Despite having several legislations in place, India has not managed to eradicate manual scavenging. And because it still exists, and the strong caste system dictates who can clean human excreta, people from non-scavenging castes have an aversion to emptying the pits of latrines – either privately built, or those built by the government. As a result of this aversion, people prefer to defecate in the open, and use a latrine only when there is no other option.

This is why the issues of sanitation and caste must be discussed together. If we want to promote inexpensive latrines in rural India, we cannot avoid having the uncomfortable conversation around caste.

Here’s all you need to know about India’s open defecation problem and manual scavenging.

1. Who are manual scavengers?
The sight of a human being going down into a sewer is quite common in India. It is possible that the average Indian may feel sad about this, but at the same time no one will be surprised. This is because of society’s acceptance of social norms framed by the caste system – a centuries-old arrangement of social stratification in Hinduism that ranks people and confines them to certain jobs on the basis of the family they are born into.

Among all the jobs that the caste system defines, dealing with faeces is considered to be worst, and can only be done by those the system defines as the outcastes – manual scavenging castes that are known by different names in different parts of the country. According to the caste system, no one else, including other untouchables, are permitted to practice manual scavenging. Violating this norm may result in ostracisation within and outside one’s community.

2. What is the cost of practicing manual scavenging?
Several studies on occupational health hazards among sewage and sanitation workers in India reveal that the direct handling of human excreta without any protective gear by these workers lead to serious health consequences, and often death. These health hazards include exposure to harmful gases such as methane and hydrogen sulfide, cardiovascular degeneration, musculoskeletal disorders like osteoarthritic changes and intervertebral disc herniation, infections like hepatitis, leptospirosis and helicobacter, skin problems, respiratory system problems and altered pulmonary function.

According to the 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census, 1,68,068 households were engaged in manual scavenging for a livelihood. Census 2011, on the other hand, recorded 7,95,252 dry latrines across the country. However, these figures are believed to be an underestimate.

The Safai Karamchari Andolan, a not-for-profit organisation, identified 1,268 deaths due to manual scavenging in various states across the country between the months of March in 2014 and 2016. Considering that the organisation has limited resources to collect data, it is likely that these numbers also underestimate the enormity of the problem.

3. Why are some people still willing to do this noxious job?
Imagine that you were born into a community that, historically, has been seen by society as one selected to do the job of scavenging because of bad karma in one’s previous life. Your choices in this life cannot change your status in society – people continue to maintain a distance from you, and people or things that you touch are considered to be polluted. Moreover, you are landless, poor, illiterate and unskilled. If you manage to open a small grocery store or even a small tea stall or dhaba in your village, people will not buy from you because they practice untouchability. Doing any other business requires a bigger investment, which you do not have, and working as a manual labourer in fields not related to scavenging is not enough to fulfil the basic requirements of your family. On the other hand, manual scavenging – in which there is an acute labour shortage – has better financial payoffs. Also, because discrimination from society is not going to change whether you clean septic tanks, among all options available, taking up manual scavenging at least ensures you can fulfil your basic necessities and those of your family’s, and you may consider taking up the job.

However, while taking up manual scavenging helps people earn a living, widespread discrimination means that low caste people have lower life satisfaction even if they have the same standard of living as an upper caste person. In the words of a sanitation professional in Bihar, “Though the money people earn by cleaning latrine pits is quite high the amount of discrimination they face for doing such a job is way too high. What will one do with the money if one’s children are not allowed in the desired private school?”

4. But, isn’t manual scavenging illegal?
Since 1947, India has adopted several legislative prohibitions on manual scavenging. The Indian Constitution bans the practice of untouchability, and the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, prohibits compelling anyone to practice manual scavenging. Although The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, declared the employment of manual scavengers and construction of dry toilets punishable with fines and imprisonment, not a single person has been convicted under the Act in 23 years since it was passed.

Moreover in 2003, a report submitted by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India revealed that “the funds available for the National Scheme for Liberation and Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers and their Dependents were either not spent or underutilized.”

A manual scavenger entering a sewer barely 200 meters from the Uttar Pradesh Assembly in Lucknow.

Superseding the 1993 Act, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act of 2013 goes beyond prohibitions on dry latrines, and outlaws all manual cleaning of insanitary latrines, open drains or pits. However, emptying latrine pits in which the faeces have decomposed is not considered to be manual scavenging.

Moreover, the government’s commitment to ending manual scavenging contradicts its sanitation program in which single pit latrines are often built without educating people about how to empty them. Building latrines without considering who will empty the pits, and ensuring their dignity, is a tacit consent to discrimination against communities that are expected to clean them.

5. Is manual scavenging still a problem we should care about?
It is true that there are fewer dry toilets than there used to be, but since cleaning dry latrines is not the only work that constitutes manual scavenging, it may not be correct to assume that the situation is improving based on the decreasing numbers of dry latrines. All latrines – whether sanitary or insanitary – require to be emptied, and occasionally, unclogged. In the absence of pit-emptying technology in rural India and with an increase in the absolute number of latrines, there is a risk that more people from the manual scavenging communities may end up working with faeces.

After the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, was passed, and after receiving subsequent directives from the apex court, municipalities stopped formally hiring people to go into sewers and septic tanks to remove blockages. Instead, the work is now outsourced to contractors who continue to hire the same people who once used to work for the government. This makes everyone better-off except the manual scavengers.

