Round Table India
You Are Reading
Machines will clean manholes, not the stigma attached to manual scavengers

Machines will clean manholes, not the stigma attached to manual scavengers

Dhamma Darshan


Dhamma Darshan Nigam

Dhamma DarshanIn human society, it is dignified living that provides people a respectful place among fellow citizens. It is the sense of being respected by fellow human beings that keeps people mentally alive. It is the sense of being positively recognized by fellow human beings that provide one with a sense of his own being, of positively and confidently existing. It is the intersubjective social, cultural, political, economic and philosophical relationship—the cultural capital—that provides people a body language to walk in different ways of life confidently.

Recognition by fellow human beings is a vital cultural need. But, if people are insulted and/or humiliated continuously because of being engaged in an undignified occupation. or by being called by caste names because of being born in a particular caste (irrespective of economic status) it results in a great loss of self-respect. Moreover, generation over generation failing to change this loss of self-respect makes people a kind of mental slaves. Therefore, mental slaves—with no cultural capital—do what they are asked to do without having an agency to think for their betterment. It stops bothering them even if they are asked to do the most heinous work for their daily survival. It stops troubling them even if their life and respect are at stake in doing that work.

Getting free from an exploitative ideology is far more difficult than getting free from the slavery of another person when the oppressive enemy is visible and in front of you. Those who are fighting the oppression of an ideology have to question what they have been taught and/or made to do throughout their life, since their childhood. For people to question their own socialization is the toughest task. Questioning their own socialization and/or familial/societal norms for people is threatening as then there is always a chance of familial/societal support system being detached or people might also be disowned from family and/or society. Being the slave of an exploitative ideology, people are made to think of their exploitation as their destiny which they then live without questioning. Slaves of an exploitative ideology are brainwashed to believe that their salvation is in their exploitation only, and they don’t see their exploitation as something wrong being done to them. They find the exploitative labor as routine work, a medium to earn their daily bread.

People acculturated in a caste society are not taught to ask questions. They are not trained in critiquing immoral and irrational practices prevalent in their families, surroundings and in society as a whole also. They follow every stupidity as words of God. Caste society perpetuates and promotes sheer foolishness, stupidity, irrationality and immorality in daily human relations through daily social, religious and cultural practices. Mutual relations among different caste people in caste society are acknowledged by hierarchy and differences. These relations are not caring and supportive to each other, but abusive and unequal. And when people believing in inequality rise to a higher position in state machinery, when they hold state power, they further perpetuate and promote differences through different state institutions and instruments. And the most oppressed person further becomes the victim of this exploitative ideology.

In the caste society, people higher in hierarchy get respect from all the castes lowered in the hierarchy, and people lowered in the hierarchy don’t get respect from any of the castes higher in the hierarchy. And as a result the lowered caste people do not get respect at all. What they get is sympathy, not respect. What they remain is ominous, sinister, unfavorable, unseeable and inauspicious in everybody’s eyes. For example, a highly educated Dalit remains inauspicious, but a stupid Brahmin is respected like anything. Even a person from a most backward class tells a Dalit that s/he is inferior to her/him.

Manual scavenging is a caste enforced work: that means manual scavenging is imposed on one particular caste group. These groups are known by different names in different cultural locations. They are called ‘Han, Hadi (in Bengal); Balmiki, Dhanuk (Uttar Pradesh); Mehtar, Bhangi (Assam); Mehtar (Hyderabad); Paki (coastal Andhra Pradesh); Thotti (Tamil Nadu); Mira, Lalbegi, Chuhra, Balashahi (Punjab); Bhangi, Balmiki, Mehtar, Chuhra (Delhi)’ (Ramaswamy 2005: 3). For the purpose of this write-up, I will use Bhangi.

People working as manual scavengers are most exploited, poorest of poor, oppressed of oppressed, and socially/culturally/politically silenced caste. They don’t have a social, cultural and political opinion to make. They are forced to believe and accept that it is their hereditary work to clean human shit their whole life. India’s social, political and cultural life has made them ardent believers of myths that have been made to maintain the status quo in the society and to further subjugate them. And as a result, from one generation to another, they keep passing this work within their family and they themselves continue their wretchedness. They have no cultural capital and it is their work which has led to such a situation. And by being born in this caste, Bhangis are not only forced to do manual scavenging but they also have to face lots of discrimination and humiliation.

The manual scavenger’s problem is not just of survival, but of a dignified survival. What manual scavengers are made to do is not some occupational hazard, that if its risks and difficulties are removed then they can continue with the same. Being manual scavengers, what they face are not only daily difficulties and risks in cleaning manholes, but more importantly, hatred, insult, discrimination, humiliation and denial of basic human rights and recognition of their being at the hand of fellow human beings and the welfare state itself. What they demand is equality and justice, which they are never going to get if they continue getting their living by manual scavenging.

Manual scavengers have to face different kinds of overt and covert discrimination and humiliation. If they live in a mixed caste society and more importantly, even if they are engaged in non-sanitation related work, they are not called for social gatherings. This is a totally different kind of covert discrimination and humiliation which Bhangis have to face. Whenever they start some small shops, they can’t run them successfully. People do not buy things from the shop of a manual scavenger. Even educated Bhangis are given sanitation related and/or at max housekeeping work only. If an educated Bhangi starts some small business he has to start it with a name which they do not follow at all. They have to start that with some popular god’s name (for example, Balaji tent house or Durga courier services). They can’t recognize what they follow religiously. In the market, they can’t run anything being themselves. In many societies and even in India, higher economic status is seen as a sign of development, but for Bhangis, their economic or educational status doesn’t help in lessening discrimination and humiliation.

