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How Singaara Chennai killed Mr Palanichamy, a sanitation worker and an Arunthathiyar

How Singaara Chennai killed Mr Palanichamy, a sanitation worker and an Arunthathiyar

chennai caste cleanup1


Murali Shanmugavelan and Kadhiravan

Chennai floods have spontaneously moved people from ‘all walks of life’ to help each other: users of social media; the otherwise not-so-socially-conscious-middle-class; Chennai celebrities; film actors; Indian army; and the questionable mainstream media joined hands to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of Chennai flood.  

chennai caste cleanup1

People and Celebrities opened their doors to strangers. Team Metroplus of The Hindu said, “Flood of kindness as the skies open up.” The Economic Times reported how “The Indian army is helping Chennai flood victims.” Sam Daniel Stalin of NDTV proudly reported on the ‘spontaneous response’ from the volunteers of Rotary Club. Efforts to bring the smile back on the face of Singaara Chennai were lauded by those who took part in relief measures.

Typical relief-stories-by-people story ran how food was over-distributed while some were rightly worried about the short supply of medicines. Some volunteers said they are working to provide notebooks and stationery to all the children whose books got destroyed by floods. “Otherwise there could be school dropouts”, said one volunteer.  It almost looked like Chennai residents were willing to do what it might take to bring the City back to normal. Well, almost.

The City dutifully reserved one job for one particular caste group: Arunthathiyars.

Chennai flood has also produced huge debris and it required a massive cleaning up: these include clearing up of an estimated 100,000 tonnes of garbage of concerned citizens, servicing public sewers and sewer holes, cleaning up human wastes, burying dead animals, and of course cleaning up sanitation facility of individual homes including servicing their septic or sewage systems. Concerned citizens of Singaara Chennai wanted their city to return to normalcy as soon as possible and it also included cleaning their sewage system and their streets. Chennai promptly waited for Arunthathiyars to be ‘imported’ from other Towns and neighbouring states.

The euphoria created amidst relief work and around volunteering and charity organised by ‘concerned citizens’ of the city, like a ghost has attempted to erase the caste-class divide that has remained intact. The dominant narrative, peculiar of cities in India has yet again tried to invisibilise the permeating presence of caste inside the city walls. The myth that the flood has washed away caste-class and religious divide in the city has been as pervasive as the floods. For instance, the article in ‘The Hindu’ about aid given by Chennai Corporation to the conservancy workers is conspicuously silent about the caste linkage of the workers who are predominantly from the Arunthatiyar caste. The article having failed to cite any of the mishaps and ill-treatment faced by sanitation workers, attempts to highlight the aid which is little, late and inadequate. Personal accounts have revealed instances of city residents’ reluctance to share relief material provided with the sanitation workers. 

chennai caste cleanup

When riots hit the streets of London in 2011, “hundreds of people armed with brooms, binbags and rubber gloves turned out across London to help clean up the damage caused by the riot, looting and arson.Singaara Chennai waited for Arunthathiyars – a Dalit caste group who are forced by the society and the State to be in manual scavenging occupations. 

Those who came to clean up Chennai streets were terribly ill treated without basic care and facilities: they were made to work in most dangerous conditions without basic equipment (e.g. gloves or masks) and no safety procedure was followed. As a result, Mr Palanichamy – an Aruthanthiyar sanitation worker died.

Chennai flood was natural disaster but Mr Palanichamy’s death was caste-made. A detailed report on the most distraught working conditions can be read here. Mr Palanichamy’s death is a stark reminder of how caste haunts millions of lives, especially Daits or Arunthathiyars in this case.

What follows is the transcript of an interview by Mr Adhiyaman – leader of Aathi Thamizhar Peravai (ATP) on the working conditions of Arunthathiyars who came to clean Chennai streets.  ATP is an Arunthathiyar movement founded by Mr Athiyamaan in order to re-establish their economic, cultural and social status.  

This interview is originally a production of BBC Tamil and the interviewer is Mr L R Jagadheesan.


L R Jagadheesan: Newspapers have reported the death of a sanitation worker Palanichamy in Chennai. What is the reason behind the death?

Adhiyaman : There is no official statement from the Government with any specific reason for the death of Palanichamy. But we understand that the sanitation workers were overworked, overburdened to the extent that some were forced to work for 20 hours at a stretch. When they were brought to Chennai, no basic care has been taken for food and accommodation. In fact, the situation is really worse that they are made to sleep on newspaper spread. These are Government employees and the state doesn’t seem to know how to treat them. For instance, the workers have not even been given any tumblers to drink water from, and they had to use their plates to fetch water from a common pipe. Palanichamy is not a lone victim; there was another person from Chennai, Kantha Rao who died earlier: he was also an assigned sanitation worker.  It is very likely that there may be even more deaths, but we feel the administration is not forthcoming with apposite information. In our opinion, this is a violation of human rights.

There are codes of conduct for treating refugees, but these workers, who are the very citizens of this country and they are part of the government machinery as its employees are not treated even as human beings.

How do you doubt that the said workers died because of work overload?

The Government will never confess about such deaths. When these sanitation workers (Dalits) are usually brought from elsewhere and die, the government would only give reasons such as heart-attack (for the cause of death). Palanichamy was about 42, and survived by a daughter studying 10th Std. and two other children. The Government officials don’t reveal the real cause of death and could only convince the family by giving reasons such as heart-attack. The officials mislead the family about the cause of death (without any support). The Chief Minister has paid a compensation of Rs.4 lakhs for the bereaved family of Kantha Rao, but no financial help is provided to the family of Palanichamy. The officers said any help is unlikely since Mr. Palanichamy was not a permanent employee of the State. Such traumatic conditions are the state of affairs (of sanitation workers). The Chief Minister announces a relief sum of Rs. 4 lakh for casualties such as road accidents etc., but the state has no empathy to announce financial help for the bereaved family of the sanitation worker who was brought to the city as an additional force. What we want to emphasise is that the government and its machinery does not have the basic courtesy to offer basic rights and basic facilities that these workers deserve. Not only the state and the officials but also the majority of the people living in Chennai are indifferent and have this odd perception that cleaning Chennai is someone else’s duty – to come and clean the waste.

We ask the residents, those voluntary organisations and those youths who claim to be part of relief measures to clean up their own streets. Nobody else has bothered to think about the workers and speak for their rights. We stand up for them who are our (Arunthathiyar) people.

We alone are raising this issue and voicing concerns on behalf of these people as they come only from us and it is therefore left upon us to take up this issue. Even many of the political parties have failed to address this issue.  All these political parties assume that it’s the responsibility of assigned sanitation workers and have taken for granted that it is upon the sanitation workers to clean up the mess (in Chennai). A prominent Dalit leader has complained that there are no adequate sanitation workers in the city and that there is need for more sanitation workers to be brought to the city. Another Dalit leader has advised the State to import more sanitation workers, if necessary, from other states. Are our people, commodities to be traded / imported? We ask these questions that deeply hurt us.. Such incidents in the wake of such disasters throw questions on one’s right to live with dignity. Look at the relief measures….most of the relief materials do not reach the oppressed castes (Dalits) who live in the fringes and corners of the city.

Please tell us the information on the number of sanitation workers who have been sent to Chennai from all over Tamilnadu?

Some 8,000 additional workers have been brought to the city. About 20,000 sanitation workers are stationed in Chennai. Among these 8000 sanitation workers from various other districts, most of them are staff on temporary/contractual basis. These workers were promised a pay of 300 rupees per day, but are only paid a paltry sum of 50 rupees.  These workers had to buy all their essentials such as soaps from this 50 rupees. Around 400 workers are stuffed in a school building with just two toilet rooms without proper facility.  No proper toilet facility was provided to these sanitation workers (during their stay) in Chennai. The officers-in-charge lack total empathy for these workers and have created a situation in which these workers are not treated as human beings.

Also, no proper transportation facility was provided for these workers who have come from almost all the districts. For instance, sanitation workers from Kotagiri (in Nilgiris district) were brought in a truck as if one is transporting livestock. The travelling time from Kotagiri to Chennai is 12 hours. They were caged in the truck: this is inhuman. These workers were not treated as human beings.

Some workers were given hand gloves but several had to do their jobs without any gloves. We have learnt that the city has accumulated garbage of over 1 lakh tonnes and some 20,000 tonnes have so far been cleared by manual labour. Modern equipment such as debris lifters and Lorries are not being employed to remove the waste.  We demand that this is not a job to be manually done and by machines only.

When buildings collapsed in Moulivakkam, machines were deployed to clean the debris. Chennai is a big automobile hub which houses plenty of modern equipments and machine. Had the state requested, these automobile companies could have easily assisted in cleaning the garbage using those equipments. They have so far not used machines to clean the city. Secondly, it is not correct to employ only assigned sanitation workers for this job.

In the wake of such disasters / calamities, it is not right for the people to expect someone else, the sanitation workers to remove all the waste generated (by the flood). To evade any responsibility and to keep complaining of stench and then to expect that workers belonging to a a certain caste, have to arrive and clean the waste is not right. Organisations such as  Tauheed Jamaat have fielded 3000 educated and office going volunteers who have taken up cleaning and others should take a cue and clean up their own dirt. We strongly condemn the prevalent attitude in Chennai where people reserve certain jobs like sanitation to certain caste. We are planning to organize a protest to send back the sanitation workers home.

chennai caste protest

You may see this intervention-support is a matter of caste problem, but some others see that the sanitation workers, as employees of the State, are obliged to do the sanitation work.…

You see, if a crisis situation warrants a doctor or a plumber or an electrician, one would engage the services of any doctor or any plumber or any electrician, but when it comes to sanitation, only a particular caste is forced to do that task and this has become naturalized.  We have no problem if all (caste groups) are part of the sanitation work force.  Our demand is that why one particularly caste group is exploited to do these tasks and they are not even adequately compensated for their work.

