The long struggle of Indian sanitation | Ratik Asokan (2023)

One man disappears underground, while the other comes to the surface. A third crouches between them on the road and pivots between the two drainage holes causing them to go in and out unsupported. None of the men are wearing the right clothes. The one above ground wears white underwear that stands out from the surrounding dirt. The other two are bare-chested, their limbs slick with earth, and their hair wet and flat. Signs of his work are scattered nearby: a bucket, a rusty chain, some rough sticks. At the edge of the frame, the soles of the shoes can come off and move to cleaner ground.

This is one of a series of extraordinary photographs Sudharak Olwe took of Safai Karamcharis, or sanitation workers, in Mumbai between 1999 and 2000. Your job is to collect city garbage and sweep the streets, clean sewers and septic tanks, load and unload garbage trucks and separate garbage in landfills. Many of them work with primitive tools and without uniform, as Olwe's photographs show. In one, workers sort through piles of trash with brooms and rakes. In another, two workers in vests and shorts sit in the dumpster of a garbage truck. In a third, a worker looks into the camera as he places a dead dog in a dumpster.

Perhaps Olwe's most powerful image is a portrait. Safai Karamchari's face can be seen from above. Your body is invisible under a black puddle of sewage. He was sent to unclog a sewer, a common practice in India. The law requires protective equipment for work: oxygen masks, overalls, gloves, boots. But these are almost never provided, as numerous studies show. The Safai Karamcharis come into contact with human waste, which causes diseases such as cholera, bronchitis and tuberculosis, as well as harmful gases that accumulate underground. These include hydrogen sulfide, which can blind, and carbon monoxide, which can kill.

The same danger faces those sent to rescue suffocated workers. In May, 45-year-old Safai Karamchari, named Nandakumar, fell into a septic tank in Ramnagar, Uttar Pradesh, and passed out, so his son and two other relatives rushed to help. No one survived. In 2022, India's Federal Minister of Social Justice, Ramdas Athawale, told parliament that 330 sanitation workers had died in septic tanks and sewers in the past five years, which is certainly understated. The social movement Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) believes that nearly two thousand people die underground every year. The deaths in these gas chambers are reported daily in the newspapers, where they are described as accidents.

The fact that Safai Karamcharis are forced to go to the sewers is a legacy of the caste system. Cleaning up human excrement is considered an unclean act by the Hindus and has been done for centuries by the lower Dalit sub-castes, or untouchables. This working relationship persists throughout South Asia: an estimated 98 percent of India's Safai Karamcharis are Dalit, as are most sanitation workers in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. Throughout the subcontinent, they work in dangerous conditions and face social exclusion. In June 2017, Irfan Masih, a Christian from Safai Karamchari in Pakistan's Sindh province, died after three doctors refused to treat his mud-covered body. True believers stay clean during Ramadan.

For decades, the Indian state has ignored the human cost of sanitation in favor of endless talk of technological improvements. More recently, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has included in its 2023 federal budget a plan to fully mechanize the cleaning of septic tanks and sewers. The article reads in full: “All cities and towns will be enabled to mechanically desludge septic tanks and sewers 100% in the transition from well to borehole exploitation. More attention will be paid to the scientific management of dry and liquid waste.'

It's pure fantasy to imagine India's fragile sanitation infrastructure could be mechanized overnight. In 2019, New Delhi (population over 16 million) launched its first fleet of 200 sewer cleaning trucks. Two years later, Mumbai (population over 21 million) bought its first thirty-seven sewer cleaning machines. Most urban centers have neither. However, the federal budget has nothing for new sanitation technologies, let alone alternative jobs for thousands of Safai Karamcharis, which are not even mentioned.

Like access to clean water and electricity, water purification is a modern service desired by people across India, including the upper castes. This is one of the reasons why governments periodically make a show of expanding and modernizing the system. But instead of respecting sanitation as a profession, most Indians despise it as a duty for which Dalits were born. By embracing the material advantages of modernity without abandoning the hierarchical caste ideology, the upper caste Indians are deadly indifferent to the plight of Safai Karamcharis, who works in public spaces – roads, dumps, railways – in abhorrent conditions. circumstances that flagrantly violate the law. Two years ago, scholars Shiva Shankar and Kanthi Swaroop published a scathing article accusing Indian society of genocide against sanitation workers.1“In a country that records the death of a sanitation worker every two days due to suffocation in a septic tank or a sewer,” they write, “citizens have chosen to apathetically look away.”



The caste system is older than Hinduism as we know it today. Historians trace their rise to between 1500 and 500 BC, when a group known as the Aryans arrived on the subcontinent from Central Asia and established a belief system known as Vedicism, the precursor of Hinduism. Early Vedic texts describe the three basic principles of caste. The first is occupational identity: all members of a varna, or caste, had to do the same job. Brahmins were priests. Kshatriyas were warriors. Vaishyas were farmers and artisans, later merchants. Shudras were manual labourers. The second was endogamy: marriages outside caste were forbidden. The third was hierarchy: some castes were considered superior to others, with the Brahmins at the top, above the Kshatriyas, followed by the Vaishyas, with the Shudras at the bottom. “In the middle of the first millennium,” writes Romila ThaparThe History of Penguins in Early India'caste status' was repeated in the theory that the first threecorvoIt isdvija, twice born - the second birth is the initiation into the ritual state - while theShudrashe only has one litter."2 Then a fifth group emerged, performing a wide variety of tasks, including garbage collection, rope making, midwifery, tanning, and laundry. They were considered avarna, or outcasts. These were the so-called untouchables. Today they are known as Dalits – a self-identification term adopted by 20th-century political and academic leader B.R. Ambedkar, who was born into a Dalit community in Maharashtra.

