This article was authored by Jashnadeep Kaur, a student of the Diploma in Advance Contract Drafting, Negotiation, and Dispute Resolution course at LawSikho, and edited by Koushik Chittella.

This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.

Weaker sections of society were victims of cruelty and exploitation. They were treated inhumanely in ancient times. The  government, NGO’s, and many other organisations have put forth efforts to eradicate these differences but have not attained much success. Manual scavenging is one of those atrocities that took the lives of many scavengers. Manual scavenging is a deeply troubling and inhuman practise that continues to persist in various parts of our country. It perpetuated the cycle of discrimination, poverty, and health hazards. Various legislative and constitutional provisions provide protection against such activities, such as Articles 14, 15, 16, 17, 19(1)(g) and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act,  2013 (MS Act, 2013). In this article, we will discuss the historical background, reasons for doing manual scavenging, reasons for death in Tamil Nadu, and legal provisions available to them. 

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Manual scavenging refers to the practise of cleaning septic tanks, dry toilets, open drains, gutters, and sewers manually. This activity can take place at private homes, buildings, offices, individual or community toilets, and toilets maintained by municipal authorities. It is a highly degrading and hazardous activity. Scavengers clean those toilets and sewers with bare hands, using brooms, small tin plates, and/or woven baskets. Proper safety and cleaning equipment are not available to them.

India is a diverse country; it has various castes and religions. Manual scavenging was prevalent in India about three thousand (3,000) years ago and has continued till now. In India, castes have been divided into four strata: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. In Rig Veda’s Purushsukta (Tenth Mandala), it can be traced that the four varnas have emerged from the body of the divine being. It says that Brahmins emerged from the head, Kshatriyas from arms, Vaishyas from the belly, and Shudras from the feet of the divine being or God. Shudras were considered the lowest category of people who would be artisans and labourers. Shudra varna is further divided into various status groups. These groups are categorised as “clean” and “unclean”. Where the clean group included people who were dominant, the unclean groups included washers, tanners, shoemakers, sweepers, and scavengers. They were considered untouchables. 

Manual scavenging saw a rise with the invasion of Muslims into North India. They also brought women who wore burkas. During that time, special indoor toilets were made for them. The hostages were forced to clean these indoor toilets. 

In the beginning of the 19th century, the British government opened administrative vacancies for Indian men in Tamil Nadu. Most of these jobs were offered to Tamil and Telugu Brahmin men. As Brahmins had access to education and were proficient in English, they could obtain these jobs easily. 75% of Tehsildars in the Madras presidency were Brahmins, and 93% of engineering students in engineering colleges were also Brahmins. According to a report, since 1993, 323 deaths have been reported of people engaged in manual scavenging, out of which 144 were from Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu government data shows that 11 deaths were recorded in the year 2016. However, the members of an NGO named Safai Karamchari Andolan said that the real number of deaths was 294. A total of 400 people died between 2017 and 2022. According to Union government figures, Tamil Nadu ranked highest amongst all other states with a death rate of 56. Three communities, i.e., Pallars, Parayars, and Chakiliyars of Dalits in Tamil Nadu, are engaged in manual scavenging. Districts like Chennai, Tiruchirapalli, Thanjavur, Nagapattinam, Pudukottai, and Ariyalur have a large number of manual scavengers.

According to some Rajya Sabha sources, 58,098 manual scavengers were identified following the criteria of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. Out of 58,098 scavengers, 42,594 belong to scheduled castes, 421 belong to scheduled tribes, 431 belong to OBC, and 351 belong to other categories. According to another report, in May 2023, five people lost their lives in manual scavenging within 18 days in Tamil Nadu.  

Reasons for doing manual scavenging

There are various reasons to do manual scavenging, including:

Financial issues

One of the major reasons people engage in manual scavenging is because of their weak financial conditions. To fulfil their family financial requirements, they need employment to earn money; therefore, they indulge in such work to earn their living.

Inadequate sanitation infrastructure

In some areas of Tamil Nadu, especially in rural and economically disadvantaged regions, there is a lack of proper sanitation infrastructure, including sewage systems and flush toilets, necessitating manual cleaning of dry toilets, open drains, and septic tanks,  increasing the need for manual scavengers.

Lack of opportunities

Many manual scavengers have limited access to education and job opportunities,  which limits them to changing their family occupations and pushes them into manual scavenging as a means of livelihood, even though it is hazardous and demeaning.

Casteism

As we have seen, the division of people based on caste strata has been present since ancient times, when Dalits were doing cleaning jobs, and they have been engaged in the same jobs since then. It became a social stigma that made it difficult for them to come out of it.

Family occupation

Manual scavenging sometimes becomes a family occupation, as sons follow the occupation of their father. They are sometimes excluded in rural areas from other jobs because they are prejudiced based on their father’s profession.

Availability of cheap labour

Another major reason for the increasing rates of manual scavenging is the availability of cheap labour. The contractors easily hire labourers for such work at cheap rates, and scavengers do these jobs because of the lack of availability of other opportunities to earn a living.

Expensive equipment

There are reportedly about 15 innovations developed across the country to replace manual scavenging. States like Hyderabad and Kerala have jetting and robotic machines for cleaning sewers, but Tamil Nadu does not have such machinery. These machines are too expensive, and contractors can only provide them to workers unless the government and corporations make a provision for a subsidy.

The pandemic

Many of the manual scavengers were engaged in this work during the coronavirus pandemic, as there was a complete lockdown in the country and no provisions for earning a living were available to them.

There are various reasons for the death of manual scavengers, including:

Toxic fumes

Manual scavengers are exposed to a range of hazardous substances while cleaning septic tanks and sewers, including human waste, toxic gases, and chemicals. These substances lead to various health problems, such as respiratory problems, skin diseases, and gastrointestinal disorders. It may lead to death if not treated within time.