6. How is the caste system bad for the health of India’s children?
India, which is home to 17% of the world’s population, has had relatively high economic growth in the past few decades. But it is also home to 60% of all open defecators in the world. Much of this is the result of the strong caste system, an argument which we will explore more in the coming sections. Widespread open defecation kills babies and impedes growth among those who survive. As a result, over half of the country’s children are stunted and over a third of them are severely stunted. In fact, Indian children are, on an average, shorter than their Chinese, Bangladeshi and African counterparts.

7. Why does height matter?
The height of a population is a good indicator of early life health – the most crucial time for physical and cognitive development. Research also suggests that taller children perform better on tests of cognitive and physical ability and hence are more likely to do better in adulthood. Moreover, healthy citizens are less prone to absenteeism at work and are more likely to be productive, which helps a nation progress.

8. Is it true that the fraction of people defecating in the open in India is decreasing?
While it is true that a fraction of households defecating in the open decreased in India between 2001 and 2011, research reveals that “almost half of people in India live in a state where statewide open defecation density increased.”

But despite the benefits of improving the widespread disease environment caused by open defecation, the government has failed to convince enough people to use latrines. Open defecation has a negative impact on society since the germs in the environment affect children’s health. For instance, children living in houses where everyone uses a latrine are also exposed to health risks when other people in their neighbourhood defecate in the open.

9. How do we expect people to use latrines without proper supply of water?
Some people believe that ‘lack of water’ is the main cause of open defecation. However, in the Sanitation Quality Use Access and Trends (or SQUAT) survey of over 3,200 households across 13 districts in five states of North India, which account for one-eighth of the total open defecation in the world, only 3% of people who defecate in the open mentioned the lack of water as a reason for not using a latrine. This shows that there is no visible relationship between rural open defecation and rural access to improved water sources. In fact, according to data from the joint monitoring program of United Nations Children's Emergency Fund and World Health Organisation, 90% of people in rural India have access to improved water sources and almost 70% households do not have access to a functional latrine. In contrast, in much poorer countries of sub-Saharan Africa, less than half of people have access to improved sources of water (49%), but far fewer people in rural sub-Saharan Africa (35%) defecate in the open. Sub-Saharan Africa is not the only place in which open defecation is lower than in India. In fact, India’s much poorer neighbours like Nepal and Bangladesh have done better than India in reducing open defecation.

An unused latrine in rural India.

10. Research shows that most people who own latrines use them. So, why not build more government latrines to reduce open defecation?
The SQUAT survey found that 79% of people living in households that owned a functional latrine used it. However, this does not mean that open defecation will be importantly reduced if the government builds more latrines. This is because the kind of latrines that people build for themselves, and the kind that the government builds, are different.

The Indian government gives an incentive of Rs 12,000 to rural households to construct a latrine. Sometimes the government or the village head even hires a contractor and builds latrines for everyone in a village. The amount is enough to make even an expensive version of a small pit latrine with the pit size recommended by the World Health Organisation – the type of latrine that has successfully managed to save millions of lives in the rest of the developing world. However, rural Indians look down upon this kind of latrine.

11. Why do people who have government latrines defecate in the open?
The key to this puzzle lies in the size of the latrine pits. According to the SQUAT survey, the median pit size of a privately-constructed latrine was five times as large as that constructed by the government as well as World Health Organisation recommendations. Rural Indians aspire for enormous and expensive pits in order to avoid the hassle and ostracisation of frequently emptying the pit. People wrongly believe that the pits of the latrines promoted by the government will get filled in a couple of months. This keeps people from using a latrine on a regular basis. Also since emptying one’s own latrine pit is socially unacceptable, as it is something they believe only an outcaste can do, households tend to use a latrine only for emergencies – when someone is too weak (woman, old and children) or sick to go out in the open.

12. If people do not want to empty their latrine pits, aren’t there any market solutions to pit emptying?
There are mechanical solutions to empty septic tanks (latrine pits) but they are mainly present in a few bigger cities and are too expensive for the majority of rural households. Calling them from a nearby town has an added cost. Non-mechanical options, which, in most cases, is calling in a manual scavenger, are not inexpensive either. Getting someone to empty a latrine pit will cost several hundred to a couple of thousand rupees.

13. How does manual scavenging contribute to widespread open defecation?
Although the representation of Dalits has increased in academics, governance and well-paid private jobs, you won’t see members of the upper caste in jobs that are considered to be menial. Dalits still constitute the vast majority of people who do cleaning jobs largely because casteist beliefs still persist in society. The social exclusion associated with untouchability is what is on people’s minds when they think about emptying latrine pits. Non-scavengers won’t do it themselves and due to the valiant efforts of numerous struggles, there are fewer people from scavenging castes who are willing to do such degrading jobs. All this results in a broken pit-emptying market that keeps people from using inexpensive latrines. Other countries don’t have this problem because they do not have the same history of untouchability.

On the other hand, though the latrine coverage is increasing in India (even though not at the desired rate), they will require maintenance. At present, the burden of their maintenance rests on communities that have been assigned this job for centuries. The government hasn’t really considered the tension between building lots of new pit latrines, under its Swachh Bharat Mission, and the difficulty that casteism poses for the maintenance of these new latrines.

Choosing between the health of India’s children and a Valmiki’s right to a life of dignity is indeed a difficult but not a necessary choice. The path which makes everyone better off is the annihilation of caste.

Nikhil Srivastav is Research and Policy Manager at r.i.c.e., a research institute for compassionate economics.