• Abdul Wahab

The Cadavers of the Septic Tanks

They dropped, holding buckets, into the tank of excreta of the beings who look exactly like them in hope of finding their survival covered in smell of disgust and immorality, not of themselves but of the onlookers and the passers-by, covering their faces, mouths, and noses, who could tell their castes just by the movement of their hands passing filled and emptied buckets among them, in and out of the septic tank. No one found optimal survival but death and that too inhumane.

Manual scavenging is the age old practice that still remains in practice in and around the subcontinent that requires the manual cleaning human excreta from pits and tanks by people of the lowest caste in the hierarchical structure of the Hindu or the Indian society. Manual scavengers usually belong to the Dalit community and the Valmikis (Balmiki) takes up for the majority of the human labour force of the total workers. It is a dangerous, degrading and cruel practice relative to the caste hierarchical society that coercively dominated the lowest strata of the caste pyramid to indulge into such gruesome profession. Not only it is ugly in the outlook but also can usually turn lethal if not practiced with proper kits and machines.

A History of Prohibitions

Manual scavenging has for decades been a matter of concern and discussion for the Indian society and the government, both the union government and the state governments. This practice not only has prevalence in India but control neighbouring the subcontinent- like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Although, the Indian legislation took first actions against this abominable praxis back in 1993 with the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, barring employment as manual scavengers and the construction of dry latrines; but hitherto members of the Dalit community can still be seen finding employment and survival in cleaning pits and latrines manually.

With the introduction of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, the government barred all employment of labour as manual scavengers and banned any construction and maintenance of dry and insanitary toilets. Subsequently the very next year, the Supreme Court ordered the central government to pay Rs.10 lakh as compensation for every death related to manual scavenging after the year 1993. At present, the government provides a sum of Rs. 40000 as a one-time cash aid for their rehabilitation and also provides them with a loan scheme of up to Rs.15 lakh with lower interest rates as usual.

Though, the BJP government introduced a draft to amendment the 2013 bill to the cabinet promising more stringent laws, prohibiting the cruel practice, and making cleaning of sewers and septic tanks absolutely mechanized, there has been no further development on the matter even after 10 months. Ramdas Athawale, the minister of state for social justice and empowerment, when asked about plans of the ministry on amending the 2013 Act replied that there is, “no such proposal to amend the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013”.

The Official Denial

There seldom might be anyone who has not come across the sight of humans covered in black disgust with buckets, drowned neck deep in filled-to-the-brim sewers cleaning them with their bare hands. This practice of manually cleaning pits and toilets is a lethal one if not carried out with proper gear. The excreta and other waste together rot in these sewers releasing methane which when inhaled replaces oxygen in the lungs resulting in hypoxemic hypoxia that can further lead to death by asphyxiation.

Responding to a question in Rajya Sabha, this monsoon session, the minister of state for social justice and empowerment Ramdas Athawale said that although 66,692 manual scavengers were identified across the nation still indulged in the practice, there were no deaths reported with regards to manual scavenging. “However, there have been reports of death of persons while cleaning sewers or septic tanks”, he further pointed out; telling the upper house that 941 deaths of workers cleaning sewers and septic tanks was reported after the 1993 ban on employment of manual scavengers.

The government differentiates manual scavenging from the practice of cleaning sewer and septic tanks by fitting the former in a box of a caste-based practice that pertains to people of the DBA community taking part in cleaning of human excreta by hand.

This was met with instant reproval outside the Parliament by activists like the Magsaysay awardee and Safai Karmachari Andolan founder Bezwada Wilson calling out the government and saying, “We have always said this is a technicality. This amounts to manipulating data.” He told The Hindu that his website states a total of 1760 deaths by manual scavenging since they started recording figures. More activists have condemned these observations made by the government and have requested the legislators to look into the technicalities of the law and consider cleaning septic tanks and sewers under the adobe of manual scavenging and make other justifiable and practical amendments to it.


The centre needs to re-think on amending the vague sections of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 and take further and more strict, consistent and continuous strides in order to end this inhuman practice and help the individuals and communities involved a better and more dignified life, and provide them with respectable employment opportunities to give them with the required push to better standards of living and for sustaining the same.


~ Abdul Wahab


Hindustan Times

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