Caste-Baste Discrimination/Work – India Women Manual Scavengers
Author: Womens UN Report Network
Date: July 11, 2011
Please see 2 parts of this WUNRN
on both grounds of sex and social origin continue to trap successive
generations of Dalit women in traditionally caste-based assigned occupations,
as manual waste scavengers.
– International Labour Organization
ILO and Manual Scavengers in India: Paving the long way towards the elimination
of discrimination based on social origin
millions of people, contemporary India has become a land of opportunities, and
the largest democracy in the world has experienced a remarkable economic growth
during the last decade. Yet, as India accelerates its pace towards development,
many are left behind due to long standing caste-based discrimination in
employment. ILO Online reports from Rajasthan, India.
New Delhi, India (ILO Online) – Born in the colourful state of Rajasthan as
a Dalit, the lowest of the castes in the Hindu caste hierarchy, Anita had few
employment options other than what her parents had done and what her community
expected her to do – manual scavenging.
This occupation consists in the removal of human excreta by hand in public
streets, septic tanks or closed gutters and sewage. It is characterized by the
dramatically unhealthy and unsafe working conditions, which continue to
exacerbate the practice of untouchability and marginalization of Dalits.
In this setting, Anita began to work in different households, physically
cleaning their dry latrines. The usual payment for her efforts was a single
roti, a piece of Indian flatbread. Even after her marriage she was forced to
continue with her job as her husband turned out to be heavily dependant on
alcohol and unable to work.
In contemporary India, with its remarkable growth rate and corresponding
investment and employment opportunities, some may find it surprising that
heinous occupations like manual scavenging still persist.
The recent ILO Global Report on Discrimination* explains this with the
continuation of caste-based discrimination in South Asia as a major
contributing factor. The chances of a qualified applicant with a Dalit name to
be invited for a job interview are only two-thirds that of a high-caste Hindu applicant.
In practice, this means that many Dalits must hide their status before being
Another explanation highlighted in the Global Report is the persistence of
discrimination based on multiple grounds. Studies show that the victims of this
complex form of discrimination register the highest levels of unemployment and
are concentrated in the most poorly remunerated and precarious forms of
Discrimination on both grounds of sex and social origin continue to trap
successive generations of Dalit women like Anita in traditionally caste-based
assigned occupations. Manual scavenging is one of those occupations mostly held
by women. According to government estimates for 2005, 95 per cent of a total of
700,000 manual scavengers were women.
Undermined physical capacity and the feeling of vulnerability and
hopelessness associated with this form of discrimination have triggered a
vicious cycle of pauperisation, low educational attainment, and social
immobility for manual scavengers and their families.
Faced with this challenge, the Government of India has adopted an impressive
medley of legislation and policies aimed at respecting, promoting and realizing
the fundamental right of non-discrimination. Additionally, specialized
organizations with a mandate on issues of equality have been active in working
towards the elimination of discrimination against manual scavengers, with an
ambitious deadline set by the end of 2012.
At the workers’ level, the Safai Karmachi Andolan (SKA) trade union has
vigorously promoted the eradication of manual scavenging through networking,
policy advice, destruction of dry latrines, rehabilitation of “liberated”
scavengers, campaigns denouncing violence against Dalit women, and educational
While this legal, policy and institutional framework has contributed
considerably to the elimination of manual scavenging in many states, the
overall picture is one of mixed results. Until there is stricter enforcement of
the relevant legislation, and fuller implementation of policies which promote
equal opportunities of Dalits, it is likely that stories like Anita’s will
With this in mind, the ILO is working with the Government and social
partners in India to address the discrimination of Dalits in five selected
states, including Anita’s home state of Rajasthan.
The main objective of the project is to support the government’s efforts to
improve the effectiveness of legislation and policies which pertain to the
issue of manual scavenging, but also to include the scavenging community itself
in that process.
According to Coen Kompier, an ILO specialist in labour standards working for
the ILO office in New Delhi, “rehabilitation of manual scavengers depends on
building the confidence of that community, but also on breaking definitively
the caste stigma manual scavengers suffer from. Through our project activities
we are therefore exploring ways to make rehabilitation effective and genuine,
giving scavengers a true voice in choosing their profession or occupation.
Women like Anita can serve as an example for Dalit communities. ”
Anita has a dream for her children: she wants them to go to school and
become doctors “so that they could give free treatment to the women in the
scavenging community who suffer from disease”. Meanwhile, she may have taken
the first step to make her dream come true. She has left her job as a manual
scavenger and, although she had to hide her status as a rehabilitated scavenger
from her employer, she found alternative employment as a domestic worker.
“Initiatives like the ILO project on manual scavenging will help to pave the
long way towards the elimination of discrimination based on social origin. This
form of discrimination is probably one of the most difficult to tackle. Even in
open societies, where social mobility is common, a number of phenomena continue
to impede complete equality of opportunity for various social categories”,
concludes Lisa Wong, Senior Declaration Officer in the ILO’s Programme to
Promote the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
Website Link for ILO Report – Equality at Work: The Continuing
WOMEN NEWS NETWORK
Website Link Includes Video.
By Shuriah Niazi with Lys Anzia – Women News Network – WNN
Scavenging Girl, India – Matt Corks 2006 image –
“In some urban slums of many major cities of India, and more so in
the case of semi-urban areas, dry toilets are a sad part of the common
reality,” said Dr. Sam Paul, Executive Director of the NGO, Public Affairs
Centre, a public advocacy organization in Bangalore, India, in a recent report
for the All India Christian Council.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UN-HRC), at a 2002 meeting of
the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, said, “Public
latrines – some with as many as 400 seats – are cleaned on a daily basis by
female workers using a broom and a tin plate. The excrement is piled into
baskets which are carried on the head to a location which can be up to four
kilometers away from the latrine. At all times, and especially during the rainy
season, the contents of the basket will drip onto a scavenger’s hair, clothes
In spite of the modernization of many parts of India, the age old custom of
using dry – non-flush – toilets have exposed many bio-hazards to women in India
who work as manual scavengers. Manual scavengers are, “exposed to the most
virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections which affect their skin, eyes,
limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. TB (tuberculosis) is rife
among the community,” continues the UN report.
This is only a fraction of the suffering women manual scavengers
face today in India. Labor slavery, severe discrimination and lack of the most
basic human rights are only some of the challenges.
A 2005, US Department of Health, report states that disease for women manual
scavengers can be “passed directly from soiled hands to the mouth or indirectly
by way of objects, surfaces, food or water soiled with faeces.”
Women working unprotected are in grave danger of contacting countless diseases
through their daily and close contact with human waste. Some of these diseases,
in addition to TB, include : campylobacter infection, cryptosporidiosis,
giardiasis, hand, foot and mouth disease, hepatitis A, meningitis (viral),
rotavirus infection, salmonella infection, shigella infection, thrush, viral
gastroenteritis, worms and yersiniosis.
Facing the dangers of daily contact, “Ninety percent of all manual
scavengers have not been provided proper equipment to protect them from faeces
borne illness,” said a recent, Jan 2007, report on safety by India’s TISS –
Tata Institute of Social Sciences. This includes safety equipment like gloves,
masks, boots and/or brooms.
The use of hands by women manual scavengers, along with the certainty that
they will have direct skin contact with human waste, is a very dangerous
combination that is contributing to serious health conditions. Chronic skin
diseases and lung diseases are very common among women manual scavengers.
To add to the danger, “Removal of bodies and dead animals is the third most
common practice of manual scavenging, preceeded by sewerage sweeping, and the
carrying of night-soil by basket/bucket or on the head,” continued the 2007
In spite of its being “illegal” the practice and use of manual scavengers
continues in many low-income urban and rural parts of India today.
But the law is clear.
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction
of Dry Latrine Act of 1993 states that, “No person shall
engage in or employ for or permit to be engaged in or employed by any other
person for manually carrying human excreta; or to construct or maintain a dry
Legal loopholes and non-enforcement of the law on manual scavenging
continues in many parts of India, even as organizations protecting the rights
of manual scavengers present detailed reports. At present the ST/SC All
India Commission, representing the lowest castes and tribes in India, has
much more to do to strengthen legislation on India’s illegal industry.