Sukhadeo Thorat and Katherine Newman’s edited book, Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India, provides no dearth of evidences that Dalits are discriminated in rural markets, urban private sectors, rural/urban labour market, rural public health care services, from primary schools to higher educational institutions and further at the time of post-university employment, at the time of mid-day meals. And how they get further pushed back through the language of merit, hygiene and productivity, denial of property rights, and how union of caste and religion further leave the Dalit unemployed and poor.

Their communities are settled outside villages. They are not allowed to take water from the public well. Their children in schools face direct discrimination when they are asked to clean toilets in schools because they are children of manual scavengers. They are still not allowed to walk with slippers on their feet while passing through some dominant caste neighbourhood. In urban places too, their settlement is segregated. What they remain is simply non-existent for the state and fellow human beings. In this context, the Bhangis’ segregated and humiliated living can be easily imagined in the labor market and the society they live in. Senior journalist and writer Bhasha Singh has aptly named her book on manual scavenging as Adrishya Bharat in Hindi and Unseen in English. Manual scavengers are really un-seeable for state and fellow human beings.

To stop sewer deaths providing (sucker or robot) machines to manual scavengers to clean sewers is a necessary step. But, it will not change their socio-cultural relations in society with fellow human beings. Hence it will not make manual scavengers’ life discrimination and humiliation free. As we all know by now that manual scavengers’ problem is not of survival, but of dignified survival. With sucker machines, Bhangis will still be doing the same work, they would still be living the same stigmatized life. Cleaning sewers with machines won’t make manual scavenger’s life dignified. Machines will clean manholes, not stigma attached to the manual scavenger. Also, there is no need to forget that there are women who are still cleaning dry latrines.

Just imagine for a moment how people see or react to a moving garbage truck and sanitation workers within it or to sanitation workers cleaning roads during office hours and the short traffic jams because of them. Do not people scold or look at such sanitation workers with repulsive eyes and say that why don’t they do it before office hours? Providing them machines to do the same cleaning work for which they live a stigmatized life won’t solve their problem. Cleaning sewers with machines won’t provide Bhangis some elevation either in others’ eyes or in their own eyes. They will get respect in their eyes only through others’ eyes, like it was discussed initially. The ideology of purity-pollution won’t let machines help manual scavengers in improving their lives. It is also well known that the green revolution (its technological advancement, use of machines, fertilizers or high yielding seeds) didn’t benefit Dalits, directly.

First, manual scavengers are stigmatized because of their caste and second, because of the obnoxious and horrible working conditions. If working conditions are improved, if people are not cleaning human shit manually, if they are using sucker machines to clean sewer and septic tanks, they will still be stigmatized. This technological innovation does very little to help a manual scavenger in leading a dignified life in his locality. By using machines to clean sewers/septic tanks, the tag of manual scavengers will surely be removed but it won’t improve the intersubjective relationship with their fellow human beings. It won’t decrease humiliation they are forced to face in their daily life. In the society as a whole, they still will be living a canceled out life. They still remain unimaginable in the general human psyche. Or they will be called when someone’s septic tank gets full or the sewers get choked, to clean it with a machine. And after cleaning the blocked gutter, they will again go to their ghettos to live a totally rejected life. Providing machines to manual scavengers to clean sewers will not end their mental slavery. They will still remain what Gopal Guru calls ‘walking carrion’ or a ‘filthy reality’.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, clearly states that ‘it is necessary to correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by the manual scavengers, and to rehabilitate them to a life of dignity’. But, by providing machines to manual scavengers to do the same work, it does not look from any direction that anybody is correcting this ‘historical injustice’. Manual scavengers are not going to get a ‘life of dignity’ by cleaning the sewers with the help of a machine. The solution of machines being provided to manual scavengers to clean sewers and septic tanks comes from an understanding that manual scavenging is an occupational hazard. Manual scavenging is not an occupational hazard. The economy is not the only problem of manual scavengers. Solving occupational hazards is not the solution to their problem. There is a need to see their life/work from the perspective of rights and justice. There is a need to rehabilitate these manual scavengers in non-sanitation related occupations. The purpose was to delink the “pious connection” between caste and occupation, but by providing machines to the same caste to do the same work, instead of moving forward we are going backward, we are continuing historical injustice on Bhangis.

Babasaheb Ambedkar said that ‘Caste system is not just a division of labor, it is a division of labourers’. That is why everybody is talking about providing machines to manual scavengers, not rehabilitating them in non-sanitation related work. Not providing non-sanitation related work and providing machines to do the same work is quite a cunning way to keep Bhangis stuck in the vicious cycle of the caste system. Ambedkar told Bhangis that ‘Bhangi Jharoo Choro’ (Bhangi, Leave the Broom), not ‘Bhangi sadak/gutter ki safai hath ke bajaye machine se karo’ (Bhangi, clean the road/gutter with machine not manually).



Guru, Gopal (ed.). 2009. Humiliation: Claim and Context. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ramaswamy, Gita. 2005. India Stinking: Manual Scavengers in Andhra Pradesh and their workNew Delhi: Navayana Publishing.

Thorat & Newman. 2010. Blocked by Caste: Economic Discrimination in Modern India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.



Dhamma Darshan Nigam is an active member of the ‘Safai Karamchari Andolan’ and a writer. He can be contacted at: