Five million sanitation workers are at risk - Seeker's Thoughts

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Five million sanitation workers are at risk


There are approximately five million sanitation workers engaged either full time or part time work.
Sanitation-workers-death
Image Credit- Zeenews

This includes about two million workers who are engaged in ‘high risk’ work types such as septic tank cleaning, sewer cleaning, public toilet cleaning, and drain cleaning, whereas three million workers primarily clean household toilets as domestic help. 




How many Sanitation workers die?

Two men died in October 2020 while cleaning a “safety tank” inside a gold chain factory in northwest Delhi. The men alleged they were not equipped with protective gear such as masks, safety belt and boots, and died after inhaling poisonous gases.

There have been instances where sanitation workers lost their lives and faced inhumane conditions at the social front nut from the administrative front.  One state after another has the tragic death of sanitation workers in septic tanks.  

Since 1993, when the first law was passed against manual cleaning, there were at least 144 worker deaths in Tamil Nadu as of November 2018, according to official data reported to the Centre for grant of compensation. Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab also fared badly with a cumulative toll of 146 lives lost during that period. 


But this is obviously a gross underestimate, since the Safai Karmachari Andolan, which has litigated in the Supreme Court seeking to aggressively prosecute offenders, contends that septic tank cleaning claimed nearly 1,500 lives between 2014 and 2016. More reports of deaths continue to come in.

What causes the death of Sanitation workers?

Public Understanding of the science of managing septic tanks continue to be poor.

The availability of cheap labor to clean these structures has slowed efforts to develop technologies that can safely remove and transport waste.

 Moreover, states are also slow to adopt newer technologies such as Faecal Sludge Treatment Plants (FSTP) that can be combined with Omni processors for the safe treatment of waste.


For the task of cleaning the tanks, indigenous innovation in robotics looks promising but are not adopted at the national level.

The contractor feels free to exploit the worker, conveniently hopping over whatever barriers and checks, including digital derives that the government attempts to use for providing financial security to the worker.

As for training, no one seems to believe that sanitation involves complex work, requiring both knowledge and practice. Sanitation campaigns do not articulate an acknowledgment of the relationship between the caste system and cleaning jobs. An ideological barrier prevents such articulation.

The media, too, does not highlight the connection between caste and cleaning. That is why whenever sanitation workers die in underground drains, the news simply passes into sorted history.


How many types of Sanitation workers exist in India?


There are nine kinds of sanitation work that exists across the sanitation value chain in urban and rural India.

These range from the cleaning of septic tanks to maintaining and troubleshooting sewer networks in urban areas, cleaning and maintaining public and community toilets, cleaning household latrines, cleaning public drains that often have fecal waste along with other hazardous materials.

These types of sanitation work vary significantly on the types of risks that workers encounter, the mode of employment – government, contractual, or daily wage based – and the remuneration. Any strategy to improve the situation of sanitation workers must take into account this diversity. 

Why do Sanitation workers join the job when ‘hiring is a crime’?

Every death of a manual worker represents a crime since the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 makes the use of such labor to clean septic tanks an offense punishable with imprisonment of two years or with a fine of ₹2 lakh or both even in the first instance.


No person, local authority, or agency can hire people for hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. The employment of manual scavenging and construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was amended in 2013 to include a ban on employing or engaging people to clean sewer and septic tanks.

On 2nd October 2014, Prime. Minister Narendra Modi announced to clean India by 2019.  This was launched on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The aim was to start a nationwide initiative to inspire the public to voluntarily clean public spaces.  

The filth in the nation was affecting tourism and health. So, clean India could provide jobs to the poor due to tourism. It was intended. Massive publicity was done, and it included various celebrities as well. 

As a result, municipalities began to employ more contractual labor.

It also led to the door to door garbage collection, and workers were expected to whistle to inform about garbage collection. Workers collect the waste and manually segregate the waste at landfills, resulting in hygiene and health. 


Previously door to door service was taken down in 1993 when workers used to collect latrine from door to door.

The Problem: A particular caste in Manual Scavenging

The Swachha Bharat Mission supposed to be secular in nature, but it has become casteist as scavenging is done by a particular cast. Cleaning was supposed to be a volunteer service. This further leads to some social problems. That particular caste was still treated as 'unhygienic' and 'impure.'  

More than 300 people died due to asphyxiation while working in septic tanks in the year 2017 alone.

The lack of credible data is the main problem that does not help in policymaking. There is no official number of employed in sewer and septic tank cleaning.

The hiring is on a casual basis; contractors do not follow the safety norms. Like providing gas masks, safety harness belts, and helmets to them. The prescribed criteria remain only in papers.

Government’s Failure

Even after so many efforts by government – programmes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Unsafe sanitation work, manual scavenging still exists in India.

What the Government should do?

Any tangible achievement of clean India is possible when this social narrative related to sanitary labor is critically addressed by caste neutralization. 

New technologies from the west can be learned to work better in this segment as robots. People who work in garbage collection are often taken from a particular caste, and they are always treated unhygienic. So, the government should hire cleaning agents from all communities. 


Laws should be regulated – Like punitive measure for open defecation, and construction of a toilet in public places should be done. People should be fined heavily if they throw garbage everywhere.

There should be the cultivation of habits in schools that one should keep the garbage inside bin.

Better safety equipment, mechanisms for redressal of complaints should be provided. States should upgrade infrastructure as soon as possible.

There should be proper care for sanitation workers (Like more insurance and health checkup, better mast, and dresses), as there have been deaths during manual scavenging. According to the Ministry of social justice and empowerment in Lok Sabha 2017.

The problem of “manual scavenging.” as it is commonly called, it is not new and is deeply rooted in India’s caste the system, which assigns duties such as cleaning human fecal waste to people born in the cast of the Dalit community. This practice itself humiliates the rights.

A Conclusive Note

Sanitation workers are a valuable citizen of the country and their safety, maintaining of data should be prioritized as these are often poor people who join such jobs and lose their lives


The country needs to make this sanitation drive of minds too where caste can be the cause of humiliation. 

Their survivors are not often compensated either. This is not a forgivable ignorance, every life matters. Soon, the safety norms should be implemented. 

Policymakers should focus on ‘implementing.’ the policies as well.


However, Last year, Tamil Nadu and some other States, notably Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, announced plans to scale up FSTP infrastructure. This is a task that deserves the highest importance and needs to be completed on the deadline.