Unlike Catholicism, which was overseen by the Vatican, there was never a single Vedic doctrine or ecclesiastical authority. Unlike feudalism in Europe, which was imposed by the crown, no king ever signed a Vedic charter. Even the image of a fourfold system is misleading: the Varnas were not homogeneous groups, but broad categories, with hundreds of endogamous clans or jati within each. Caste dynamics varied greatly from time to time and place to place as new jatis were formed and assigned a place within the old order. The system was rigid and amorphous. ruled everywhere, but from nothing. few took advantage and most obeyed. How to understand these contradictions?

Historian Ram Sharan Sharma has argued that the belief in the transmigration of souls was fundamental to the maintenance of the caste system: following Vedic laws allowed one to be reborn into a higher caste. Equally crucial was the belief in quite literal notions of purity and pollution. Following a circular logic, the castes who did "clean" work occupied higher positions in the hierarchy and those who did "contaminated" work were lower. Priesthood was pure because it was exercised by Brahmins, and Brahmins were pure because they were priests. Cremation was tainted because it was done by Dalits and Dalits were tainted because they did cremation. The Savarnas - Hindus in the four Varnas - did everything they could to avoid the Dalits, fearing they would be infected by touch, sight or even shadow.

However, it would be misleading to understand caste only as the result of atavistic hatred or superstition. It was also an exploitative regime, where resources such as land, money and knowledge were monopolized by the svarnas, and Dalits were forced to work for the village for meager remuneration. As a belief system and as a working relationship, the ancient regime of Vedism proved remarkably resistant to internal reform movements such as the Bhakti tradition, which began around the 7th century AD. locked in place.

As Christianity, Islam and Sikhism took root in the subcontinent – ​​in the 1st, 3rd, 7th and 15th centuries respectively – millions of Dalits converted, only to find that the ancient Vedic hierarchy was being incorporated into their new religions. recreated, albeit in less brutal forms. ways. . Sikhism was divided between landlord Jat Sikhs and landless Dalit or Majabi Sikhs. In Islam, the division was between Pasmandas (translated as "left behind"), who included artisans or small farmers, and Ashrafs, who included merchants and landowners. Some Dalit Muslim jatis were also formed. Dalit and Savarna who converted to Christianity prayed in different congregations. The contemporary Malayalam poet and intellectual M.B. Manoj, in a poem addressed to 'Yesu', or Jesus Christ, depicts the ambivalent situation of Dalit Christians:

It wasn't us who hit you.
we even gave our land to hang your pictures
and decorate your images
who bow to the cross.

Now, Yesu, instead of speaking directly,
you already took us
this winding road?3

The caste system has largely withstood the onslaught of modernity and has taken on new forms. Brahmins traditionally had a monopoly on knowledge. Today they dominate the media, academia and technology. Big businessmen are almost all Vaishyas, like the billionaire Gautam Adani. The Kshatriyas are landowners in northern and central India, although they have largely disappeared elsewhere. The Shudras still control agriculture. It was untouchable to own traditionally forbidden land. Dalits remain largely homeless. (They make up over 32 percent of Punjab's population, but own only 4 percent of the land.) They work in large numbers as laborers in agriculture, construction sites and factories, and in occupations such as leatherworking, cremation and sanitation. Access to water tanks, wells, temples and more is prohibited throughout the Indian province. Penalties for intercaste love remain harsh in rural India, where couples are routinely lynched in “honor killings.” Affirmative measures for Dalits – which take the form of “reserves” or quotas for government jobs and educational institutions – are vigorously opposed by most upper-caste savarnas, who disguise their casteism by appealing to “meritocracy”.



Of all the jobs reserved for Dalits, the jobs that are considered the most polluted are those associated with waste and death. The jatis on the base sweep the streets, cremate corpses, dispose of cadavers and process manure. For a long time, feces was largely disposed of through a process now called "hand sweeping." This means that Dalits used brooms, baskets and their bare hands to remove human waste from dry latrines – shallow pits dug into the ground. Even today, Dalit women still empty dry toilets in some villagesJajmani, their hereditary duty, for which they receive symbolic compensation. Sudharak Olwe made a special series about their lives. A set of six photos follows Meenadevi, a 58-year-old woman who cleans dry toilets in Rohtas state in Bihar state. He crouches near an open toilet, collects dried feces in a broken bamboo basket with a stick and cardboard, and dumps the waste in nearby fields.

Early visitors to India noted the practice of manual removal. In 629 CE, the Chinese traveler Yuan Chwang wrote that “their dwellings are marked with a distinctive mark. They are forced to live outside the city and become crazy about the left as they move through the villages.' The subject was also treated by ancient writers such as the Telugu poet Pālkuriki Somanātha who wrote a remarkable parable titled "The Brahmin Widow and the Untouchable God" in the 13th century. The hero, Siva, is a tanner from the Madiga caste, who historically does leatherworking and cleaning. Sūrasāni, a Brahmin widow, invites Śiva to her house, which violates the caste restrictions and angers the Brahmin neighbours. They fear the loss of their caste privileges and thus their caste identity. “Our village has become a colony of outcasts,” they complain to the king. "He threw our caste into an abyss of darkness."4An investigation is conducted revealing that Shiva is a reincarnation of God, who took the form of a Mandiga to test the believers. Brahmins convert.

Scholar Joel Lee groups the myriad jatis now working in waste processing as "sanitary work cabinets." (A derogatory umbrella term in Hindi is 'Bhangi'.) A short list would include Chuhras, Dhanuks, Doms, Halalkhors, Mangs, Mazhabis and Mehtars in North India and Chakliyars, Dombans, Madigas, Pakis, Rellis, Thottis and Yanadis in encompass the region. South. Most are officially registered as Hindus. Some are Muslims, such as Halalkhors and Lalbegis. Many Mandiga are Christians. The Majabis are Sikhs. More densely populated groups such as the Doms and Chuhras have been involved in waste management for centuries, as evidenced by their oral histories. Smaller sub-castes, such as the Dhanuks, were generally introduced to sanitation in the 19th century as mass production made their 'traditional' trades (such as basket weaving) obsolete.

