Human Rights of Manual Scavengers

“Ajyesthaaso Akanisthaasa Yete Sam   Bhraataro Vaavrudhuh Soubhagaya”                                                         -Rigveda, Mandala-5, Sukta-60, Mantra-5                                                               The interpretation of which is: ”No one is superior or inferior; all are brothers; all should strive for the interest of all and progress collectively”.[1]                                                          The vedic knowledge is known to be the wisdom imparted in ancient times. These ancient texts have inherent in them, the value of equality and brotherhood. It is a bitter surprise that it took us centuries to add these values in our own texts. The brotherhood may have been shelled out due to long history of hierarchy and slavery. A long struggle in the society cannot be said to have changed the maltreatment of one section of the other.                                                                                                                                                                                            In 1948, the first article of Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR) put forward,        “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. [2] Similar views are put forth by Articled 22 and 23 of UDHR.

The reality is not a painting as beautiful as the one Constitution of India suggests. The values which are to be achieved i.e., equality, justice, liberty and fraternity are compromised because we are too adamant on keeping our positions solid. The evils in society are a result of these deep rooted differences.

The people who are at the lowest of the pyramid are made to do jobs which are inhumane and in breach of one’s right to a dignified life. One such job is Manual Scavenging.


International Labour Organization (ILO) defines Manual Scavenging as, “the removal of human excreta from public streets and dry latrines, and cleaning septic tanks, sewers and gutters.” The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has termed manual scavenging as a worst violation of Human Rights.[3] It is a matter of sadness that Manual Scavenging was banned in India first in 1993 to no avail and the urgency in ending this pernicious practice was not shown. As of 2014, the deadline for ending manual scavenging has been extended eight times already.[4]

A period of 27 years has passed since we considered Manual Scavenging as a neglect to human dignity and security but hasn’t been able to do much about it. The lack of proper implementation even after multiple legislations is the cause why this pernicious practice is not coming to an end. It is a need of the hour to register the condition as serious. The apex court of India has to take cognizance and ensure proper implementation while condemning the non serious attitude of the state governments.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 was passed to prohibit employment as Manual Scavengers and employ those people in other jobs.

Manual Scavenging & Human Dignity

The principles of Human Dignity, though reached late in the official and legal texts of India, are embedded in its cultural practices and beliefs. As of today, the Right to live with Human Dignity in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution by the means of the case (Francis Corallie Mullen v. The administrator, Union Territory of Delhi)[5]

In the case of Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India[6] it was gathered,

This right to live with human dignity, enshrined in Article 21 derives its life breath from the Directive Principles of State Policy and particularly clauses (e) and (f) of Article 39 and Article 41 and 42 and at the least, therefore, it must include protection of the health and strength of workers men and women, and of the tender age of children against abuse, opportunities and facilities for children to develop in healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity, educational facilities, just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief.”

The Manual Scavenging is infringing the Right of Human Dignity as it cannot be said that this practice is humane.

Caste & Manual Scavenging 

Historically, it is not surprising that India attached a job like Manual Scavenging to the people belonging to lower castes. They are considered inferior and are subjected to all forms of oppression. Already, it took our society a long time to consider them as human as everybody else is, before making available Human Rights to them.

Among all castes, Dalits are usually employed as Manual Scavengers. The further regionally sub divided groups are such as Chuhada, Rokhi, Mehatar, Malkana, Halalkhor, and Lalbegi, or the Muslim Hela sub-caste. [7] 

The sections that are well off and have modernized wear fogged classes and presume to have gotten rid of any feudal & discriminatory practices but that is far from the truth. The feudal practices have decreased but they still have a place in society. Small towns still have separate places where the majority that dwell is from the lower castes. 

The practice of Jajmani System in which the lower castes women serve the upper castes households clean their toilets collecting excrement and pass this practice to the younger women in the household. Indeed, Manual Scavenging is a caste-based violence.

