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Between Swachh Bharat & deaths – where is the sanitation policy for manual scavengers?

Deaths of sanitation workers are being reported even from new and high-end treatment infrastructures -- whether government-owned or hotels and malls.

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The Narendra Modi government’s intensive focus on sanitation has increased toilet coverage and disposal infrastructure in India. But the effort is dented by the continued persistence of manual scavenging and unsafe sanitation work. The challenge is one of policy design.

While sanitation programmes and policy consider the question of sanitation work as an after-thought, if at all, issues of safety and dignity of the workers are left to a different ministry altogether. All of the public investments and policy frameworks for sanitation are made by urban and rural development ministries, who keep no track of the impact these investments and policies have on sanitation workers. The ministry of social justice and empowerment, which has no hand in planning and investments of sanitation infrastructure, is responsible for counting and identifying manual scavengers and it is allocated funds to provide for a few compensation, rehabilitation and welfare measures.

Also read: While manual scavengers continue to die, FM writes op-ed ode to Swachh mission

Old and new manual scavenging

An estimated 50 lakh people are engaged in sanitation work, of which 20 lakh are engaged in ‘high risk’ work such as cleaning sewers and septic tanks. Moreover, much of this sanitation work is performed in degrading and demeaning conditions, and for low wages and without job security.

The term ‘manual scavenging’ in Indian law refers to the practice of manually carrying human excreta. Historically this referred to the practice of removing excreta from dry latrines and railway lines – practices that were prohibited by the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993, and sought to be eliminated through government investments in pour-flush toilets and rehabilitation schemes. The proliferation of modern sanitation technologies brought, in addition, new forms of manual scavenging work, which include manual and unsafe cleaning of drains, sewer lines, septic tanks and latrine pits. A new law in 2013 (the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013) covered this work too, and mandated a list of safety equipment for sanitation workers.

Needless to say, both old and new forms of manual scavenging work persist. Sanitation work in India is also related to caste-based oppression.

Almost all the sanitation workers who deal with human excreta are from certain Dalit castes and communities. Safai Karamchari Andolan has recorded close to 2,000 sanitation worker deaths, but experts believe that actual figures could be even higher.

High-risk sanitation work is also increasingly informalised. Through recent reports of worker deaths, and from our talks, we have learnt that the deceased workers often had no institutional relationship with the owner of the infrastructure, but were hired either by contractors responsible for infrastructure maintenance or on a spot-basis for a specific job.

Also read: These technologies can end manual scavenging and save lives of sewage workers

Incomplete policy and programmatic responses

India’s policy attention to sanitation workers is heavily oriented towards rehabilitation of manual scavengers (by training them for alternative income-generation), and some limited forms of compensation and welfare support (as mandated by the Supreme Court). And yet, we find that the schemes for compensation and welfare have been severely underperforming.

How does this square up with the high levels of investment in sanitation? Our faulty metrics pay little attention to safety standards in design and maintenance. We have also paid little attention to the service networks and workers who are expected to maintain this infrastructure. As a result, we have deaths of sanitation workers being reported even from new and high-end treatment infrastructure – whether from government-owned sewage networks or treatment plants or from high-end hotels, malls and residential societies.

More than half of India’s toilet users rely on septic tanks and leach pits for their waste disposal, but little attention is paid to safe design and maintenance norms for these tanks and pits.

On the institutional side, there is a confusing mix of public and private roles: public authorities consider themselves responsible only for drainage and sewerage, leaving residents who use septic tanks and leach pits much to their own devices.

On the legal side too, municipal and environmental laws cover the sanitation and wastewater disposal – making no reference to sanitation work – whereas a different legal framework applies to manual scavenging. These latter laws address only the “employer” of manual scavengers, but not the owner of unsafe infrastructure (except to the extent that they cover dry latrines). Moreover, in actual practice, the laws become relevant only in case of the death of manual scavengers, and even then, we do not know of a case of successful criminal prosecution under these laws. At present, there is no legal responsibility on owners of infrastructure – whether public agencies or private owners of septic tanks, pits and on-site treatment facilities – to ensure safety. The legal responsibility for deaths is also easily passed on to intermediary contractors.

Also read: By washing feet, PM Narendra Modi was honouring himself not safai karamcharis

What government needs to do

Safe and dignified sanitation work should be made the organising principle around which the definition of ‘safe sanitation’ is rearticulated for future sanitation programmes. We also need to recognise that undoing several centuries of caste oppression and decades of policy neglect is not going to be an entirely technocratic exercise, but will require an actionable commitment from the government.

Supporting the families of sanitation workers in transitioning out of manual scavenging and unsafe sanitation work is critical to this promise. Families should be given salaried employment or income-generating assets to replace the lost income from manual scavenging work far more effectively than self-employment schemes.

The problem of sanitation work itself is also no less important, and for the voice of sanitation workers is crucial. For this, sanitation workers, associations could be organised at city and state level and be stakeholders in policy formulation.

The eradication of manual scavenging should be made a primary responsibility of local governments, and they should be responsible for: (1) ensuring the complete elimination of all forms of manual scavenging and unsafe sanitation work within their jurisdictional limits, and (2) for providing jobs, income support and welfare measures to help families break out of the cycle.

To reflect this shift in paradigm in legal terms, we suggest instead that the same agency (ideally the local government) that is responsible for ensuring the elimination of manual scavenging and unsafe sanitation work is also funded to design and build its sanitation infrastructure. The local government (or other single-point agency) should also be responsible for ensuring that organised and mechanised sanitation services are available to replace low-grade and risky services.

Also read: The ‘c’ in Swachh Bharat is caste and Modi needs to address it

We also need clear legal recognition that the owners of infrastructure are responsible to ensure that their infrastructure can be cleaned and maintained without putting workers into direct contact with excreta, or putting them in unsafe conditions.

National and state governments need to take charge of the policy shift – to ensure that local governments are made responsible for ensuring the complete elimination of manual scavenging. In addition, they need to see that local governments have the staff, capacity and funds to bring about this change. Finally, they should announce clear safety related targets and progressively monitor the transformation of the sanitation infrastructure and services in partnership with sanitation worker groups and associations.

Arkaja Singh is a Fellow at CPR and is currently responsible for managing a programme on sanitation. Shubhagato Dasgupta is a senior fellow at CPR and director of the Scaling City Institutions for India (Sci-Fi) Sanitation initiative. 

This is the sixteenth in a series of articles titled “Policy Challenges 2019-2024” under ThePrint-Centre for Policy Research (CPR) collaboration. A longer version of this piece is available on the CPR website at The full policy document on a range of issues addressed in this series is available on CPR’s website.

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  1. Just before elections PM was seen washing feet of sanitation staff in front of camera, a gesture was touted PM’s concern for such low level workers. Gujarat under Modi was touted as best governed state and was widely used in 2014 when Modi was shown as PM face. It the same where seven civic workers chocked to death and also twenty students were charred to death in a coaching institutions when BJP was celebrating their victory. If this is reality in PM’s home state ruled by his party for nearly fifteen years imagine the situation in other states. Modi and his party need to introspect and stop using. Sanitation staff as a tool for winning election and do something real to save them from death.

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