Abstract Sanitation work in India is largely carried out by the historically marginalized Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, without proper devices or safety gear, as so-called ‘manual scavenging’. To counter manual scavenging, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have turned to courts and litigation as a form of resistance. This brought about some successes: manual scavenging was repeatedly outlawed, and several high-profile court cases have ordered local governments to take very explicit steps to eradicate it. However, manual scavenging persists rampantly, leading several authors to argue that litigation has failed in its purpose. We critically evaluate this claim by examining the underlying root question: what purpose do NGOs ascribe to litigation in their efforts to eradicate manual scavenging in the first place? Our analysis is based on a multi-method, qualitative research approach combining analysis of documents of, and interviews with, a total of 23 NGOs. Using the lens of active citizenship, we conclude that NGOs seek to shift responsibility to the government, of which it has absolved itself under neoliberalism, remind the government of its duty to serve its citizens, and overall participate politically. Specific features of courts, such as mandamus and a mediation-oriented approach, were mentioned as uniquely enabling petitioners to exercise active citizenship and force government officials to at least consider manual scavengers’ interests.