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Reality of sanitation workers in India: Caste, Stigma and historical injustice

Reality of sanitation workers in India: Caste, Stigma and historical injustice

Dhamma Darshan


Dhamma Darshan Nigam

Dhamma DarshanThe reality about the life of sanitation workers is not just about unsafe working and living conditions, irregular and minimum wages, and their health conditions and exploitation by their contractors. The reality is deep down more about the caste system and acceptance by the society that one group of people is best fit to clean their excreta, and that the service which is essential to them – people providing service remain completely nonessential. The reality is as concurrent, as historically social and cultural. And the solution also has to be found both ways. 


A thin line difference between sanitation work and manual scavenging


The traditional form of manual scavenging – cleaning human excreta from dry latrines – might not be visible in urban areas but it is still very much present in the different rural parts of India. The other forms of manual scavenging can be very easily seen in urban areas. To find out about the other forms of manual scavenging we can look at the definition of a manual scavenger given in the prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their rehabilitation act, 2013: 


“manual scavenger” means a person engaged or employed, at the commencement of this Act or at any time thereafter, by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises, as the Central Government or a State Government may notify, before the excreta fully decomposes in such manner as may be prescribed, and the expression “manual scavenging” shall be construed accordingly.


This means that a person or a sanitation worker who is cleaning human excreta from an open drain, pit, railway track or other space or premise is also a manual scavenger. Why is there a thin line of difference between a sanitation worker and a manual scavenger, for example, a sanitation worker might be employed to clean garbage from railway track but he also has to clean human excreta also if it is there. Almost all sanitation workers during their routine work one way or another at frequent intervals do come in contact with human excreta and handle it manually – without protective gears. Therefore, all sanitation workers do come in the purview of the above act, and are entitled to different rehabilitation schemes made for manual scavengers.


 In the same manner, assume a sanitation worker has been appointed for garbage cleaning and also has never cleaned human excreta, but he becomes a manual scavenger if sometimes he is asked to go inside a sewer, septic tank or a manhole to clean it. Deaths of sanitation workers inside sewer, septic tank or a manhole due to poisonous gases are recognized as deaths due to manual scavenging. A Supreme Court judgment of 2014 regarding the continuance of manual scavenging notes that: 


If the practice of manual scavenging has to be brought to a close and also to prevent future generations from the inhuman practice of manual scavenging, rehabilitation of manual scavengers will need to include:-

(a) Sewer deaths – entering sewer lines without safety gears should be made a crime even in emergency situations. For each such death, compensation of Rs. 10 lakhs should be given to the family of the deceased.


Family of the deceased is also entitled to get other benefits enshrined in the same Supreme Court judgment. Also, it is the government’s responsibility to spread awareness regarding the cleaning of sewer, septic tank, and manhole mechanically, not manually. If the government is not doing its duty of spreading the awareness, then the responsibility of each such death of sanitation workers should lie on the government and its concerned departments.


Therefore it can be easily seen that there is a very thin line of difference between sanitation work and manual scavenging. And it is also very much clear that these two “different” kinds of works are not done by two different caste groups, but by the same untouchable community, which does not even know whether this thin line ever exists or not. 


Emergency as normalcy


If we look at the present emergency situation, the Covid-19 pandemic, after different phases of lockdown, unlocking has also been started in different phases. But it seems like nothing has changed for sanitation workers in both the lockdown and unlock phases. While talking to Mr. Pawan Balmiki – state convener for Safai Karmachari Andolan for the state of Madhya Pradesh – about the working condition of sanitation workers in both lockdown and unlock phases he said that “sanitation workers never had any relaxation for their work both during lockdown and unlock phases”. He further said, that “this unlock is bringing no changes in the working conditions of sanitation workers and that every normal day is like an emergency for sanitation workers. Their work never stops”.      


If we look at the initial phases of lockdown, while doctors were called the ‘Gods in white coats’ in the fight against Covid-19, the contribution of sanitation workers was completely ignored. And this became fully evident when the central government planned to train “large force” and “replace” them with front line workers to control the pandemic and its exponential increase. The government planned to provide such training to doctors, nurses, paramedics, hygiene workers, technicians, auxiliary nursing midwives (ANMs), state government officers, civil defence official, police organisations, National Cadet Corps (NCC), Nehru Yuva Kendra Sangathan (NYKS), National Service Scheme (NSS), Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS), Bharat Scouts and Guides (BSG) and other volunteers. But the central government failed to recognize the efforts of sanitation workers and didn’t feel the need to “replace” them or extend the workforce required for sanitation work. By the way, they are right also in not keeping sanitation work in this list, because nobody else but only an untouchable (Valmiki, Chuhda, Dom, Basfor, or Bhangi) will be assigned to do this impure cleaning work. For an untouchable sanitation worker even this emergency is like normalcy or all normal days are like an emergency for them. 