Lack of safety equipment

Contractors do not provide proper protection equipment to manual scavengers, such as gloves, masks, bodysuits, etc. The absence of such equipment makes scavengers do the job manually, which increases the risks of disease and death.

Lack of proper medical care

Manual scavengers often have limited access to healthcare facilities. Even when they fall ill due to their work, they may not receive timely or adequate medical care, leading to the worsening of their health conditions.

Untrained workers

Many manual scavengers lack proper training in safety procedures and emergency responses. They may lack knowledge of the risks associated with the work.

There are various laws that protect the interests of manual scavengers. They are:

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

This Act prohibits persons, contractors, local authorities, or agencies from employing people as manual scavengers from and after December 6, 2013. Such an action is punishable under this Act. The offence is made cognizable and non-bailable. It also provided rehabilitation facilities for them and their families, including the provision of one-time cash assistance, subsidies, and loans for an alternative livelihood. It made it mandatory for the local authorities and other agencies to conduct a survey of manual scavengers in their jurisdiction and publish the results.

Constitutional provisions

Constitutional provisions safeguard the fundamental rights of manual scavengers, strive to provide dignity and equality in all aspects, and protect them from any kind of exploitation.

  • Article 14 gives equality before law and equal protection of law to everyone.
  • Article 15 forbids discrimination, and it does not exclude any state from establishing particular provisions for the advancement of socially and educationally disadvantaged groups or for SC and ST groups.
  • Article 17 forbids untouchability and its practises. This constitutional provision has helped to improve the conditions of Dalits, Shudras, and all other deprived people.
  • Article 19(1)(g) guarantees the right to choose and adopt any profession. Manual scavengers are often subjected to restrictions on their movement, prejudiced for doing unclean work, and rarely given any other opportunity to work. Therefore, manual scavengers can seek protection and support to transition to alternative occupations.
  • Article 21 guarantees the right to life and personal liberty. Manual scavenging is a practise that deprives individuals of their dignity and endangers their lives. The sufferers can receive protection and rehabilitation.
  • Article 46 Manual scavenging can be reduced or eliminated by implementing this. Promoting educational and economic interests among SC, ST, and OBC’s helps manual scavengers take on other jobs.
  • Article 338 safeguards all matters of SC, ST, and OBC’s by appointing special officers to investigate the matters.

The National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) protects the interests of scheduled castes in India. It monitors, investigates, and inquires about all matters relating to scheduled castes, safeguards their rights, and makes recommendations. 

P. Ayyaswami v. The Chief Secretary (2015)

Facts

This was the case in Tamil Nadu. A petition was filed in this case by the father of the deceased, seeking an issuance of the writ of mandamus under Article 226 of the Constitution of India. The petitioner’s son died due to poisonous gases while cleaning the septic tank on the directions of respondent number three. A case was registered under Section 304 of the IPC and under Sections 3, 14, and 15 of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine (Prohibition) Act, 1993. The petitioner prayed for compensation.

Issue

Whether compensation can be awarded to the father of the deceased

Decision

After considering the facts of the case, the court ordered respondents number one (the Chief Secretary) and number two (the District Collector) to pay compensation of ₹5 lakh to the petitioner. The chief secretary and district collector are open to recovering this amount from the third respondent (the Jenni Residency Club), according to law.

A. Nagarajan v. Union Of India

Facts of the case

This case includes three writ petitions inter-connected with each other.

The first petition was a public interest litigation asking the court to order respondents 1 to 17 to recognise all the workers who clean human waste in various public and government sectors as manual scavengers and to order respondents 1 and 13 to set up national, state, and district level committees to monitor and prevent the practise of manual scavenging.

The second petition was a request to the court to order the respondents to issue identity cards to the workers who have been identified as manual scavengers by the petitioner’s committee so that they can get the benefits of rehabilitation under the law and also to form survey and vigilance committees as per the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

The third petition was a plea to the court to order the respondents to consider his suggestions and implement the rules as prescribed in the Act.

Decision

In response to this, some directions were issued to the respondent authorities to take stringent actions to avoid manual scavenging, including providing protective and safety equipment, mechanised cleaning of septic tanks abiding by the rules of the Act, paying compensation to victims, etc. for strict compliance, so as to eradicate manual scavenging in entirety.

B.Panju Selvarani v. The Secretary To Government

Facts of the case

In this case, the Supreme Court in Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India directed the government to pay compensation of ₹10 lakhs to the wife of the deceased manual scavenger. A value of 3 lakhs was paid to her, but the remaining amount was not being paid. So, she applied for a writ appeal challenging the denial of interest on the delayed payment. 

Issue

Whether interest should be paid to the sufferer’s family on the amount of compensation that is delayed and pending or not

Decision

Therefore, the writ was allowed, and the second respondent was directed to pay the interest at the rate of 8% per annum on ₹7 lakhs from the date of filing the petition.

Finally, the condition of the poorer segments of society engaged in manual scavenging serves as a sharp reminder of the social and economic inequities that continue in our country. Individuals are not only robbed of their dignity, but their health and well-being are also jeopardised, often leading to untimely deaths. It reflects a larger societal issue entrenched in caste-based discrimination, poverty, and a lack of access to education and work prospects.

Governments, civil society organisations, and communities must all work together to eliminate manual scavenging. This includes enacting and enforcing anti-slavery legislation, providing alternative economic possibilities, and investing in sanitation facilities to minimise the need for manual cleaning. Furthermore, there is an urgent need to change public attitudes and overcome the stigma connected with this activity.


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