Despite ban, manual scavenging continues

While the State government makes tall claims that manual scavenging is not happening, those who enter pits say they are called upon to do so at least once a month.
Image used for representational purpose only (File Photo | EPS)
Image used for representational purpose only (File Photo | EPS)

BENGALURU:  “Each time I am asked to enter a sewer pit to clean it, I feel like dying by suicide. But then I think of my family and children and tell myself that a little additional money with some risk is OK,” said Rayanna (name changed), a manual scavenger.

Rayanna is one of the identified manual scavengers in the state. He sells vegetables to make a living. Despite promising his wife that he will not enter a pit to clean it, and despite being a vendor, apartment and commercial establishment dwellers contact him to clean septic tanks.

Appanna (40), a resident of Bengaluru, said, “I stopped this work long ago, and now I work as a security guard. But people still ask me if I can clean their pits. I feel ashamed when people ask me to clean their shit. It is very shameful that I am recognized by my caste and not respected for my present profession.”

According to activists and people, manual scavengers are paid between Rs 500 and Rs 1000, while using a machine to clean costs Rs 2,000 an hour.

The tale of many others is similar. Officials at the Karnataka State Safai Karmachari Development Corporation and those who have worked as manual scavengers said that despite directions from courts and governments to have sufficient sucking and pumping machines in panchayat and municipality limits, manual scavenging continues in a hush-hush manner.

While the State government makes tall claims that manual scavenging is not happening, those who enter pits say they are called upon to do so at least once a month.

Recently, in Malur, Kolar, students were forced to clean a septic tank. The Education Department, district administration, and State government cut a sorry figure and this shameful act also raised a red flag to the fact that such cases continue to happen.

“People's mentality has still not changed. No matter what the profession is, caste and economics take the stage. Asking students to clean toilets in school is no different. All these are criminal offences,” said Bezwada Wilson, Ramon Magsaysay awardee, and founder and national convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan.

He also demanded that the present penalty system under the Act -- of Rs 1-5 lakh penalty and imprisonment of 1-5 years -- should be changed. He said that manual scavenging is reported as a civil case, but if booked under the SC/ST Act, it is a criminal case.  

According to the Karnataka State Commission for Safai Karmacharis (KSCSK) statistics, 96 deaths have been reported since 1993.

Officials, however, admitted that there could be many more, that do not come to light. This is also true of the number of complaints reported, besides 195 cases of hazardous cleaning.

“As per our preliminary assessment, there is at least one case happening every month in the state, and most of them in Bengaluru, but they are all kept under wraps,” said the official, not wanting to be named.

Chandrakala, secretary (additional director), KSCSK, said cases are going on. “When we inquire, people say they are not aware of the rules and court orders. What is even more shocking is that often, officials themselves express obliviousness. We have also found people reasoning that machines got late and there was no other option. The same reason was given in the case of the Kolar incident,” she said and added that it was also cited in the HD Kote incident, where the hospital nurse, doctor, and cleaner were taken to task after two people were made to clean a septic tank.

As per the Karnataka State Safai Karmachari Development Corporation (KSSKDC), there are 7,483 identified and registered manual scavengers in the state. Of these, 2,843 have been given one-time compensation till 2016. Another proposal for compensating 4,650 was taken up in 2022, and approval and amount are still awaited.

KSSKDC Commissioner Rakesh Kumar K said that as per the 2013 Act, manual scavenging is a criminal offense. The Social Welfare Department is the nodal office implementing the Act.

“After the Act was enforced, it is the duty of all panchayats and urban departments to ensure there are sufficient machines and safety equipment. In case there is a shortage, machines should be taken on rent. But still cases of manual scavenging are reported,” he said.

Another senior official from KSSKDC ruled out the misconception that manual scavenging had seen a rise, after the construction of toilets under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. “As per rules, there should be double pits, and every pit is connected to a toilet. Toilets are constructed only after government approval and a record of their status is maintained,” the official added.  


In 1993, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was introduced. Later, the Central government introduced the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

Explaining the difference, KB Obalesh, state convener, Safai Karmachari Kavala Samithi, Karnataka, said rehabilitation was not a part of the 1993 Act. There was a clause that a person engaging in scavenging and the person assigning it should be arrested.

He said that after this, the number of complaints dropped to zero. There was no way to punish people. The Act also prohibited the construction of dry latrines. However, the central and state governments continued to construct toilets. Further, if anyone died while cleaning, no action was taken unless the district magistrate took it up and had an FIR filed.

Looking at all this, activists began raising an alarm which peaked after 14 Bhangi families staged a protest in 2010 in Haveri, Savanur taluk, outside the municipality office and poured human excreta on their heads. It was found that there was no clause for punishing people in the 1993 Act. It was also found that urban local bodies were releasing advertisements stating if any incidents of manual scavenging were found, those who came to register would be punished.