The British inherited a fragmented plumbing system when they formally took control of the subcontinent in the mid-18th century. Even in Delhi, the former Mughal capital, rubbish circulated at the neighborhood level as Dalits went door to door collecting excrement left by upper caste Hindu and Muslim families, who removed it from the city and sold it as manure. . Nevertheless, as urban areas expanded under colonialism, which entered the realm of imperial trade, the British allowed this practice to continue rather than create a modern sewage system. The change came only after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, when Indian cities were divided into British quarters and Native quarters, in part to protect colonial soldiers from diseases spread by the filthy masses. Sewage, sewage networks and modern waste collection were introduced in the former areas, but excluded from the latter. "Because the subcontinent's 'cleansing problem' was considered too big to contemplate, the British tried to allay their fears by partitioning into residential enclaves far from the indigenous population," notes Susan Chaplin in her research.Sanitairbeleid in India.5

The castes of sanitary workers rose to prominence under British rule, which was not always to their advantage. Beginning in the 1980s, the British formalized the practice of hand-scanning in indigenous areas, but the professionalization did not remove the stigma as the invisible hand of caste dragged Dalits into jobs despised by upper-caste Hindus. In his important studyuntouchable freedom,Vijay Prashad shows how sanitation workers were hired by the colonial state as janitors and then supervised by upper caste contractors.6In fact, the Dalits continued their hereditary duty, for which they now received a meager salary. Many were even forced to buy their own uniforms.

In the 1910s and 1920s, the colonial government introduced forms of electoral representation, which in turn required a census. When voter numbers became available, the upper caste Hindu leaders experienced a major shock to find themselves sharing the territory of the republic with a larger Muslim, Dalit and anti-Basi population than they had imagined.7An alliance between these groups would have paid for upper caste hegemony. To avert this disaster, Hindu supremacist organizations launched an ambitious campaign to convince Dalits and Adivasis to join the Hindu political bloc. Sanitary cabinets became the first target of this new sympathy.

Joel Lee reflects on this encounter in his recent bookillusory majority. Through extensive archival work, she reveals that North Indian health workers have long been culturally separate from Hinduism, largely considering themselves "members of acordOcommunity– an autonomous, cohesive socio-religious community – centered around Lal Beg, an anti-judicial prophet (Paighambar) that moved narratively in an Islamic world”.8Hindu missionary groups such as the Arya Samaj sent volunteers to the ghettos where Safai Karamcharis lived to destroy this legacy. They came up with a Hindu genealogy for sanitary workers' castes, in the form of a genealogical link with Rishi Valmiki, author ofO Ramayana– a campaign that proved ambiguously successful. Valmiki, or Balmiki, quickly became a new caste identity. Today, there are temples dedicated to the literary saint all over North India, although many Safai Karamcharis still pray to Lal Beg privately.

Two opposing ideologies on hygiene emerged in the independence movement. Following the example of the Hindu right, M.K. Gandhi established a special wing of the Indian National Congress, the Harijan Sevak Sangh, whose volunteers taught Dalits to sing Hindu devotional songs, urged them to give up alcohol and beef, and warned against Islam. Gandhi popularized the derogatory term "Harijan" for Dalits. It translates as 'Sons of God'. His agenda was vehemently opposed by Ambedkar, who argued that Avarna communities needed their own political representation and that sanitation workers should be released. from jajmani.

The conflict turned bitter, even ridiculous, when Gandhi described hand-sweeping as a “sacred duty” that purged Dalits and tried to clean the ashram toilets themselves – the sacred areas witnessed by Ambedkar. “In Hinduism, garbage collection was not a matter of choice, but of forced labour,” he wrote.

What does Gandhism do? He tries to maintain this system by praising the scavenger as the noblest service rendered to society! Could there be a worse example of false propaganda than this attempt to perpetuate the evils deliberately imposed by one class upon another?

Although Ambedkar wrote the Indian constitution, which contained important anti-caste provisions, the Indian National Congress would in practice adopt a Gandhian approach to sanitation after independence.

In 1947, the closets of the sanitation workers were at the center of one of the partition's most morally repugnant episodes. The governments of India and Pakistan agreed to oversee population transfers, with Hindu and Sikh communities moving to India and Muslims moving to Pakistan. But while these migrations were still underway, the Pakistani government passed the Essential Services Maintenance Act, which banned Hindu sanitation workers from moving to India – a decree that only Ambedkar had the courage to oppose. “Pakistan would not be so upset if the Hindus left,” he wrote. “But who would do the dirty work of scavengers, sweepers, bhangis and other despised castes if the untouchables left”? In 1952, more than 35,000 Hindu sanitation workers were left behind. Psychologist Ashis Nandy later found that "Karachi's elite and Pakistan's political leadership had to intimidate Dalit Hindus into staying in the city, while ethnic cleansing was taking place everywhere". It is plausible that the Dalits were largely spared the violence of division because the warring factions did not see them as genuine Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs worth killing.


Sanitation ran into problems when the British transferred power to Congress. In 1954, the newly formed National Water and Sanitation Program conducted its first major survey, which found that about 3 percent of citizens had access to a sewer-connected toilet. Prime Minister Nehru promised to “improve health care, education and sanitation” while creating “a great productive engine,” but he never put those fine words into action. Although the Congress claimed to represent all of India, the party supported and responded to an elite coalition of professional middle classes, industrialists and landlords, who were perversely denied the subsidies and welfare benefits that had been largely expanded to the rest. of the population. When it came to sanitation, the colonial dichotomy held true: “The middle class was able to monopolize all the basic sanitation the state provided,” notes Chaplin. This meant that most Indians still used dry toilets, which were cleaned by Dalits.

Several committees have been set up to analyze the 'issue' of manual digitization in the early decades. Like Gandhi, everyone said that Safai Karamtsaris deserved better working conditions and no one called for an end to his hereditary duty. In 1957, ₹984,000 was pledged to supply wheelbarrows to Safai Karamcharis to end the practice of "headloading" – carrying excrement in a basket on the head – but only six hundred of the 126,000 townships took part in the scheme part. Again, all responsibility should not be placed on the state. As Swaroop told me, there was a “lack of demand” for better access to sanitation, as people were “glad to have someone pick up their rubbish.”

Classic Hindi-memoires van Omprakash ValmikiJonathan(1997) offers a glimpse into the social world of rural jatis sanitation during this period.9The book begins in the 1950s in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in a village ruled by upper caste Tyagis, who touch cows and buffaloes, but not Chuhras like the author. The Chuhras perform a number of tasks for the Tyagis - cleaning their houses and homes, washing their stables, disposing of animal carcasses - for which they are paid in both grain and scraps of food. In an opening scene, the principal takes nine-year-old Omprakash from the classroom to the playground for a special lesson: “See that teak tree over there? I'm going. Climb that tree. Break off a few branches and make a broom out of them. And clean the whole school like a mirror. After all, it's your family business."

In 1983, the federal government convened a major conference at which it decided to install flush toilets in all urban areas. (Low-cost models were developed by several of Gandhi's reformers, including Bindeswhar Pathak, who founded Sulabh International in 1970, a quixotic non-profit organization focused on the "emancipation of the scavengers".) The sewer lines were then gradually built. cities across the country, though access remains uneven. In 2011, when the last national census was conducted, more than 20 million urban households were not connected to a septic tank or sewage system. The national figures are even higher.

The current flushing system is in some ways worse than the old dry toilets. Safai Karamcharis now ends up in sewer lines that are blocked and wells that are emptied. A 2006 study in Tamil Nadu found that sanitation workers were regularly exposed not only to faeces and contaminated water, but also to knives and other sharp objects.10It turned out that there are more than 680 diseases among employees, the most dangerous of which are caused by harmful gases.

While extensive workplace laws have been created to protect against such hazards, they are virtually never enforced by either public or private employers. Workers thus routinely get lost underground, nowhere more often than in the state of Tamil Nadu, which has had the highest number of deaths in Safai Karamchari in the last 20 years. Since 2015, M. Palani Kumar has been traveling to Tamil Naduphotographing the conditionswhere Safai Karamtsaris works and lives. Many of her images are funeral processions, such as a 2019 moving image that focuses on a three-year-old girl, Dhanushri, whose face is pressed against the glass walls of the freezer containing her late father Mari, being placed for final rituals.

Being forced into a septic tank or sewer is like torture, as the Tamil writer Pandiyakannan makes clear in his autobiographical novelIn secret(2008). Pandiyakannan belongs to the Kuravar community, an Adivasi group considered a “criminal tribe” by the British, who drove them from their forested homeland, after which many went to work in sanitation. His father was a Safai Karamchari employed by the Government of Tamil Nadu and his mother informally did the same job. From a very young age he accompanied them to work. Your long stridesIn secretdescribe in detail the task of cleaning septic tanks:

Kumaran picked up the last two buckets of shit with his bare hands. He scraped the shit off the walls of the cistern and motioned for them to put down the broom. Balan took the broom from the bathroom and handed it to Kumaran. He couldn't reach it. Balan took the broom between his toes and stepped into the pool. He hung on the sides of the tank as if doing push-ups until Kumaran grabbed the broom.11

Many Safai Karamcharis have to drink before going underground. A 2017 survey found that 61% of the sanitation in Maharashtra were habitual drinkers. “It is necessary to drink alcohol before starting work. otherwise it is not possible to work continuously,” said an informant.12

Over time, sanitation work became divided along gender lines, as men were often hired as Safai Karamharis professionals, while women were assigned to clean the dry toilets. In her book, Bhasha Singh collects testimonials from dozens of female sanitation workers across IndiaInvisible, showing how work is often passed down from mothers and mothers-in-law to daughters and daughters-in-law.13Neera, a woman from Haryana who accompanied her mother at the age of six, told Singh: “All my life has been like this. I am now grandmother. Even in my dreams I often see that we are given gloves."


In the 1990s, many factors kept Safai Karamhari politically marginal. First, compared to other healthcare workplaces, there are fewer numbers: political parties do not see them as an important source of votes. Many are further isolated from local power structures as internal migrants: when sanitation work was formalized during the colonial era, the savannahs often refused to do this work, prompting state authorities to relocate Dalits from other parts of the country to fill the gap to fill. . Metahars from Delhi were put to work in Telangana region where their descendants still work as Safai Karamcharis. Much of Mumbai's sanitation comes from Tamil Nadu. Even more bitter is the distance from the political Dalit parties, which tend to represent the interests of the more densely populated Jatis.

Left at the mercy of the organization, the sanitation workers used a variety of strategies to combat what Ambedkar described as the castehydra. The two main interest groups – Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) and Navsarjan Trust (NST) – are pursuing an agenda that could be called abolition as they aim to free all Dalits from sanitation work and rehabilitate them into other professions.

SKA founder Bezwada Wilson is an organic intellectual, as evidenced by his moving portrait drawn in Gita Ramaswamy's bookIndia stinks.14He was born in 1966 to a Mandiga Christian family in Kolar, Karnataka, an industrial town established by the British in 1870 around a gold mine. In the 1960s, Kolar was home to 76,000 workers, most of them Tamil Dalits, who were in turn served by 236 communal dry latrines, each cleaned by a separate Madiga Safai Karamchari, including Wilson's father and brother. The boy himself was fired and sent to college, after which he returned to serve the community as a pastor. One day in 1989, aged 23, he went to observe their work closely. The scene where a man put his hand in a barrel of shit to get a bucket was the turning point:

I lay down on the floor near the grave and cried. I had no answers to what I saw, I wanted to die. I kept crying…. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. I had only two options: I would die or work to end the practice. The first was easy, the second difficult. I told myself that I would achieve nothing by dying.

Years later, Wilson started a campaign to end manual scavenging in Kolar. When the city's mining authorities wouldn't budge, he contacted the Bangalore on a daily basisHerald of the Deccan, which published a report on the subject, leading deputies and even ministers to demand an official investigation into the site, as if they didn't quite know what was going on. At an emergency meeting of the board of directors, mining officials passed a resolution to install toilets and transfer all Safai Karamcharis to other jobs. Wilson oversaw the proceedings, then left to take the fight across the state. In 1993, when the Federal Government passed the Employment of Handpickers and Dry Latrine Construction (Prohibition) Act, which banned the use of dry latrines throughout India, a copy of the bill was sent to it for input.

NST founder Martin Macwan picked up the Safai Karamcharis case later in his career, as Mari Marcel Thekaekara reports in his research.endless dirt.15He was born in 1959 in the family of Christian Vankars, a Dalit jati in Gujarat whose traditional occupation is weaving. One of eleven brothers, he worked the land as a child, but managed to survive through school and then university, where he earned a law degree, though like Wilson, he soon returned to serve the community . In 1996, she learned that the woman Safai Karamcharis in Ranpur, a village in Gujarat province, had gone on strike to replace her brooms. “What completely devastated me was that they did not act against the practice,” he told Thekaekara. "They just begged the Panchayat for more brooms so they wouldn't get their hands dirty."

When the 1993 law was enacted, all municipalities were considered “handscan-free” until proven otherwise by local judges, few of whom bothered to investigate these sordid matters. Groups like the SKA and NST were given the absurd task of finding the illegal dry toilets that were still in use everywhere. Volunteers conducted nationwide searches and provided evidence in numerous court cases. (Macwan's 1998 definitive report on the state of manual waste collection in Gujarat, Lesser Humans: Scavengers of the Indian Republic, lists six types of dry latrines collected by Dalits; one is simply a piece of land bounded by a 1, (20 meters high latrine. high wall, where svarnas defecate.) The authorities, in turn, feigned ignorance or denied evidence, such as when a prosecutor claimed that the NST photos presented to the court were fake. The plaintiff replied, "The Navsarjan Trust will offer a gift of lakh rupees to anyone in the court willing to be photographed with a basket of human excrement on their head."

The result of this government inaction was that the SKA and the NST increased in size and prominence. Hundreds of Safai Karamaharis joined the movement and burned their brooms and baskets. One of the SKA's most notable campaigns was a 2004 citizens' initiative to demolish community dry latrines in areas of Andhra Pradesh. The face of the campaign was an elderly lady named Narayanamma, whose life's work was to clean the entire Buddapanagar women's dry toilet complex in Anantapur, which had more than 600 users. While a group of local upper castes tried to protect the building, she was able to slip through the mob – and strike the first blow at her former workplace – as they refused to contact her. "Because I've been picking up dirt from these people all my life, they didn't want to touch me and they didn't want to harm me," he told Basha Singh. "I knew them so well that I made my weapon untouchable."

Savarna's opposition to the release of sanitation workers should not be underestimated. Like the Brahmins in Pālkuriki Sōmanātha's parable about the god who took the form of Madiga, they feel existentially threatened by the prospect of Dalits giving up their hereditary duty. According to Singh, a Safai Karamchari opened a small business in Bihar, which was immediately boycotted by the upper castes. “I am trying to make you a Brahmin by opening a tea stall,” she was told. "Who drinks tea made by a manual picker?" Such harassment makes Safai Karamharis less confident that he will leave the profession.

Macwan stuck to that point as we spoke via video call. He told me a story to show how Brahmin ideology can be internalized by Dalits. The NST once held a meeting where sanitation workers were asked to list the occupations they would like to pursue. For two hours they gave every possible reason - tradition, religion, origin - to explain why it was impossible for him to leave the profession. There was silence for a long time. Then a man offered to sell brooms. Another went further: he could sell bicycle brooms. Finally, after much persuasion, a woman said she would like to knit and sell sweaters – and the men immediately yelled at her for going too far.

Thanks to organizations like NST and SKA, most states in India are now free of dry toilets. I asked Wilson on the phone if he felt closer to the goal of emancipation than when he started. Having made it clear that upper caste Hindus don't care about Dalit issues, he believes the needle has turned on hygiene, with other civil society groups, journalists and even some politicians supporting the movement. The biggest change, however, was of a psychological nature. The sanitation worker castes were no longer content with hereditary obligations and the upper castes no longer believed that Dalits were born to clean up their own messes. "Today no one can say that this is a job we should be doing," said Wilson. “When it comes to manual scanning…everyone somehow thinks, 'We have to stop doing this.'


Plans for abolition and work organization may seem incompatible. One is trying to free Dalits from sanitation work, while the other is trying to make the profession better for them. However, the similarities between the two approaches outweigh the differences. SKA and NST are not against waste in the abstract. are struggling to completely transform the way hygiene is practiced in India. Trade unions pursue the same goal as they fight for better protection in the workplace, higher wages and respect for employees.

Indian labor organizations took up the cause of sanitation as early as 1953, when Prantiya Valmiki Mazdur Sangh, a local union in Safai Karamchari, and the Communist Party of India led a joint campaign to demand better wages and subsidies for sanitation. the Delhi Municipal Corporation. Their march to the city office ended in mass arrests. In 1957, ten Safai Karamcharis in Bombay went on a hunger strike for better working conditions, such as medical facilities, housing and the removal of upper caste leaders. Nehru explained why the state did not negotiate: "A civil service or public service had direct consequences for the community and could not be judged from the same angle as an industrial strike".

The attitude of the state in these and other cases was programmatically castistic. Hygiene was not considered a profession, but a “public service” – something Dalits were born to do. The extent to which the state would protect caste structures became apparent in 1996 when the Nagarpalika Karamchari Sangh, a union of sanitation workers, began an 80-day national strike in Haryana demanding timely payments. The BJP-led state government invoked the Essential Services Maintenance Act – a 1968 law banning strikes in essential sectors – to fire 6,000 Safai Karamcharis and jail about 700 others for up to 70 days. Volunteers from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the umbrella organization overseeing the BJP, showed up with brooms to help the government in times of need. They persevered in this task for two full days, after which Safai Karamcharis was taken from their homes and forced back to work.

A major challenge facing sanitation unions today is the disinvestment of jobs, a process that began in the early 1990s when the state gradually withdrew public sector investment and private companies invited services such as sanitary facilities. The employees were then divided into two tiers – full-time employees on the government payroll and employees contracted by private third parties – whose working conditions differed significantly. Today, Safai Karamcharis who work at Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in Mumbai earn ₹9,000 (a little over US$100) a month, while those who work in contractors earn only ₹4,000 and are without pensions, insurance and sick leave. permission. To get around labor laws that apply to companies with 20 or more employees, contractors hire teams of 18 people based in different neighborhoods. In some places, Safai Karamcharis was even reclassified as a “volunteer” receiving an “honorary allowance”.

No union has been as successful in tackling irregularities as the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh, which represents 7,000 of the 8,000 contracted sanitation workers working in Mumbai. KVSS started fighting for better working conditions: initially the Safai Karamharis were not given raincoats, attendance cards, minimum wage or holidays - they worked 365 days a year. He filed hundreds of lawsuits exposing irregularities in the contract system and fought for the reclassification of contract workers as full-time workers. In a large settlement in 2003, 1,200 indentured laborers were employed permanently. eleven years later, after another difficult court case, another 2,700 followed. “The permanent group is separate from the rest,” union founder Milind Ranade told me via video call. “Then they try to cut you up…. For every new batch you have to fight from the beginning."

Although Ranade entered the sanitation industry as an outsider, Raees Mohammed grew up with a deep understanding of the profession. His father was a sanitation worker and worked for the Tamil Nadu government. his mother was a sweeper at a school. The first member of his family to receive a higher education, Raees researched Safai Karamcharis across India for his PhD, but turned down a career in hygiene academy and returned to Kotagiri in rural Tamil Nadu to study the Self Respect Syndicate. . Raes told me on the phone that most Safai Karamcharis are indentured servants. Without an office, they are away from municipal headquarters all day, traveling from job to job on the platforms of garbage trucks, even during the monsoon – practices the union has successfully overturned. “My idea was never about wages,” Raees told me. It focuses on boosting self-esteem among sanitation workers. The problem in India, he said, "is that work has no value. Only the caste has any value."


An obvious way to make plumbing work safer is to do it with machines. Any number of machines can be used to unclog drains and drain septic tanks. Even rudimentary tools can make a significant difference. Raees told me that in Kotagiri, Safai Karamcharis has to collect sanitary napkins and condoms from clogged toilets with her bare hands. While in other countries a fiber optic measuring tube is used to monitor waste levels in septic tanks, your union workers use sticks. Technology in India is "pre-development," he said.

Promises to “mechanise” the industry have been made and broken for decades. Notably, in 2013, the Congress government passed the Handpicker Employment Ban and Rehabilitation Act, making it illegal to send Safai Karamhari to septic tanks. (The sewer lines miraculously proved to be safe.) Because no attempt was made to procure, let alone produce, the machines that would perform this task, Safai Karamcharis continued to live in hiding. Even more devastating, some municipalities have only renovated parts of the sewer system that do not have sewer workers. In Ahmedabad, academic Stephanie Tam notes, "Sewage-oriented development has led to sewage treatment plants and pumping stations whose current sophistication rivals that of most Western cities, while maintenance technology has progressed no further than buckets and human hands".16

In 2014, the year he took office, Narendra Modi launched a flagship development project called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBM), or Clean India Mission, apparently aimed at eradicating open defecation in rural India. The focus was on the construction of toilets, which the government has done religiously and has invested about ₹6.6 billion in construction by 2021. A huge publicity campaign was launched to promote the scheme, with politicians and Bollywood celebrities like Akshay Kumar appearing on television with brooms. Modi himself washed the feet of Safai Karamcharis, in a terrible repetition of Gandhi's glorification. Districts received cash awards for "no open defecation".

The government considers SBM a huge success and has released data showing that rural households with access to sanitation rose from 38.7 per cent in 2014 to 81.7 per cent in 2018 – a claim with no factual basis. In fact, thousands of toilets were built under the SBM, but many remain unused, mainly because construction was poor and often incomplete, with huge sums of money lost to corruption. Moreover, as most villages are still not connected to the government's sewage networks, the toilets are connected to wells, which Safai Karamharis is forced to empty manually. In a recent article, economist Kazuko Motohashi argues that the global impact of SBM has been negative, to say the least: due to poor waste management, the policy has led to an estimated 72% increase in river pollution.17

Better technological solutions came from the Dalit community and received no federal support. In 2017, the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water and Sewage Board, in partnership with India's Dalit Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI), purchased seventy "mini sewer blasters" that use water to unclog sewer lines. These machines, of which 130 are in operation in the city, are owned by Safai Karamharis, who is receiving government loans to make the purchase. The idea that anyone can become a "rational entrepreneur," as DICCI claims, is appalling: Fewer than fifty of the city's 1,800 Safai Karamcharis have made the switch. The program also makes no distinction between caste and sanitation. However, the main goal of ending manual deletion has been largely achieved. Machines clean almost all sewers in the city.

Perhaps the most notable technological intervention was made by Kennithraj Anbu. He was from Chennai and found his calling in second grade when he saw his father diving into a well for the first time. The pain of finding out what Safai Karamchari's work entailed followed him throughout his studies. Although he was hired by a multinational robotics company based on an award-winning article, he quit the lucrative job and founded a startup called Transen Dynamics in 2018. The company quickly developed a low-cost, easy-to-use gas detector that sewer workers can place in sewers to determine if it's safe to enter a well.

I asked Anbu if he had experienced caste discrimination while working in the notorious Brahmin-dominated technology industry. His answer was more subtle. Brahmanism, he told me, has shaped the kind of research produced in India, where theoretical areas are valued above anything purely practical. Colleagues were appalled when he shared his idea for a gas detector, fearing it would result in him being branded a "scientist who wipes his hands." Investors stayed away from the project and the Chennai Municipality argued that gas detectors were unnecessary as manual checking was eliminated. But when Anbu appeared on a popular Tamil TV show, several investors contacted him (even though they wanted him to design a machine for something other than sanitation) and the state government expressed interest in supplying Transen's gas detectors . “We are ready to give our knowledge to the government for free,” he said.


Organizing by sanitation workers has taken a more complicated turn in Pakistan, where religious fanaticism and caste fanaticism go hand in hand. Most Safai Karamcharis are Christians from the Chuhra jati, a caste of sanitation workers once found all over Punjab. In the late 19th century, thousands of Chuhras converted to Christianity, which brought them greater dignity, though they could not escape waste. Its leader, S.P. Singha, chose to join the Partition with Pakistan, believing that Muslims, as people of the book, would be better neighbors than Hindus..

Unfortunately, Singha was proven wrong. Like other minorities in Pakistan, the Chuhras were excluded from state institutions and faced severe intimidation: forced conversions, blasphemy charges, assaults. Displaced from rural areas where Muslim refugees from India were given land, they now largely live in segregated urban ghettos. “The stigma of their caste origins and the accompanying extreme vulnerability continue to plague the Christian community,” notes historian Charles Amjad-Ali. "This is despite Islam's theological denial of these inequalities as part of its claim to an ideal faith."18

Chuhra's experience in Pakistan raises complex questions about the survival of caste hierarchies after religious conversion. On the one hand, Islam is certainly a more egalitarian religion than Hinduism, without the latter's baroque system of taboos: who to touch and not to touch, where to eat and not to eat, what work to do and what to do. do not. This is why, for example, Raees converted and left his Hindu name. “Mosques have toilets in their buildings,” he said. "A bathroom is not considered profane." On the other hand, the Safai Karamcharis are still reviled in Pakistan where, as scholar Faisal Devjinoticed, is often described as a religious distinction rather than a caste distinction.

Chuhras are synonymous with hygiene in Pakistan and make up less than 2% of the population but 80% of the Safai Karamcharis. This is partly because healthcare jobs were for a long time semi-officially exclusive to Christians, as Muslims considered the job blasphemous. As late as 2013, the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was able to tell reporters that “only non-Muslims would be hired as sweepers.” At Easter 2014 and 2015, notices were posted asking citizens to throw their rubbish in bins as the Christian community was on vacation. In 2019 alone, 70 people died at work in Lahore.

Mary James Gill, a former state representative and herself from Chuhra, has publicly spoken out in favor of the community's cause following the death of Irfan Masih – Safai Karamchari, three Muslim doctors who refused to treat in 2017. That year, at state budget trials, they gave a speech about sanctity towards Christians, a practice that other politicians still deny, and launched an online campaign called "Sweepers Are Superheroes" to bring visibility to sanitation workers, who are largely ignored by the Pakistani press. The campaign's greatest success came from its appeal to Islamic principles, such as the dignity of work. “If we debate on the basis of Islam, it makes sense to them,” Gill told me. "They say it's a bad practice that we inherited from Hinduism." Immediately after the start of the campaign, the sanitation workers received strong support from both Christians and Muslims, leading more workers to embrace their identity. A Pakistan Sweepers Association has now been organized in more than twenty-two cities. But like the Dalits in India, Chuhras remain frequent targets of mafia violence, often prompted by accusations of blasphemy: eight churches were torched by fundamentalists last week.


Since the pandemic hit, Indian sanitation workers have been forced to work in even more dangerous conditions than usual. The photos taken by M. Palani Kumar during the 2020 lockdown show them cleaning the deserted streets of Chennai. Instead of addressing workplace grievances, the government made hygiene a spectacle as government officials publicly denounced Safai Karamtsari, now dubbed the "Crown Warriors." On May 3, 2023, military aircraft maneuvered in the sky to thank them. Joel Lee and Kanthi Swaroop rightly criticize these empty gestures as “Gandhian”, although they also noted a more hopeful development: many sanitation workers said municipalities and contractors had started paying wages on time.19

The SKA did not allow the pandemic to get in the way of its most ambitious mobilization. Launched on May 9, 2022, Stop Killing Us is an ongoing series of daily protests in towns and cities across the country. Groups of sanitation workers and activists – ranging from a dozen to more than a hundred people – gather, holding placards with the campaign title and a large portrait of Ambedkar, to publicly shame the nation for the continued deaths and reiterate recovery orders . "I said it's seventy-five years of independence, so we'll protest for seventy-five days anyway," Wilson told me. But even after the seventy-fifth day there was enthusiasm for the campaign, which took on a life of its own. “Now Safai Karmachari Andolan is not organizing anything anymore,” he said. "The movement has passed into the hands of the people... We're just handing out a calendar."

Sanitation workers' closets were in the news for other reasons during the pandemic. On September 14, 2020, four upper caste Thakur thugs collectively assaulted and raped a 19-year-old woman from the Valmiki community in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. She later died of her injuries. Police cremated the victim's body in a hidden location, but the family's request for a public burial was rejected. Dalit groups across the country mobilized to protest the atrocities. Garbage piled up in many cities when Safai Karamcharis went on strike. The following month, more than 30,000 people in seven states participated in a memorial event organized by Macwan's non-profit organization Dalit Foundation. People were asked to apply saffron to the image of the victim, a mourning ritual. Women in the Valmiki community were "crying as if they were marking their own daughter's photo," Macwan told me. In April, three of the four alleged killers were acquitted.


Savarna writers like myself have long expressed a questionable fascination with hygiene. During the independence movement, poets and prose writers treated Safai Karamharis less as characters than as screens onto which confusion and guilt were projected. Rabindranath Tagore, the founder of modern Bengali literature, composed (or in some cases translated from Bengali) a series of English poems on the plight of handpickers for early editions of Gandhi's diary.Harijan. "Sweet Mercy" is worth quoting in full.

Raidas the sweeper was a castle tanner
whose touch travelers avoided
and the busy streets were lonely for him.

Master Ramandada walked to the temple
after the morning shower,
when Raidas bowed to him from afar.

"Who are you, my friend?" asked the great brahmin
and the answer came,
"I am dry and barren,
trampled by the scornful days and nights.
You, my Master, are a cloud in the distant sky.
When sweet grace overflows you
on the humble land,
the stupid dust will scream with floral ecstasy.'

The Master took him by the bosom
shower him with your generous love
who made a storm of songs
explode in the heart
of Raida the sweeper.

Fictional texts also display a strange mixture of good intentions, condescension, immunity and documentation, with the novelists all too easily falling into the perspective of Safai Karamharis (or "scanners," as they were then called). So Mulk Raj Anand, in his famous 1935 English novelIntact, offers a serene description of the work performed by the hero, an eighteen-year-old sweeper named Bakha, in a British army barracks:

He worked hard, fast, without losing effort. Quick but steady, his ability to actively apply himself to the task at hand seemed to flow like constant water from a natural spring…. Running with considerable agility and shrewdness from one doorless bathroom to another, cleaning, brushing, phenyl, he seemed as calm as a wave receding into a deep river.

Over the course of a day, Bakha goes from one humiliation to another - he is harassed by a mob for accidentally touching and defiling an upper caste man. His sister is sexually assaulted by the local priest. His father throws him out of the house for skipping a shift, but he finds solace in a speech by a bespectacled visiting politician named Gandhi, who discusses the need to end indecency.

Again, these savannah writers at least felt compelled to deal with hygiene, unlike their successors in the independent era, who did not publish a single noteworthy novel on the subject, or even on closets. Serious involvement was left to journalism and science, although the results are uneven here too. Journalistic reports are often reduced to just a summary – so many deaths. so many responses from government officials – and academic research often focuses on proposing technocratic solutions.

Two savarna writers who have taken up the moral challenge of non-fiction are Basha Singh and Geeta Ramaswamy. Both stumbled upon this subject by chance, without any prior knowledge or even rudimentary awareness. In the introduction toInvisibleSingh recalls using dry toilets at a poorer relative's house as a child, never questioning who cleaned up: "Like me, those people who have dry toilets in the house probably never thought about who would pick up the stool. " Much later, now an accomplished journalist in her thirties, she was introduced to a group of female garbage collectors by a leftist and feminist activist. Initially, he "considered it as one story among many other stories I was working on". But in the end, the meeting led her, with the help of riders like Macwan and Wilson, to learn as much as she could about their racing. Singh later joined Safai Karmachari Andolan.

Editor, social activist and former communist militant Ramaswamy has been involved in the Dalit movement for decades. From 1978 she taught schoolchildren under Safai Karamcharis in the Ghaziabad district of Andhra Pradesh for two years from 1978, but even then the ethical implications of the way sanitary work was assigned did not really impress her. “I saw the females come back around noon every day with a pile of shit that they dumped in the open field in front of their colony,” she recalls..“I am ashamed to write now that apart from worrying about getting ringworm from the pork I ate every day at their house (the pigs fed on the shit thrown in the field), I had no thought twice about their work and their nature. . ' with Wilson and other members of the SKA in 2001 made her realize that 'like every other privileged Hindu caste in society I was complicit in forcing the manual scavengers to clean up the mess by 'ignoring' it.India stinksoffered as penance.

Both books are driven by the anger of savarnas who defend the caste system and the admiration – and solidarity – of those who try to end it, namely Safai Karamhari. Shame and self-mockery, while unavoidable, are kept to a minimum, with plenty of room for working-class narratives and political analysis designed to rouse the savannas from their amoral slumber. Singh and Ramaswamy aspire to renounce their caste's privilege and complicity, though they know full well they can never fully do so. In other words, they speak for the abstract "civil society" and denounce other abstractions such as "Hinduism" and the "caste system."

However, this leaves a fundamental question open. How can we accept the fact that Dalits live and die in the deserts of the savannah? Philosopher Gopal Guru clarifies the real problem of the question in his essay "Archaeology of Untouchability", which argues that untouchability is not a response to something external, but rather a practice developed by savarnas to deal with the disturbing consciousness of their own physical filth. .20“All organic bodies contain negative properties such as sweat, secretions, urine, mucus and gases,” he writes. “The organic body as a source of impurity suggests a kind of ontological equality – that every body is dirty, both morally and materially.” