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Statistical Invisibility and the Plight of India’s Sanitation Workers: A Policy Perspective

Mala Devi, a thirtysomething year old, lives at the periphery of a slum dwelling in East Delhi. Before she leaves for work, her hands knead tender dough to make rotis for her two sons to have for lunch.  

At work, the floors are always wet. The peeling walls remain marred with spit and beetle nut juice. The sour stench of urine and human waste is penetrating. She has gotten used to the smell. She has gotten used to using her bare hands cleaning the excrement in the latrines.  

Miles away, in the muted glow of a modest hut in Gujarat, Anjana holds her infant son, her eyes reflecting a well of grief as she bestows upon him his father’s name. Her husband, Umesh Bamaniya, died just days before the child’s birth, while clearing a sewer blockage for a slum that belied the risk.1 The recovery of his body from a manhole in Tharad was not the first and wouldn’t be the last. Umesh was just 23 years old.  

The shopkeepers tell Ramesh and his wife to leave the 100 rupee note on the counter. They will not touch their hands. They are not to be touched.


Amidst the vast societal machinery that sustains India, sanitation workers operate as the unrecognized cogs essential to the public health system, yet they remain largely invisible within policy frameworks and legislative agendas. These workers, from the bylanes where Mala Devi begins her day, to the dimly lit huts of Gujarat where Anjana grieves, represent a labor force crucial to maintaining sanitation and hygiene standards, yet they confront hazards daily, with little to no formal recognition or protection.

Sanitation, as outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO), involves the provision of services for the safe disposal of human waste, encompassing a range from personal hygiene to public sanitation infrastructure.2 In India, the sanitation workforce is characterized by systemic invisibility and a dearth of comprehensive data. A 2017 study by Dalberg approximates the presence of about five million sanitation workers, with nearly two million engaged in high-risk jobs involving direct contact with human feces. These roles, varying from latrine and sewer cleaning to waste handling, lack consistent recognition and protection under the prevailing regulatory framework. This oversight results in substantial invisibility of these workers, with about 40% in urban areas and half of them being women, largely unnoticed by both state mechanisms and the general public.3

The caste-based structure of Indian society predominantly confines sanitation work to the Dalit community (considered the lowest rung in India’s caste hierarchy relegated to being “untouchables”), especially those from the Valmiki sub-caste, embedding occupational hazards within social stratification.4 This structure is further intensified by gender disparities, with female sanitation workers bearing a disproportionate share of labor and risk, aggravated by entrenched patriarchal norms.5

Background and Current Status

Recent studies by entities like the World Bank, International Labour Organization, WaterAid, and WHO have revealed the severe adversities faced by sanitation workers, extending beyond mortality rates to highlight widespread neglect of their welfare.6 The practice of manual scavenging, officially prohibited but still prevalent due to deep-seated caste-based discrimination and economic compulsion, symbolizes the severe challenges in this field.7 These workers, often under informal employment, face hazardous conditions for minimal wages, and are outside the purview of regulation and oversight.8

Despite the introduction of progressive laws like the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, the implementation of these statutes remains patchy. Organizations such as the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation, and Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission) have attempted to improve the status and rights of sanitation workers. 

A critical policy shortfall is the absence of comprehensive data on sanitation workers, which impairs the effectiveness of any laws or policies intended to protect them. This gap was highlighted in February 2023, when the Supreme Court of India mandated the Central Government to demonstrate its adherence to the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. This order reflects the continued judicial examination of the Act’s implementation, a key aspect of the Manav Garima v State of Gujarat case (2013), where the High Court ruled on a public interest litigation seeking proper enforcement of the Act and equitable compensation for manual scavengers’ families.9 The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013 has not been fully enforced, failing to eradicate the practice or ensure the safety and dignity of the workers.10

This irony underscores the constitutional right to a safe and healthy environment, supposedly guaranteed under Article 21, yet maintained at the cost of the fundamental rights of the workers involved.11 As searing testimonials of a Public Health System—and a society—that has catastrophically failed its most vulnerable, we are posed with unsettling questions about the kind of nation we are, and the kind of nation we want to be. How much farther will we push the boundaries of human indignity? And at what cost?

Policy Issue

The endeavor to safeguard public health through sanitation services in India is compromised by a fundamental policy flaw: the absence of a consolidated and accurate assessment of the workforce engaged in this critical sector. The extant data on sanitation workers, encompassing both the scope of their numbers and their entitlement to benefits, suffers from inconsistencies and gaps. This is primarily due to the lack of a uniform definition of sanitation work across the nation. The policy failure to recognize diverse categories of sanitation work, such as drain cleaning and domestic toilet cleaning, has rendered a significant portion of this workforce invisible.12 This invisibility stems from a systemic exclusion from government records, particularly affecting those employed through subcontracting chains, thereby denying them access to governmental, non-profit, and private sector support schemes and aids.

