United Nations Commission on Human Rights
Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights
Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery
27th Session
 
 
Geneva, 27-31 May 2002

Manual scavenging - the most indecent form of work

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 buffalo dung.

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.

Recommendations

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 the country.




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