Working with Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Associate Professor of Law and Development and Director of the MIT Program on Human Rights and Justice, a team of DUSP students in the 2008 practicum class on "Human Rights in India: Dalits and Sustainable Sanitation" have prepared an extensive report and recommendations designed to end the practice of manual scavenging.
Manual Scavenging, the manual cleaning, handling, and carrying of human excreta, is a pervasive practice in India, despite its detrimental implications for health and human rights. Manual scavenging is performed exclusively by one sub‐caste of Dalits, also known as “Untouchables,” for whom it is often the sole economic opportunity. Scavengers, the majority of whom are women, earn less than a dollar a day gathering excreta from dry latrines or open defecation fields, often with their bare hands and a broom, and transporting the untreated waste to dumping sites. Despite being one of the most dehumanizing practices in the world, denounced by both Indian and international law, the practice is perpetuated and legitimated by the caste system which condemns scavengers to this decent‐based occupation. Manual scavengers, called by different names in different regions constitute the lowest sub‐caste of Dalits, who are outside the Varna (caste) system. There are approximately 160 million Dalits in India, and an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 manual scavengers in the state of Gujarat alone.
The persistence of manual scavenging demonstrates that legislation and court orders are insufficient for ending this degrading and dangerous practice. The Indian State has written many constitutional and legal provisions into law protecting Dalit rights, including the Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1955, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, and the Protection of Human Rights Act of 1993. The 1955 Untouchability (Offences) Act outlawed discrimination on the basis of untouchability, and the 1993 Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act required the demolition of dry latrines and banned manual scavenging. This act also provided institutional mechanisms and allocated resources for the rehabilitation of scavengers. However, gaps between legislation and enforcement, the absence of appropriate sanitation facilities, and limited alternative economic opportunities for scavengers work together to perpetuate the manual scavenging practice. Ironically, the Gujarat state government is one of the largest promoters of scavenging, employing members of the sub‐caste as sanitation workers, tasked with cleaning vaada (wall) latrines in villages to maintaining sewerage systems in urban areas. Clearly, the State alone is incapable of eradicating manual scavenging.