The under-reporting of manual scavenging incidents by public entities and the inefficacy of policies designed for worker rehabilitation exacerbate the issue. Current rehabilitation policies fail to cater to the varied nature of sanitation work, and the process to claim benefits is encumbered by bureaucratic complexities, often requiring documentation beyond the reach of many workers.13 Historically, government surveys have been fraught with inaccuracies and inconsistencies, casting doubt on their reliability. For instance, the fluctuation of government-reported numbers of manual scavengers varied from several lakhs to a mere few thousand after the enactment of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, which illustrates a problematic denial and downplaying of the issue.14

The fragmentation of oversight, with sanitation workers employed by disparate ministries and departments that operate without intercommunication, further impedes the standardization of work conditions and the development of coherent policy solutions.15 This policy paper posits that the lack of reliable data is a primary barrier to the formulation and implementation of effective sanitation work policies. The dissonance between the reported number of sanitation workers and the empirical evidence of manual scavenging practices indicates a systemic reluctance to acknowledge and address the breadth of the problem.  

As elucidated by multiple surveys and reports, there is an urgent need for a coherent policy framework that recognizes the full spectrum of sanitation work and its workers, to rectify historical injustices and align with constitutional guarantees of health and dignity for all laborers within this sector.16,17 There exists a pressing mandate for the robust delineation and quantification of the sanitation labor force. This task involves not merely the enumeration of these individuals but an incisive delineation of their roles, an identification of their employers, and a thorough appraisal of the occupational health and safety parameters within which they operate. The preponderance of sanitation work eludes formal enumeration, primarily because a substantial segment is ensconced within the informal sector, eluding the reach of conventional labor surveillance mechanisms.

Where data is sporadically available, it is disproportionately trained on certain factions within this workforce, such as those engaged with mechanized equipment or mired in the manual excavation of waste pits.18,19,20 The gravamen of the issue remains: the absence of accurate, actionable data on the number of individuals engaged in sanitation work presents a fundamental obstacle to the realization of these legal protections. Without a precise understanding of the workforce, policy measures and legal instruments remain not only inadequately implemented but also structurally inefficacious.

Proposed Policy Solutions

Policy solutions must be centered on the imperative to systematically quantify and profile sanitation workers, thereby facilitating informed policy-making and effective law enforcement. The current data scarcity on the number of workers, their working conditions, and legal status impedes the development of targeted, actionable policy responses. Moreover, the discrepancy between governmental figures and non-governmental estimates on the prevalence of manual scavenging underscores the need for comprehensive data collection and analysis.  

In this vein, to effectively address the issue of underreporting and improve the overall welfare of sanitation workers in India, a multifaceted approach is needed that aligns with the current socio-political climate and leverages existing government structures. To address the underreporting of sanitation workers in India and create a foundation for effective policy implementation, a comprehensive national survey should be initiated, starting at the district level, and progressing upwards. This survey should be meticulously designed to capture the full scope of individuals involved in sanitation work. Additional policy recommendations include:  

National Sanitation Workforce Registry (NSWR)

  • Implementation Mechanism: Leverage existing infrastructure of Aadhaar and the Public Financial Management System (PFMS) to create a biometrically-linked NSWR under the aegis of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, ensuring compatibility with other national databases for cross-verification of data. 
  • Outreach Program: Deploy mobile registration units in collaboration with local NGOs and Panchayati Raj institutions for on-ground registration drives, focusing on inclusivity, especially for women and marginalized communities.

Legislative Mandate for Reporting and Compliance

  • Compliance Monitoring Cell: Establish a dedicated cell within the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to monitor and audit compliance with reporting requirements, with quarterly reporting mandates to the Parliament on the status of NSWR updates and enforcement actions.
  • Statutory Amendment Details: Define clear metrics for compliance, such as frequency of reporting, data accuracy benchmarks, and worker safety indices, to be codified into the amendment.

Inter-Ministerial Coordination Council

  • Operational Framework: Function under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s mandate, with a council chaired by a minister-level official and comprised of members from the NITI Aayog, which will ensure alignment with national development goals.
  • Policy Integration: Develop a comprehensive policy document that synergizes the Swachh Bharat Mission’s objectives with sanitation workers’ welfare. 