Fake honour cannot erase real stigma of sanitation workers


It is generally said about sanitation workers that they are saving people from different diseases like soldiers are saving our borders from terrorists. This is exactly like what Mohandas Gandhi used to say, “A Bhangi does for society what a mother does for her baby. A mother washes her baby off the dirt and ensures his health. Even so the Bhangi protects and safeguards the health of the entire community by maintaining sanitation for it.” (Gandhi in Harijan, 28/11/1936, as cited in Ramaswamy 2005: 90). If it is so then it should also be understood that neither the security of borders is given on contracts, nor soldiers are treated as cheap labourers like sanitation workers are treated. Neither soldiers face humiliation like sanitation workers, nor is their work seen as lowly in society. Also, it will never be said that a soldier does his or her duty on the borders like a Bhangi or like a sanitation worker clean up a gutter, or that doctors and nurses work so tirelessly like a Bhangi in emergency situations. 


A sanitation worker has his or her own role in society, and doctors or soldiers have their own roles. Every work is equally necessary and has its own importance. Then why is the work or a worker compared with another. Everybody deserves equal respect and equal socioeconomic rights irrespective of their work. A hollow respect should not be given to people and their work, and their morale also should not be raised up falsely by comparing them and their work with others with greater respect in the eyes of common people. 


If the government really wants to do something for sanitation workers then it should recognize the importance of the work they do in general and in emergency situations in particular (like in Covid-19 pandemic). Then the government should discontinue the contractual system in this essential work as soon as possible, and sanitation workers should be employed as permanent government employees like soldiers and other administrative staff and they should be provided all the benefits and social security systems which are provided to all other government employees. Sanitation workers should get regular employment for their regular work.


Keeping sanitation work irregular and unorganized, and continuing it on contractual basis with no social security systems is only restricting the growth of untouchable sanitation workers. By continuously keeping untouchable sanitation workers in the heinous and undignified sanitation work the caste system and its brahminical status quo gets further strengthened and maintained intact. To keep the Bhangi community remain stuck in the vicious circle all socioeconomic arrangements are being made. For example, the Warsa Hakka system of the Mumbai municipal corporation, Maharashtra government where a family member is recruited through preferential treatment after the person on job is retired, died or got permanent disability. Another example is from my field visit for Safai Karmachari Andolan in 2017, many young people said while interviewing them that for different vacancies in shopping malls, hotels, & hospitals despite having qualifying education they were told that because they belong to Valmiki caste they can get a sanitation related jobs only. 


The historical injustice


Manual scavenging is an atrocious act on one’s mind and body. It not only includes occupational hazards of removing dangers it comprises of but it is alright to ask the same people to do it again. That is why the Manual Scavenging Act, 2013 notes: 


It is necessary to correct the historical injustice and indignity suffered by the manual scavengers, and to rehabilitate them to a life of dignity. 


Correcting the historical injustice means that sanitation workers and/or manual scavengers should be rehabilitated in non-scavenging related occupations. The indignity they have suffered is because of the “work” they have been forced into. And doing the same work with machines cannot provide them dignity. When a community is stigmatized because of doing a particular kind of work then they cannot get rid of the stigmatization by doing the same work sophisticatedly. They have to change it. Machines will clean manholes, not the stigma attached to manual scavengers. Therefore, instead of just focusing on the safe working environment for sanitation there is a huge need to ‘rehabilitate them to a life of dignity’.


‘Historical injustice’ also points out that the real problem of the life of sanitation workers might not be occupational, but sociocultural. Reducing the occupational hardships and making sanitation work technical may help them at one level, but it cannot solve the sociocultural problem of their life. By calling it sociocultural I mean to say that sanitation worker’s problem is a socially constructed problem and culturally accepted by both tormentor and tormented communities. Socially and culturally it has become an accepted norm that sanitation work is the work of a Bhangi or a Valmiki community. And the community also says that if we will not do this work then who will do it. It is the greatest of the historical injustices done to any community that it has started accepting and saying that cleaning human excreta is their work. 


No community will accept such a heinous “work” as theirs. But it is not impossible if it is made the general psyche of the community. And in the case of the Bhangi community it is done at two levels. First, they have been oppressed for so many years that they have accepted their oppression as a normal thing. And second, this acceptance gets justification through religion that they are told that it is the result of the sins of their past life. They are told that they can get rid of the sins of past birth in the next birth if they continue doing the same work in the present birth which is assigned to them by god itself. This way in the name of the dharma, karma and rebirth living on the waste of the society is made the general psyche of the community. Community also accepts it as their fate and stops seeing that something inhuman and unjust is happening to them. And the thought of changing “their work”, resisting against atrocious working and living conditions, and bettering their living conditions becomes hard. 


Correcting the historical injustice means undoing the thought process of Valmiki or Bhangi community of sanitation work as “their work” psychologically, socially and culturally. The other part of correcting the historical injustice requires civilizing the people who forcibly and shrewdly impose sanitation work on one particular caste group for the continuance of their privilege. 


And at the last if anybody has the slightest of the intention to work for correcting the historical injustice and for removing the stigma suffered by the Bhangi community then they should start from questioning the very crux of the problem—the  caste system—and then should take steps to deconstruct the link between caste and occupation. 




Dhamma Darshan Nigam is an activist and a writer. He can be contacted at: