisfactory", and had benefited only "a handful
of safai karamcharis and their dependents. One of the reasons for
unsatisfactory progress of the Scheme appears to be inadequate attention
paid to it by the State Governments and concerned agencies."
When confronted with the existence of manual scavenging and dry
latrines within their jurisdiction, state governments often deny
their existence altogether or claim that a lack of water supply
prevents states from constructing flush latrines. This despite the
fact that a sum of Rs. 4,640,000,000 (US$116 million) was allocated
to the scheme under the Government's Eighth Five Year Plan. Activists
claim that the resources, including government funds, exist for
construction and for the rehabilitation of scavengers; what is lacking
is the political will to do so. Members of the National Commission
for Safai Karamcharis consider it imperative that the commission
be "vested with similar powers and facilities as are available
to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes."
4 Currently the Commission only has advisory
powers and no authority to summon or monitor cases.
1. The Government of India should press all states to implement
the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines
(Prohibition) Act, 1993, and prosecute officials responsible
for the perpetuation of the practice.
2. The Government of India should ensure that all manual scavengers
are rehabilitated according to the law in all states throughout
1 Concluding Observations of the Committee on
the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: India CERD/C/304/Add.13,
September 17, 1996
2 Human Rights Watch: Broken People. New York, 1999 p. 143
3 ibid, p. 145
4 ibid, p. 143