Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Manual scavenging is a national shame

Some 750,000 manual scavengers still carry human excrement every day

Gandhi Jayanti has traditionally been an occasion for phony pieties from the political class. There were once staged photographs of leaders at the spinning wheel. Now they sit on the lawns of Raj Ghat to listen to devotional music. Then it is back to the usual life.

It is also a day when an estimated 750,000 human scavengers will move around their villages to carry human excrement, or what we euphemistically like to describe as night soil.

A story published in Mint on Monday described their lives in harrowing detail. The job is a degrading one, but what is also important is the fact that there is a subtext of brutal caste oppression as well. The human scavengers are from the bottom of the caste pyramid while the homes they visit to clean are inevitably of the higher castes. What they have been made to do—and are still being made to do—is a matter of national shame.

Gandhi had several inexplicable fetishes, but he did go out of his way to draw attention to the plight of human scavengers. “I may not be born again, but if it happens, I will like to be born into a family of scavengers, so that I may relieve them of the inhuman, unhealthy and hateful practice of carrying night soil," he once said. This Gandhi Jayanti is thus a good cue to focus national attention on this inhuman practice. The Indian government had passed a law in 1993 that called for the demolition of all dry toilets as well as banning the use of human beings to carry excrement. The influential National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi had also called for the abolition of this practice, after a nationwide protest by Safai Karamchari Andolan, a labour union. Yet, even Indian government agencies such as the Indian Railways continue to use human scavengers.

B.R. Ambedkar had quite cogently pointed out that a scavenger is one not because of the job he does; he becomes one by his birth. The plight of the scavenger is inextricably tied to the brutal realities of the caste system. Ambedkar argued, in a dig at Gandhi, that it is incorrect to preach to him (or more likely her) about the dignity of labour.

Manual scavenging is a moral tragedy. But there is another good reason why public attention needs to be drawn of a wider range of issues related to sanitation, or rather the lack of it. Economist Dean Spears has shown in his research that there is a close link between the high levels of stunting in Indian children and the absence of modern sanitation facilities. He has shown that districts with better sanitation infrastructure have reported relatively lower prevalence of stunting.

An estimated 500 million Indians defecate in the open. Even the largest cities do not provide citizens with proper sanitation facilities. In such a situation, children are unable to absorb nutrients from their food because of various bacterial infections in their digestive tracts, including the intestines.

There are some economists who cogently argue that the law to provide cheap food to Indians will be ineffective unless there is also an improvement in sanitation facilities, because what matters is not just how much people eat but also whether their guts can absorb nutrition adequately.

The political economy of the Indian state encourages giving subsidies to specific groups far more than building public goods—such as roads, water systems, sanitation—that could potentially benefit everyone. Creating modern sanitation networks involves more than spending plans. It requires state capacity to build and operate—an attribute that is sorely missing in India right now. That is one reason why the Indian political class will be more enthused by a right to food law rather than a law guaranteeing access to good sanitation.

Meanwhile, 750,000 men and women are still stuck in one of the most degrading jobs ever imposed on human beings. Their daily routine should shame us all because it is a constant reminder of the harsh realities of Indian social life.

The pious statements on Gandhi Jayanti are meaningless unless India liberates its human scavengers from the trap that the caste system has led them into. What is needed is not just a law that bans human scavengers but also a concrete action plan to help those who are trapped to migrate to better jobs.

What should be done to abolish manual scavenging in a time-bound manner? Tell us at