An Indian Adoptee Reclaims His Voice in the Desi Diaspora
Show MenuHide Menu

Are you familiar with manual scavenging?

September 8, 2013

1.3 million Indians clean shit off the street…with their hands.

Of that total, 97% are women. They know no other life. To visualize that number, picture a city like Dallas, Texas, Montreal, Canada or Prague, Czechoslovakia.

Now imagine if every single person in those cities, cleaned toilets by hand. That would equal the approximate number of Indian manual scavengers in 2013.

Are you shocked?

“Manual scavenging,” requires human beings to clean dry latrines unconnected to a watered sewer system. Usually they clean with rudimentary tools, such as small brooms, pieces of wood or tin plates. They put the refuse, both animal and human in baskets, carrying them on top of their heads.


You are probably reading this and feeling sick just thinking about it, but to us it is just words on paper.

Consider the multitudes that literally submerge themselves in human and animal excrement, all day, every day. Imagine the smell. The myriad health concerns. How could you feel clean at the end of the workday? How would you socialize and interact with others?

Manual scavengers live in small colonies on village outskirts far away from anyone and everything. They repulse everyone, experiencing alienation from all communities, except their fellow scavengers.

Shameful and beyond demeaning, few “jobs” in the world destroy human dignity worse than manual scavenging. It is a form of slavery and its abolition is long overdue.

In 1993, the Indian government supposedly outlawed the practice passing the “Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act,” but like many Indian laws, especially ones benefiting lower-castes, its implementation has been farcical.

While the number of people employed in such filthy work has decreased since 1993, 20 years later it is still prevalent throughout India.

India’s government allows manual scavenging to continue. Naturally, it has ties to caste-ism, another of India’s great shames, because Dalits do it.

To demonstrate how sensitive an issue Indian government views it, official Indian government policy discourages any student on a U.S. Fulbright scholarship from researching manual scavenging. Keep in mind, the U.S. Fulbright program with India is the largest one in the world. While it does not specifically prohibit scavenging research, this demonstrates, your research approval may face delay if:

“The subject matter has potential sensitivity related to caste, religion, community or a particular group of people, and evaluation of sensitive government policies. Themes that are politically sensitive and themes likely to arouse ill-feeling or tension between different groups of citizens or offend the sensibilities of any group of citizens should be avoided.”

To me the Indian government is clearly reticent to discuss or explore it, perhaps because they have no real defense for its continuation. The practice is beyond demeaning and they cannot excuse its persistence. This results in many people outside of India being clueless to its existence.

The Indian Railway does not think the 1993 law applies to them. It is the largest employer of manual scavengers in the nation and the biggest user of dry latrines. The company pays thousands of people only one or two rupees a day (equivalent to 0.032 of a US Dollar) cleaning the human excrement off their train tracks every single year.

The Bollywood actor, Aamir Khan, hosts a talk show called Satyamev Jayate (worth a watch, with English sub-titles.) During a 2012 episode, he discussed human dignity and manual scavenging. Because his show is the highest rated in India, reaching millions across the country with its messages about India’s social problems, manual scavenging’s eradication conversation reached new heights.

For many years, it was a stain that government refused to acknowledge in public, but that is changing as well.

In 2012, Prime Minister Singh mentioned the practice in his national Independence Day speech, calling it… “one of the darkest blots on [India’s] development process” asking all State Ministers in the country to pledge elimination of this “abominable practice from every corner of India.”

Earlier in 2013, the Lokh Sabha (the Lower House of Indian Parliament) passed laws that again made it illegal, introducing language fining city inspectors who allowed its presence in their jurisdictions. New Delhi has outlawed it.

Like most Indian laws, enforcement remains the issue, but now politicians are confronting the problem.

Let us hope that increasing awareness will lead to its end.

It is past time for India to put this shameful practice to death.

To read more about manual scavenging check out:

http://idsn.org/caste-discrimination/key-issues/manual-scavenging/

4 Comments
September 8, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Thank you for informing us about this dreadful practice….

    September 13, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    Thanks for your kind words Miriam and your support. It is indeed awful.

Sooriaprakash
September 9, 2013 at 6:42 am

I am sooriaprakash, pursuing phd in university of hyderabad. Am also doing research on scavenging in Tamil Nadu (South India), you have mentioned 1993 act about abolition of manual scavenging but this act plucked their livelihood options. The Govt. of India their rehabilitation programmes were not adequate their needs so they again resumes their occupation now. So the govt. blamed them as illegal workers after many acquisition 6th nov. 2013 Indian parliament have passed new act for rehabilitation and prohibition of this work. 1993 act nobody have punished so have to weight enforcement this act in India.

    September 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Sooriprakash,
    Thanks for reading my blog. I totally agree that new livelihoods for former scavengers are another aspect to this problem. I appreciate you bringing it up. If I had made the original piece longer, I certainly would have added that component. However, the mere fact that the practice is continuing is the more depressing thing to me. It should not be happening at all, and then the government would not have to be thinking about re-training or giving former scavengers livelihood tools in the first place.

I'd love to hear your thoughts!