Standardization of Employment Contracts and Results-Based Financing (RBF) Schemes

  • Template Customization: Customize contract templates to regional languages and work cultures, with inputs from local labor unions and legal experts, ensuring they are comprehensible and culturally sensitive. 
  • Dispute Resolution Mechanism: Set up a fast-track dispute resolution mechanism within the existing labor court system for sanitation workers, focusing on expedited hearings.
  • Performance Indicators: Define clear performance indicators for RBF schemes such as reduction in sanitation-related diseases, worker mortality and morbidity rates. 
  • Local Body Engagement: Engage Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) in the RBF schemes to ensure that local authorities have a stake in improving worker conditions. 

Education and Legal Empowerment Programs

  • Legal Literacy Drives: Collaborate with law schools and legal aid societies to organize legal literacy drives that educate workers on their legal rights, utilizing street plays, local radio, and community gatherings for dissemination. 
  • Continuing Education Credits: Offer continuing education credits to government officials and legal aid workers who participate in these programs, to incentivize their involvement. 

Monitoring and Evaluation Framework

  • Technology Integration: Develop an app for sanitation workers to report on job conditions and incidents, with geotagging to ensure data authenticity. 
  • Annual Public Report: Mandate the publication of an annual report on sanitation worker conditions to be laid before the Parliament, with a mandatory discussion session to ensure transparency and accountability. 

The implementation of these detailed policies requires a steadfast commitment from the government, civil society, and the private sector to ensure that the dignity and safety of sanitation workers are upheld, and their contributions to the nation’s health and well-being are recognized and valued. The cruel irony is that sanitation workers have survived discrimination, bigotry, and systemic oppression only to be told that they didn’t. They live in a country that pretends they do not exist. We must not continue to disregard the very human experience that a few reports and policy memos purport to understand; not affording the very least, the dignity of reducing to numbers, real and entangled lives.

  1. Roxy Gagdekar Chhara, “Manual Scavenging: The Unending Pain of India’s Sewer Workers.” BBC News Gujarati, October 25, 2019. ↩︎
  2. World Health Organization, “Sanitation,” October 2023. ↩︎
  3. Nirat Bhatnagar, Anahitaa Bakshi, and Keshav Kanoria, “Here’s What Needs to Change for Sanitation Workers in India,” The Wire, August 22, 2021. ↩︎
  4. Participatory Research In Asia, “Lived Realities of Women Sanitation Workers in India: Insights from a Participatory Research Conducted in Three Cities of India,” June 2019. ↩︎
  5. Participatory Research In Asia, “Lived Realities of Women Sanitation Workers in India: Insights from a Participatory Research Conducted in Three Cities of India.” ↩︎
  6. World Health Organization, “Sanitation.” ↩︎
  7. Participatory Research In Asia, “Lived Realities of Women Sanitation Workers in India: Insights from a Participatory Research Conducted in Three Cities of India.” ↩︎
  8. Chhara, “Manual Scavenging: The Unending Pain of India’s Sewer Workers.” ↩︎
  9. Lavanya Chetwani, “The Menace of Manual Scavenging in India: The Case for Stronger Legal Implementation,” Oxford Human Rights Hub, July 13, 2023. ↩︎
  10. Diksha Puri, “Unpaid and Exploited: Sanitation Workers Denied Dignity and Rights,” The Probe, July 17, 2023. ↩︎
  11. Chetwani, “The Menace of Manual Scavenging in India: The Case for Stronger Legal Implementation.” ↩︎
  12. Bhatnagar, Bakshi, and Kanoria, “Here’s What Needs to Change for Sanitation Workers in India.” ↩︎
  13. Ibid. ↩︎
  14. Ashif Shaikh, “Seven Govt Surveys to Count Manual Scavengers Couldn’t Agree on How Many There Are,” The Wire, June 13, 2018. ↩︎
  15. Bhatnagar, Bakshi, and Kanoria, “Here’s What Needs to Change for Sanitation Workers in India.”  ↩︎
  16. Shaikh, “Seven Govt Surveys to Count Manual Scavengers Couldn’t Agree on How Many There Are.” ↩︎
  17. Dheeraj Mishra, “Is the Government Underreporting the Number of Manual Scavengers on Purpose?” The Wire, October 23, 2018. ↩︎
  18. Chhara, “Manual Scavenging: The Unending Pain of India’s Sewer Workers.” ↩︎
  19. Chetwani, “The Menace of Manual Scavenging in India: The Case for Stronger Legal Implementation.” ↩︎
  20. Hemali Harish Oza, Madison Gabriella Lee, Sophie Boisson, Frank Pega, Kate Medlicott, and Thomas Clasen, “Occupational Health Outcomes among Sanitation Workers: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health 240 (March 2022): 113907. ↩︎