The ULBs were also asking people to come forward and register to avail of various government schemes. Activists found that it contained tricky clauses. The Central government also realized this and amended the Act, which came into effect in 2013. There are four new clauses added -- eradication, prohibition, rehabilitation, and legal action -- for all those violating the Act. Community participation in stopping scavenging along with the formation of central, state, district, and sub-divisional level monitoring committees was also announced, he said.


The Act came into effect in 2013 and the Supreme Court order prohibiting manual scavenging came in 2014. No human should clean human excreta. But the government is not serious. It has done no campaigns. Today a person residing in the smallest of villages in Karnataka is aware of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, but people still say they know nothing of the manual scavenging act.

What happened in Kolar is a crime. The government should stop the caste drama. The Constitution also says there should be no discrimination. Teachers are not trained on untouchability and patriarchy. Malur was only a representation of what was happening on the ground. In 2023 alone, there have been 93 deaths of manual scavengers across India. This year, the Central government made no special provision rehabilitation scheme as according to it, there are no manual scavengers in the country. But in reality, there are many incidents where police threaten people and families not to report or come forward.  
Bezwada Wilson, Ramon Magsaysay awardee

In October 2023, two pourakarmikas were forced to clean a manhole in HD Kote Government Hospital. The incident took place at the HD Kote Taluk Mother and Child Care Hospital. An FIR was lodged against contractor Santhosh Kumar, hospital administrative officer Dr Somanna, nurse Prameela, and pourakarmika Parashuram for forcing pourakarmikas Muniya and Chandru to clean the tank. After the video of manual scavenging went viral, DC KV Rajendra ordered a probe.

Karnataka State Safai Karmachari Commission former chairman Kote Shivanna said a lack of awareness about the rules and orders of the courts is leading to incidents of manual scavenging. DCs should hold regular awareness meetings with officers, he added.

No cases of manual scavenging have been reported in Udupi in the past five years, with the last incident reported on April 7, 2018. A labourer from the Dalit community had suffocated to death while cleaning a manhole in M-Kodi in Kasaba village, Kundapur taluk.

The deceased person Sandeep (25) from Thekkatte, was hired by Abdul Khader Geelani to work at his house. Sandeep had fallen into the pit and could not come out. Police booked a case against the accused.
Udupi DC Dr Vidya Kumari K who recently chaired the Safai Karmachari district vigilance committee meeting, said any individual engaged in such activities will face legal consequences under Section 8 of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and the Rehabilitation Act 2013.

After the death of two persons due to suffocation two years ago, no case was reported, said officials of the Kalaburagi Mahanagara Palike. Two officials from Kalaburagi Water Supply and Drainage Board were arrested. Sources added that manual scavenging is still in practice in semi-urban and rural areas.

No cases have been reported in the past three years. Satish Kumar, president, of Hassan City Municipality, said there is a clear direction for all scavengers not to indulge in manual scavenging. Health inspectors are also instructed not to direct any scavengers to get into the manhole or clean septic tanks manually.

Ramanna, a social worker, said a section of residents who were not satisfied with the work done by machines, allegedly forced scavengers to clear septic tanks manually. The scavengers shouldn't clean the manhole due to any pressure he added. Venkatesh, a scavenger, said: “We are attending to complaints of manholes with sucking machines fixed to the vehicle. We also try to educate the residents about the SC direction."

What causes death

* Sewer gases consist of varying levels of toxic and non-toxic gases, depending on the source, and result from the decomposition of household and industrial waste, and fecal matter
* Hydrogen sulfide, methane, and ammonia are the main components
* Exposure even to small levels of hydrogen sulfide irritates the eyes and respiratory tract, headaches, nausea, drowsiness, and dizziness
* Higher concentration can lead to olfactory fatigue which means the person loses their sense of smell, despite the highly characteristic rotten egg colour of hydrogen sulphide
* High levels of hydrogen sulfide can be fatal
* This is aggravated in combination with methane which decreases oxygen levels, especially in closed spaces
* On inhalation, the gas is rapidly absorbed and causes irritation of mucous membranes and the respiratory tract leading almost immediately to pulmonary edema
* There is often immediate loss of consciousness, coma, respiratory paralysis, seizures and death

(With inputs from BK Lakshmikantha- Mysuru; Prakash Samaga- Udupi; Ramakrishna Badsheshi- Kalaburgi; BR Udaya Kumar- Hassan)

(With inputs from BK Lakshmikantha- Mysuru; Prakash Samaga- Udupi; Ramakrishna Badsheshi- Kalaburgi; BR Udaya Kumar- Hassan)

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express