On the first week of July this year, the United Nations will be hosting two
dozen women manual scavengers to tell their life stories to the UN General
Assembly. One of them is Usha Chomar, from the town of Alwar in Rajasthan district
of Western India.
Remembering her childhood in India at the age of seven, Chomar recounts,
“When I was a little child I would often insist on taking a broom from my
mother so I could do the scavenging. The disposal of human excreta was the only
thought that dominated my mind.”
“The worst part of this primitive toilet system is the method of clearing
these human feces. Men and women, often right from their teens, invariably the Dalits
of the Dalit do this ignoble job,” continues Dr. Paul in his March 2008
report. “They literally sweep the feces with their hands using two small metal
sheets collecting them into a bucket or bin to be eventually dumped into
another larger container (sometimes sealed but often kept open) the contents of
which is periodically disposed of far away.”
“I remember the first time I had to carry a basketful on my head. I slipped
and fell into the gutter. No one would come to pick me up because the basket
was so dirty and I was covered with filth,” said manual scavenger Safai Karmachari
Andolan, Sept 2006, for The Hindu news magazine – FRONTLINE. “I sat there,
howling, until another woman scavenger arrived,” continued Safai. “She hosed me
down and took me home. But that day, I felt like the most unfortunate child in
the whole world.”
Making up 98 percent of the majority of manual scavenging workers,
these women, also known as “Valmikis,” come from the very lowest castes in
As India juggles its many traditions, with an incoming tide of new
technological advancement from the modern world, legal solutions in the crisis
for women manual scavengers are being lost in India’s longstanding
The 2007 dateline, set by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty
Alleviation to end the practice of manual scavenging in India, has now been
reached without success. “2010 might be a more realistic deadline,” admitted
Kumari Selja, rural agriculturalist and Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation
Placed on the bottom of the list in India’s legislation, women manual
scavengers are trapped by Indian society and caste discrimination, as they
endlessly bound in cycles of poverty, inequality and lost opportunity.
According to the 2006 FRONTLINE report by The Hindu Times, “There are approx
50,000 – 60,000 scavengers (both men and women) in Gujarat alone” in the same
city that hailed the birth of India’s Mahatma Gandhi.
“Mahatma Gandhi raised the issue of the
horrible working and social conditions of Bhangis (manual scavengers)
more than 100 years ago, in 1901, at the Congress meeting in Bengal. Yet it
took about 90 years for the country to enact a uniform law abolishing manual
scavenging,” says Dr. Sam Paul.
the Sewers of India –
Inheriting the work of manual scavenging from her mother-in-law for 15 years
in the village of Tonkakala in the Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh of Central
India, Rekha Bai unwillingly continued her position as a manual scavenger. “I
did not like this work. But I was forced to do this to make both ends meet.
There was no alternative,” she confided.
Rekha tried to stop carrying night-soil after struggling for years with the
hard conditions surrounding manual scavengers in Tonkakala. Finally, she
decided to give up her “detestable work.” Soon after quitting she had to
resume, due to pressures placed on her to continue by her family, neighbors and
community. Today, in spite of the struggles in finding new work, Rekha has been
able to change jobs and move on.
The outcome in the case of Laxmi Bai of Devgarh village is not as good.
After struggling with the work that “no one wants to do” she quit as a manual scavenger,
but resumed her work again after staying away only two months.
Vimla Bai and Dhanna Lal, two other women from Devgarh village, faced many
similar dilemmas as they worked for years under detestable conditions. Even
though they are still considered to be “untouchable” by India’s society at
large, they have managed to push through to finally free themselves from the
work of manual scavenging.
The Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh has almost ended the practice of manual
scavenging. But it is continuing unabated in other districts of Central India.
Even though the “illegal” act of carrying night-soil is steadily on the wane,
the basic problems for women manual scavengers remain the same.
Struggling to find the means to a new livelihood in India often makes
changes impossible and out of reach for women manual scavengers.
Women working in the “night-soil” industry are often caught in an endless
bind of indebtedness to the upper-caste neighbor households they serve. As they
accept loans from employers for their “illegal” work, the women are trapped in
an ongoing cycle of debt. These “impossible” loans, coming with a standard 10
percent finance charge, often leave the women workers in a state of perpetual
obligation, servitude and bondage.
