Co-Written by V. Ramaswamy & V. Srinivasan 

“Few object to liberty in the sense of a right to free movement, in the sense of a right to life and limb. There is no objection to liberty in the sense of a right to property, tools, and materials, as being necessary for earning a living, to keep the body in a due state of health. Why not allow a person the liberty to benefit from an effective and competent use of a person’s powers? The supporters of Caste who would allow liberty in the sense of a right to life, limb, and property, would not readily consent to liberty in this sense, inasmuch as it involves liberty to choose one’s profession.

But to object to this kind of liberty is to perpetuate slavery. For slavery does not merely mean a legalized form of subjection. It means a state of society in which some men are forced to accept from others the purposes which control their conduct. This condition obtains even where there is no slavery in the legal sense. It is found where, as in the Caste System, some persons are compelled to carry on certain prescribed callings which are not of their choice.”

– B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste.

worker 2.png

(Contract worker cleaning rail track manually, Chennai central station. Photo: Authors)

There is a historical, colonial association of manual scavenging with certain castes and tribes, who, being considered “untouchable” and lacking any other means of sustenance in colonial society, were pushed into the occupation of manual scavenging. The sanitation system of privileged urban dwellers was entirely dependent on the services of a section of humanity who were designated as ‘scavengers’. They existed only to enable the privileged to enjoy modern comforts at the expense of their own dignity and health.

Communities involved

The majority of sanitary workers and manual Scavengers in Tamil Nadu belong to the following Scheduled Castes: Adi Andhra; Arunthathiyar; Chakkiliyan; Domban; Kuravan; Madari Madiga; Pagadai; and Thoti. Actually the term “Arunthathiyar” is itself a kind of aggregation to include these other castes; however, the Census of India for 2001 and 2011 lists all these castes separately.

The Kattunayakan, who belong to the Scheduled Tribes, are also among the communities engaged in sanitary work and manual scavenging.

1993 Law

The association of certain castes with the scavenging occupation, although campaigned against and acted upon by figures like Gandhi and Ambedkar, each in his own way, nevertheless continued in practice, unimpeded, until 1993, when the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was enacted.

This law remained largely on paper, and it was several years before any substantive institutional action was taken in states, including Delhi, to implement the law. In 1993, the welfare ministry (which was responsible for enacting and implementing the Act) undertook a survey of the extent to which the law had been implemented in all the states of India. It was found that even the Chief Secretaries of many major states in the country were unaware of the existence of such a law. The Government of Tamil Nadu issued a notification that “no person shall be engaged in or employed for or permitted to be engaged in or employed for any other person manually carrying human excreta or construct or maintain a dry latrine, in areas comprising of the whole of the state of Tamil Nadu with effect from 1 October 2003.”

Dry latrines were converted into sanitary latrines (often only on paper), “manual scavenging” was discontinued by municipal workers, although the existence of dry latrines and the practice of manual scavenging by the same caste communities who had done this hitherto continued. On the whole, while there was an institutional thrust, especially from the late 1990s, to eliminate the practice, it was accompanied by an invisible thrust to drive it underground.

This is the scenario within which, even though another law against manual scavenging was enacted in 2013, providing for rehabilitation of scavenging workers and compensation in the event of their death; even though the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was amended in 2015, to include manual scavenging; nonetheless, on the ground, almost no one in the communities in question knows of these laws, nor for that matter about the Safai Karamchari Andolan (which has been a driving force for state intervention); and all the while, the practice continues and deaths of workers also occur regularly, without proper compensation.


(Arulmurugan, 34, who died on 24 December 2014, while cleaning a septic tank in Tindivanam, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Authors)

Table 1. Manual Scavengers Killed in Tamil Nadu, 2014-16

No. Date No. of deaths Name Location
1. 25 December 2014 1 Arulmurugan Tirukazhukundram, Kanchipuram District
2. 14 October 2015 2 Muniyandi.Viswanathan MaduraiMadurai District
3. 19 January 2016 4 Vel Murugan, Rajesh, Saravanan, Kumar Thuraipakkam, Chennai District
4. 22 January 2016 2 Anthoniraj, Murugadoss Kakuppam, Viluppuram District
5 26 May 2016 2 Chinnadurai, Thangaraj Neyveli,Cuddalore District

Source: Newspaper reports and field study.

Septic Tanks

With underground drainage systems providing for just over a quarter of urban households in Tamil Nadu according to the Census 2011, it is septic tank based household sanitation, accounting for almost 38% of households, that emerges as the principal sanitation arrangement, at present and over the next 5-10 years.

Although clear guidelines on septic tank design and construction exist, e.g. from the Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organization (CPHEEO) and the Operational Guidelines on Septage Management in Urban and Rural Local Bodies in Tamil Nadu (2014), in practice these are rarely followed. This has various negative consequences.


(The post-mortem report of Arulmurugan, with “asphyxia due to drowning” mentioned as the cause of death (nomention of methane poisoning). Photo: authors.)

With the considerable increase in toilet construction in a rapidly urbanizing context, both naturally and through state-sponsored programmes like AMRUT and Swachh Bharat Misison, and with no institutional or technology attention paid to addressing the need for de-sludging of septic tanks (the predominant household arrangement), workers from the same communities have come to be employed for septic tank cleaning.

The two most serious consequences of this systemic failure are: (1) public health risk, on account of flow of fecal matter into the open public drains (which then need to be cleaned, manually, by municipal sanitary workers); (2) the need for frequent de-sludging of the septic tank and the continued practice of manual scavenging for cleaning the improperly constructed septic tanks; further, improper design and construction is also responsible for deaths of manual scavengers, e.g. because of excessive build-up of methane.

It is septic tanks that principally account for the manual scavenging that exists in urban Tamil Nadu today. Thus, although manual scavenging as such was prohibited in 1993, and dry or service latrines began to be converted into sanitary latrines, simultaneously, a new sector of manual scavenging opened up, namely septic tanks.

On the side of the workers involved, sheer poverty, limited education, lack of any alternative means of livelihood, the persistence of the nexus of caste and sanitation, which is seen as something hereditary – these are among the factors pushing the community to manual scavenging.

There is blatant violation of all sanitary norms by private builders in the newly-developing localities of important cities like Coimbatore, who connect the mal-designed septic tanks in their large apartment complexes to the adjacent open drains, in order to avoid paying for even the periodical de-sludging required. Granting permissions for residential housing complexes in un-sewered areas is a prescription for corruption and disaster.

 Privatization in urban local bodies

With large-scale employment cuts in urban local bodies, accompanied by privatization and contracting of sanitary work, it once again fell to workers from the same communities, now employed on low wages by municipal contractors, to supplement their income by taking up manual scavenging work.

Mechanical de-sludging

One of the only instances of positive socio-economic mobility among the communities associated with manual scavenging has been the initiation of de-sludging services by their members. Such entrepreneurs have achieved improvement in their living conditions and quality of life. But their efforts have been entirely on their own, bottom-up and completely un-facilitated. Thus for instance, they have purchased de-sludging vehicles without obtaining bank finance, relying instead on private money-lenders or non-bank financial institutions, who charge a high rate of interest. The de-sludging operators have through their work and enterprise contributed to drastically reducing the incidence of manual scavenging in the state.

The mechanization through which the practice of manual scavenging can be eliminated – has been largely a non-state, bottom-up process. Consequently it continues to be paralleled by manual scavenging activity.

Notwithstanding the arrival and spread of de-sludging vehicles in urban Tamil Nadu, the practice of manual cleaning of septic tanks continues to be widespread, for instance in areas where there are only few vehicles, or when households wish to pay less for the task. Contract workers in the urban local bodies, who are poorly paid by their contractor or local body employers, are compelled to take up septic tank cleaning jobs for additional income. Not unexpectedly, this then results in deaths with regular frequency.

Looking from the ground

Looking from the ground-level, it would appear that the state did not make any substantive effort to rehabilitate the erstwhile scavenging workers by way of opening up new means of livelihood and new avenues of employment through assistance in acquiring new skills. Nonetheless, the consciousness about abandoning this inhuman profession does definitely exist among both those employed e.g. as municipal sweepers (who had undertaken scavenging earlier in their career and then stopped when this was formally discontinued in urban local bodies), as well as the younger generation of the communities.

But even today, not everyone is successful in staying away from the work, for reasons of sheer sustenance. A young man who is currently employed as a temporary or contract sweeper in a ULB would aspire to be inducted as a sweeper in the ULB, given the much higher salary; while the older person working as a municipal sweeper thinks that this profession should end with him and educates his children for mainstream careers. Municipal sweepers are relatively high-waged, but their numbers are small, the bulk of conservancy work is undertaken through contract workers, who earn a third or less of what the permanent sweepers are paid. Hence the latter are compelled to resort to manual scavenging to augment their income. Some of these workers do try to take on other work, e.g. house-painting, but they are unable to rely on such work for their regular sustenance.

cleaning rail track.png

(Contract workers cleaning rail track, Central Station, Chennai. Photo: Authors)

There are a large number of workers belonging to the castes associated with scavenging who continue to undertake manual scavenging in parallel with the de-sludging vehicles. Sometimes when the sludge vehicle is not immediately available, or the quoted price is high, households opt for manual scavenging so as to cut costs. Not all vehicles have an air compressor, and are fitted only with a diesel engine, which only extracts liquid. Hence to remove the accumulated sludge, which can be quite solid, manual labour is resorted to.

Lack of will

Essentially there has been no driving concern to eliminate human contact with fecal waste, let alone break the association of specific communities with the practice, or to remove the indignity surrounding municipal conservancy tasks. Hence the use of gloves, masks, protective gear, shoes etc in municipal work is almost non-existent. Where such gear has been provided, workers do not wear it because they find it inconvenient and a hindrance to the work.


 Households seem to be entirely unaware of the fact that this is extremely hazardous work, besides being legally prohibited, with deaths occurring frequently, across the country. Ignorance, apathy, insensitivity and sheer exploitative mentality underlies the persistence of septic tank related manual scavenging.

Consumption of alcohol and alcoholism among the communities associated with manual scavenging is near-universal – even widely seen as necessary. This has the inevitable impact of keeping the workers in a perpetual state of poverty and dehumanization.

State action for elimination

The persistence of manual scavenging more than two decades after it was banned and its seeming intractability underscores the persistence of untouchability in India.

Manual scavenging can be eliminated – with a concerted, time-bound, ground-level programme of outreach, monitoring and support. But this must be based on an awareness of where, how and why it continues to exist.

In order to truly eliminate manual scavenging and prevent any more tragic deaths of workers from the vulnerable communities, the state must come out with a timeline for elimination, with a penal provision against such employment. Economic rehabilitation of all those who resort to manual scavenging for survival is imperative.

The manual scavenging elimination programme has to be a state-driven and simultaneously community-based social movement, involving political parties, trade unions, NGOs, civil society, community organisations etc.

An action plan should be detailed in terms of all the requisites for that – e.g. appropriate design and construction of septic tanks; strict monitoring of these structures by local bodies; facilitation of the operations and enterprise of de-sludging vehicles; creation of more sites for safe disposal of urban and rural septage; public awareness; monitoring, etc.

Skills training for new vocations among those who resort to manual scavenging for survival would also need to form a major part of the effort. In this context, the scope for absorption of a section of the workers in the emerging labour and enterprise requirements of urban and rural sanitation may be highlighted; this is already happening in a small way.

Educational scholarships to children of current and former scavenging workers is essential. However, the reality is that a good number of the workers do not even possess Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe certificates to enable them to secure state assistance for education.

There needs to be progressive mechanization of all aspects of sanitary work. It must be ensured that all sanitary workers are equipped with proper protective gear.

Caste Practices in Local bodies

There needs to be a significant re-vamping of municipal treatment of sanitary workers. Sanitary workers shoulder the responsibility of making the urban areas of the state livable, at the cost of their own health and dignity. The recruitment practices of urban local bodies only serve to perpetuate the nexus of caste and occupation, and its association with untouchability. Thus, e.g. a person belonging to the Arunthathiyar or Scheduled Castes, with a university degree, would be assigned the post of sweeper, while a person belonging to a higher caste, even without a degree, would be recruited on a sweeper post but assigned other non-sanitary duties. The social status of the sanitary worker – perpetuated by the practices of local bodies – continues to be lowly, despite the official cessation of manual scavenging. Such practices by the urban local bodies must also be seen as a major factor underlying the persistence of manual scavenging.

Privatisation of  Sanitary work in Local bodies

While municipal sanitary workers today receive a decent salary, together with PF and ESI, there has been large-scale privatisation across the urban local bodies in Tamil Nadu, with the result that the number of sanitary workers has been significantly reduced and private companies are contracted to take up the sanitary work. The private companies employ contract workers, who carry out sanitary duties, but at low wages, often less than the minimum wage. It is these contract workers who resort to manual scavenging, cleaning septic tanks to supplement their income. Such privatization must be stopped.

[V. Ramaswamy is a grassroots organiser, social activist and public policy professional in Kolkata. He is a member of Calcutta Research Group. V. Srinivasan is a trade union & human rights activist in Chennai. The authors were comrades in the National Campaign for Housing Rights in the late-1980s. The authors can be reached at]

Originally published in Refugee Watch Online

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B. Become a Patron at Patreon Subscribe to our Telegram channel


One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Despite technological development, manual scavenging is common in rural areas and even in some semi- urban areas. Many dalits and people belonging to SC are forced to do this heinous job risking their lives. The advance of mechanisation is helping the well-to- do persons but it has not assisted the scavengers who need it the most. This is the ‘ class’ nature of technology

Translate »