Lockdown Effect: Manual Scavengers Turn to Selling Human Bones Simply to Survive

Even now, nearly a year after the worst effects of the pandemic were seen, hundreds of sanitation workers and manual scavengers are permanently employed in digging up human remains for trade. 

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A joint research study by the World Sanitation Workers’ Alliance, the South Asian Sanitation Labour Network (SASLN) and the Safai Karmachari Ekta Manch, West Bengal, has revealed that 178 manual scavengers have been employed as ‘bone scavengers’ in the graveyards of West Bengal’s Birbhum, Siliguri and Cooch Behar districts, illegally gathering and selling human bones to earn the money they need to feed themselves and their families. 

The bones they collect are sold to traders who, in turn, sell them to calcium manufacturing factories and small units that produce cosmetics. In some cases, the bone scavengers themselves trade directly with those who require these resources.

A study, titled, Toilet Stories of India, was released on March 21, 2022, and shows that West Bengal has the highest number of manual scavengers employed as bone scavengers in the country; followed by Odisha with 65 and Rajasthan with 61. Moreover, Kolkata has the highest number of sanitation workers employed by illegal bone traders, gathering bones from graveyards for as little as Rs 200 per transaction. 

Photo: Ranbir Kumar, SASLN and SKA; Seema Devi, SASLN.

Small-scale business models

Most people have not heard of bone scavenging as a kind of livelihood, but for many of India’s manual scavengers who struggle even to survive, it is an occupation that earns them enough money to live on. 

Manual scavenging is, in any case, banned work, according to the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act, 2013. However, the continued presence of dry latrines (toilets without water supply) in the country means that the need for people to clean these toilets persists. 

Also read: 15 Years Later, Govt Scheme to Rehabilitate Manual Scavengers Has Made Little Progress

While bone scavenging has existed for the past two decades, there has been a 90% increase in the number of bone scavengers in West Bengal since the coronavirus pandemic broke out two years ago. When the nation-wide lockdown was imposed in March 2020, manual scavengers lost their work and, due to chronic hunger, poverty and the lack of an alternative means of livelihood, had no option but to gather bones from mass cremation sites and pre-dug burial spots to sell to traders. 

After the lockdown was lifted and life began to return to normal, many of them continued to scavenge for bones in addition to their ordinary work because it earned them more money. The fact that they work after dark and have access to landfills and dumping grounds makes it easy for them to find places to hide the bones they gather and sell them to the traders later.

Within a year of the continued practice of bone scavenging, bigger bone smugglers developed this illegal bone trading supply chain into “a network of underground and small-scale business models”, according to the Toilet Stories of India study. The formula is simple: the scavengers gather as many bones as they can and sell them to ‘masked men’ for cash on the spot, instead of waiting for a month or longer to be paid for cleaning dry latrines. 

There is another model of trade: bone scavengers get their supply of bones illegally from hospital sanitation workers who are permanently employed and cannot risk revealing their identities to the bone traders. A part of the cash earned by the bone scavengers is then given to the hospital sanitation workers, who are “severely underpaid”, according to the Toilet Stories of India study. 

A third business model for  bone scavengers is to sell human tissues and bones to the hospital sanitation workers, who then sell them to medical institutions and students who require them for dissection and research. 

Photo: Ranbir Kumar, SASLN and SKA; Seema Devi, SASLN.

Desperately seeking livelihoods

Another reason for the persistence of bone scavenging as an occupation is the fact that many bone smugglers now avoid the traders and actively employ the manual scavengers themselves to do the hard and dangerous work of digging up graves and stealing bones. 

The smugglers also employ other sanitation workers from local settlements to pack the bones into sacks and leave them at nearby dumping sites. These sacks have particular markings or are tied with different coloured string so those in the network can identify them easily. They are often kept beneath multiple layers of packs and piles of garbage – which most people avoid – and are then picked up and passed on to the bone smugglers by sanitation workers who are higher up in the hierarchy, receiving permanent or seasonal employment in return for a small incentive.

Many manual scavengers are also employed illegally in butcher shops to collect leftover flesh and animal carcasses. In addition to cleaning the toilets, they take every scrap of the remains of the carcasses to dumping grounds, where some sell them to waste workers, who then sell them on to animal feed factories or units where the bones are ground up before being made into fertiliser. 

The study also pointed out another illegal act; that manual scavengers who have been forced into bonded labour are twice as likely to be made to scavenge for bones than the others. Murshidabad in West Bengal has 13 such manual scavengers, – the highest number discovered in this study – all aged below 16. These young bonded labourers live near butcher shops and are forced to do the undignified work of bone scavenging every single day.

Caste in stone?

Even before the lockdown, animal bones were much in demand, which is why many manual scavengers have also always been engaged in the work of separating animal flesh from bones. In the absence of alternative sources of nutrients, many homeless waste workers themselves employ manual scavengers to recover such resources as leftover flesh or bones from hotels and household waste to feed their children. 

For most manual scavengers, this kind of work is easier than entering septic tanks, since their chances of losing their lives are relatively lower. Illegal bone scavenging as an occupation also survives and thrives because the concept of ‘scavenging as destiny’ is forced upon men and women due to their castes. 

Whether it is the collection of excrement, animal carcasses or bones, manual scavenging continues to exist in India. This is why it is important to add ‘bone scavengers’ to the many categories of manual scavengers that exist beyond the PEMSR Act, which defines the practice of manual scavenging very narrowly. 

With no genuine model for the rehabilitation of the manual scavengers of India, this ‘newer’ occupation of bone scavenging, like the ‘traditional’ occupation of manual scavenging, will not be eradicated easily.

The first part of this piece was published in the Deccan Herald on May 27, 2021. 

This is part of a 24-part series covering the sanitation crisis in each Indian state. Each part will be accompanied by a visual documentary on the specific state, highlighting the effects of the Swachh Bharat Mission and the continuation of manual scavenging in India. The series is based on the Rehabilitation Research Initiative (RRI India) and South Asian Labour Network (SASLN) study in 27 states, between 2017 and 2021.

Pragya Akhilesh is the director of the World Sanitation Workers Alliance. Anil Balmiki is the national convener of the South Asian Sanitation Labour Network (SASLN) working committee in India. Sujith Balmiki is the national Convener of the Safai Karmachari Ekta Manch, West Bengal. Dinesh Hela is the West Bengal coordinator of the SASLN.