Unable to pay back any loan, with very little money, many women reach a
point of great personal crisis. “Their poverty is so acute that, in
desperation, some Bhangis resort to separating out non-digested wheat
from buffalo dung,” continues the 2002 UN-HRC report.
To shift away from their labor as “night-soil” workers, many women in India
try to seek work as farm laborers to help sustain their families. But they are
often met with discouraging news. Getting these jobs are not easy. Today
charity assistance and some government aide is available to help women locate
new jobs. But, unfortunately, the jobs are scarce. Most jobs available are
usually reserved for men.
Vimla Bai, who worked many years as a manual scavenger in Devgarh before she
broke free, confided, “It is not easy to get any other job after giving up this
work. People do not want to employ us due to (our) untouchability.”
Despite prohibitions in India, “untouchability” continues to be
accepted as part of the normal cultural landscape.
Not all women manual scavengers are from the Dalit community. The Tarana
village of the Ujjain district region use women members from the Muslim Haisla
caste to carry night-soil. Using baskets on their heads they work at the same
pace in the same way as all other women do in India who gather human waste.
There is no formal training in this occupation, but the expectations are
Even though the usual discrimination against “untouchability” for this job
does not apply inside the religion of Islam, the Haisla women are still greatly
“set-apart” due to their work as manual scavengers.
“I did not like carrying night-soil. But there was so much pressure of
family and society that I had no other option,” said Taslim from Kayatha,
India. “However, I decided to give up this work after the social workers
persuaded me. It is my endeavor that no other woman in this area may have to do
this work again,” she added.
Just how much money do women manual scavengers in Central India get for
their work? In one month the usual pay, for removing human waste, averages 20
to 30 rupees – approx 50 cents to a little more than one dollar USD – from each
household. On special occasions or festivals, women manual scavengers might
even manage to get one sweet roti or some throw-away clothes from those who
The JanSahas organization of India began eight years ago, in 2000, to help
women scavengers find a new life. Starting first by helping women find
alternative employment in the rural and urban areas of Dewas, Ujjain and the Indore
districts of Madhya Pradesh, JanSahas finds it is an “uphill” climb to help,
educate and empower the women.
Assistance for women working in the “night-soil” industry is challenged
today by a dichotomy of legislative inconsistencies. According to law, children
can receive scholarships for their education only as long as their family
continues to work as scavengers. Indian government officials say these
scholarships are meant only for the children of people engaged in “insanitary
occupations.” But once women manual scavengers quit their work it becomes clear
– there are no more scholarships for their children.
“This is the reason that many women have returned to this work after
quitting it once,” said Mr. Ashif Sahikh from the office of JanSahas.
“My grandsons and granddaughters were discriminated at school when we used
to work. Now that we have quit, we are no longer in a position to send them to
school,” said 54 yr. old Mannu Bai from the small village of Sia, who’s
population is only 2,500.
In rural Sia, many manual scavengers wait for the ripening of crops to find
new work. When the jobs do not become available, women and their families wait
again to get permission from Sia’s legislative office to work cleaning sewage
from the drains and gutters of the village. After only 15 days, though,
according to the rule of law in Sia, even this meager and difficult work must
be given to another waiting family.
In 2002, recommendations by the UN-HRC outlined two solutions to improve the
terrible conditions facing women manual scavengers in India. The first
solution: “The Government of India should press all states to implement The
Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition)
Act, 1993, and prosecute officials responsible for the perpetuation of the
practice.” The second solution: “The Government of India should ensure that all
manual scavengers are rehabilitated according to the law in all states
throughout the country.”
It’s a shame, after 60 years of independence, after reports, meetings and
humanitarian outcrys on the continuing use of manual scavengers in India, that
the government of India has still failed to eradicate this inhuman practice.
Many of the regional State governments of India have actually denied the
existence of dry latrines and the practice of manual scavenging.
Several affidavits and counter affidavits showing the existence of dry
latrines and manual scavenging are now due to appear in the 2008 Indian Court.