Manual Scavenging & Human Rights

Unequivocally, the people are getting aware of their rights every passing day. Many historic judgments of the court have come in relation to the protection of civil liberties and dignity of people. We are using the most advanced technologies yet the people have to clean the sewers themselves without any security. Even though the agencies have undertaken various steps to recognize the discriminatory practices and curb them, but we still have a long path to cover.

In 2014, in the case of Safai Karmachari Andolan & Ors. v. Union of India [8] the Supreme Court noted that Manual Scavenging is prohibited under various International Treaties such as Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR), the International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of 

Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). [9]

Not limited to this, India is a party to other International Covenants like International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). During India’s most recent review for compliance with the ICESCR, ICERD, and the CRC, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR Committee), Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD Committee). [10]

The Constitution of India prohibits untouchability( Article 17) and caste based discrimination (Article 18). It considers human dignity as inalienable yet Manual Scavengers fall prey to discrimination. The oblivion even after such a wide disregard to practices like Manual Scavenging is shameful. It can be said that they are secluded from the definition of Human Beings. It is only when their position in society will be improved and they will be placed in a more secure position and they be able to live a life of dignity..

Constitutional & Legislative Provisions

The Constitution of India embeds in itself the values of equality, liberty and fraternity. It aims to uplift the disadvantaged sections of the society and provide them stature. The government makes policies & schemes keeping in mind the views put forth by the Constitution. Article 17 of the Indian Constitution prohibits Untouchability and Caste-based dicrimination. Manual Scavenging is also a Caste-based violence and hence in violation of the principle laid down in Article 17.

Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 criminalized employment of Manual Scavengers. After the 2013 Act was passed it covered all forms of Manual Scavenging. The problem rests in denial, the denial that it exists. In a 2014 judgment of Safai Karmachari Andolan & ors. v. Union of India, the Supreme Court established there is a widespread prevalence of Manual Scavenging. [11]

The poor implementation of Government Schemes is the biggest reason behind not being able to get rid of this Historical social injustice.


The major step in the process of ending Manual Scavenging could be providing alternative job opportunities to the people employed in such jobs as to get rid of the economic pressure on them. An extensive awareness campaign to get rid of societal pressure is also important. 

Under the Rehabilitation schemes under the 2013 Act, people employed in such jobs are entitled to financial assistance, scholarships, housing, alternative livelihood support, etc. As India is a federal democracy, the issue of sanitation falls under the competency of the state. The States has to effectively undertake the practice of stringent application of their policies and holding the local administration accountable for it.

Another factor to be accounted for is lack of education as a developed education outreach can help these people to leave such jobs.


What we preach, we practice. We should stop idealizing the people of upper castes. The opportunities when equally provided, it works in favour of all. The need is to be aware of your rights and make them available to you. The seclusion in society is the biggest reason of these practices to go on for decades and might go on for a decade longer if we do not drop the idea of oppressing somebody as a loyalty to our community. 

The proper sanitation system is not only a matter of few people, it is seen as a determination in a nation’s development.


[1]   Religious Beliefs & Human Rights, Human Rights Group, (last accessed on January 29, 2021).

[2]  Id.

[3] Commission calls Manual Scavenging as one of the worst violations of human rights, National Human Rights Commission(NHRC), accessed on January 29, 2021).

[4] “Manual Scavenging ,” Caste and Discrimination in India, Human Rights Watch (last accessed on January 29, 2021).

 [5]  1981 AIR 746.

 [6]   1984 AIR 802.

 [7]  16 Vibhawari Kamble, “Steps Toward the Elimination and Eradication of Manual Scavenging Practice: Advocacy Manual for NGO’s, CBO’s and other related organizations”.

[8]   Writ Petition (Civil) No. 583 of 2003.

[9] Cleaning Human Waste, “Manual Scavenging” Caste and Discrimination in India, (last accessed on January 29, 2021).

[10]   Id.

[11]  Supra 8.


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