Silent and suffering

Manual scavenging remains a social reality despitea 2013 act calling for its abolition

One manual scavenger dies every five days, according to official data. Recently, the Delhi High Court gave the authorities two months to identify manual scavengers in the national capital. The order proved two things — one, manual scavenging is a social reality despite its abolition by Parliament through the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013; and two, the government itself, directly or indirectly, employs manual scavengers. The act had endeavoured to eliminate not only dry latrines but also “insanitary latrines”; prohibit the employment of manual scavengers for the hazardous manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks; conduct a time-bound survey; and take measures for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. The definition of ‘manual scavengers’ was widened to cover those involved in cleaning not only dry latrines but other insanitary latrines. The statute made offences under the act cognisable and non-bailable. They now attract stringent penalties. The act called for the setting up of vigilance/monitoring committee at sub-division, district, State and Central levels. The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis was given the responsibility of implementation.

Poor implementation

To eliminate open defecation, the act also called for the construction of an adequate number of sanitary community latrines in urban areas within three years from the date of commencement of the statute. The poor implementation of the act may have been because States and Union Territories have been slow in identifying insanitary latrines and manual scavengers. In 2014, many States denied even the existence of insanitary latrines in the Supreme Court. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment said that rehabilitation of manual scavengers has been slow because they are mostly illiterate and have no exposure to any work other than sanitation-related activities. Many of them are old. They also do not have opportunities to avail of any skill development training. A lack of opportunities has also resulted in hesitation on the part of manual scavengers to come out into the open and demand jobs, making them a silent, suffering population in the country.

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