People’s perception also matter: actor Karthi yesterday cleaned the street. He has pleaded for volunteers and youths to clean the waste in their own streets. He said, ‘this is our job and let’s do this ourselves.’ That is the right thing to do. We ask why this perception is not prevalent in the minds of general population. The general mindset of society is that this work (sanitation) is a duty of a particular caste than of a particular workforce and that is why these workers are subjected to such inhuman treatment in the city. No other government employees could be treated like this; they have their unions and associations and would fight at the sight of such indignity. There is a temperament that these workers can be treated as per one’s whims and fancies and it is a known fact that it is caste that is root-cause of such misery. They may be mandated by the government for the assigned job, but to transport them as if they are cattle; to make them sleep over newspaper spread; to make them drink water from a common pipe from their plates meant for meals; to shove 400 of the workers in an uninhabitable place with just two toilet rooms -one cannot imagine this happening to any other human or a government staff. This discrimination is a result of caste and that is what we want to emphasise at this moment.

Organisations such as Tauheed Jamaat, film celebrities, voluntary organizations and politicians such as Tirumavalavan, Vaiko have volunteered in cleansing work. Do you feel that their efforts do not address the issues that you are raising?

Certainly not. These efforts will not solve the problem. There is a need to use machines on a mass scale. The voluntary efforts may only raise awareness among general public to pitch in, but such efforts alone cannot clean even 10% of the waste. Residents of the city could volunteer and contribute, but efforts could take a month’s time in cleaning the waste. Cleaning waste of this volume requires large scale industrial operations with modern equipments.

There are complaints from some quarters that sanitation workers are demanding extra money for the work from the residents.

This is false. The fact is that many of the workers, youngsters have been brought to the city on false promises. Many are on contractual basis and have been promised permanent jobs, apart from allowance of 300 rupees per day. One of our comrades had interviewed the workers and found out he was paid 50 rupees only and not 300 rupees which was originally promised. The complaints of overcharging by the sanitation workers may have occurred in one or two instances, but overall a meager sum of 50 rupees is given to most workers. By and large, these workers have been wronged by the Government.

What do you propose as a permanent solution to this crisis of a particular caste being employed as sanitation workers? 

chennai caste protest2In my opinion, not just the Arunthathiyar, no human beings should be employed for sanitation purpose and only machines and modern equipments should be employed for the purpose. Whatever it is – human faeces or the garbage pile – no human being should be involved in it. We live in an era of rocket science. Even temples, here, have electric bells. Scientists here seem to invent machines for everything but are reluctant to innovate and invent equipments for sanitation purposes. There are machines for harvesting crops, for sowing seeds, for feeding fertilizers, and how come there be no equipment for sanitation? The hard fact is that though there are machines and equipments for sanitation, but the governing classes – upper castes are not willing to use these machines.

 How much does an average sanitation worker earn on a Government pay-roll?

The government pays around 15000 rupees for a worker per month, in Chennai, Coimbatore, Madurai and other places. Nowadays, many are enrolled on contractual basis for 6000 rupees per month. However, the worker ends up getting only around 3000 rupees and the contractor eats up the rest. This has been going on in places like Coimbatore. Employees working on temporary pay roll remain on contractual basis and jobs are not made into permanent positions. Permanent staff may get a maximum salary of 20 to 25,000 rupees. But, the numbers of permanent staff is in a decline and more workers on contract basis are being employed for a meager amount. The Trade Unions here have not risen to their cause.


Author and Translators’ note:

Assigned sanitation workers refers to Arunthathiyars as sanitation workers. The term refers to the social and state practices of forcing Arunthathiyars into manual scavenging occupations and sanitation work force. 



Murali Shanmugavelan ( is a PhD candidate in School of Oriental and African Studies. His research topic is ‘Everyday communicative practices of an Arundhathiyar community in Tamil Nadu’. The field site (a discriminated Dalit colony) is an ostracised public space and the people (Arundhathiyars) are the most oppressed group (called Dalit among Dalits) in Tamil Nadu. His research is about making sense of how structural and personal discriminations influence and shape Arundhathiyars’ everyday articulations to survive with dignity.

Kadhiravan works in a public sector bank.

Photos courtesy: Facebook page of Athiyamaan Aathamizhan