Manual scavengers, or ‘Safai Karamcharis’, as they are known in India, are sanitation workers who manually clean human waste for a living and face considerable occupational health risks. They are subject to deep-seated, caste-based stigma associated with their perceived ‘caste impurity’ and lack of cleanliness, which result both in consistently dangerous substandard working conditions and lack of social mobility, with women facing greater hardships. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated their plight. Despite the considerable efforts of social advocates, organised movements and government institutions, reforms and criminalisation have produced mixed results and campaigners remain divided on whether banning manual scavenging is an effective solution. This article reviews the history of attempts to address scavenging in India. Starting in the colonial period and ending with the current government’s Swachh Bharat Mission, it highlights how attempts to deal with scavenging via quick-fix solutions like legal bans criminalising their employment, infrastructure upgrades or paternalistic interventions have either failed to resolve issues or exacerbated scavengers’ situation by pushing long-standing problems out of view. It argues that meaningful progress depends on abandoning top-down modes of decision-making, addressing the underlying sociocultural and infrastructural factors that perpetuate the ill health and social conditions of manual scavengers, collecting data on the true extent of scavenging, and investing in and providing political agency to communities themselves.
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All data relevant to the study are included in the article.
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Handling editor Stephanie M Topp
Contributors All authors made substantial contributions to the conception of the work and interpretation of data, provided intellectual input for revising it critically and have approved the final version to be published. SS drafted the first version under the guidance of MV and CK, who helped with revising it critically for important intellectual content. All authors agree for MV to be the corresponding author and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work.
Funding Work on this project was supported by the New Venture Fund (NGDF–UNI79–NVF–008045) and the Irish Research Council (IRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK (AHRC) (IRC/W002035/1).
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.