South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in on Aug. 25 :: 

‘Manual Scavenging’ Persists With Local Officials’ Support

 The Indian government should end “manual scavenging” – the cleaning of human waste by communities considered low-caste – by ensuring that local officials enforce the laws prohibiting this discriminatory practice, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. The government should implement existing legislation aimed to assist manual scavenging community members find alternative, sustainable livelihoods.

The 96-page report, “Cleaning Human Waste: ‘Manual Scavenging,’ Caste, and Discrimination in India,” documents the coercive nature of manual scavenging. Across India, castes that work as “manual scavengers” collect human excrement on a daily basis, and carry it away in cane baskets for disposal. Women from this caste usually clean dry toilets in homes, while men do the more physically demanding cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. The report describes the barriers people face in leaving manual scavenging, including threats of violence and eviction from local residents but also threats, harassment, and unlawful withholding of wages by local officials.
“Successive Indian government attempts to end caste-based cleaning of excrement have been derailed by discrimination and local complicity,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to get serious about putting laws banning manual scavenging into practice and assisting the affected caste communities.”

In 2014, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 135 people, including more than 100 people currently or formerly working as manual scavengers, in the Indian states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. Women who clean dry toilets in rural areas often are not paid cash wages, but instead as a customary practice receive leftover food, grain during harvest, old clothes during festival times, and access to community and private land for grazing livestock and collecting firewood – all at the discretion of the households they serve. In areas where “untouchability” practices are intact, food is dropped into their hands or thrown in front of them.