What You Can Do About The Scandal of Manual Scavenging

DELHI – If “manual scavenging” sounds like it might be a fun game like a scavenger hunt, think again. Manual scavenging is a scandalous practice prevalent in South Asia even though it is illegal. According to the United Nations in India,

Manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. It often involves using the most basic of tools such as buckets, brooms, and baskets . . . Manual scavengers are amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged [people].

Manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers. It often involves using the most basic of tools such as buckets, brooms, and baskets . . . Manual scavengers are amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged [people].

Although the national government declared manual scavenging illegal 25 years, the sheer magnitude of the problem makes enforcement of the law nearly impossible. From a practical perspective, the law is difficult to enforce without alternative methods readily available. Manual scavenging has been a traditional way of life for centuries, falling into the category of “It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.”

It is not difficult to comprehend that those who are consigned to manual scavenging are regarded as unclean – as pollutants themselves – and disrespected because of their work. The ENVIS Center on Hygiene, Sanitation, Sewage Treatment Systems and Technology, sponsored by the Government of India, says:

The appalling hardship, humiliation, and exploitation they face, have no parallel in human history. Scavengers come in direct contact with human excreta and his/her hands are completely soiled. It is a common sight to see scavengers, mostly women, moving with excreta on the head . . . with the muck trickling down over face and body.

The job is also deadly. On average, five manual scavengers die each month as a direct or indirect result of their work. One source reported on September 19, 2018, that 11 manual scavengers had already died during that month throughout the country. Manual scavenger of septic tanks and sewers often succumb to the noxious gases in the spaces they enter.

“The appalling hardship, humiliation, and exploitation manual scavengers face, have no parallel in human history.”
It is difficult to ascertain how many manual scavengers the country has. Surveys and statistics are highly inconsistent, but simple mathematics indicates a number in the hundreds of thousands.

Although manual scavenging is a nationwide problem, it is a matter that must be rectified at a municipal level where the responsibility for the maintenance of public toilets, latrines, septic tanks, and sewer systems rests on local entities. There is both good news and bad news at this level.

The Good News

The good news is that some major municipalities are actively working to eliminate manual scavenging. Kerala entered into an agreement with Genrobotics to develop a specialized robot – the Bandicoot – to clean its sewer systems. The pneumatic-powered, remote-controlled unit is lowered into a manhole, then engages its expandable limbs 360° to clean waste and debris. In the space of 20 minutes, the Bandicoot can do the work that would take three manual scavengers three hours to do.

By replicating all the human actions required to clean sewage, Bandicoot has provided a viable option to end the barbaric practice of manual scavenging in which sewage workers . . . are dipped into mucky manholes that often emit toxic gases and overflow with liquid sewage.

The Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewage Board has been using 70 mini jetting machines throughout the city. They have also trained 70 “sanitary soldiers” to operate the machines. They have provided the sanitary soldiers with bacteria-resistant clothing. The HMWS&SB has handed the machines over to the sanitary soldiers and set them up to transition from being manual laborers to entrepreneurs. Their aim is to create another 5,000 sanitary entrepreneurs over the next year. (Note: The HMWS&SB places the total number of manual scavengers at 36 per month.)

The Bad News

The bad news is that some smaller municipalities have attempted to skirt the law by hiring manual scavengers as employees to clean the sewers. Although they now technically become low-paid village employees, they continue to do exactly the same job in exactly the same way.

What You Can Do

Of all the choices available, the only one that enables us to accomplish anything is fervent prayer. There are times when we have to realize that we are powerless to solve problems that are beyond our control. But we serve the Living God who is in control and hears and answers our prayers.

If the Lord has placed a burden on your heart for the manual scavengers, start praying for them today. Remember, our Lord knows each one of them by name – and He loves them. Pray for their safety, pray for relief from the task and the indignities they must endure, pray for others to have compassion on them, and pray that someone would introduce them to the source of eternal life found only in Jesus who loves them. And expect the Lord to answer.

He wants to hear us call upon Him, especially when we ask on behalf of others. Praying is not “the least we can do.” When we call upon our Almighty God, it is the most we can do.


To read more news on extreme poverty around the world on Missions Box, go here.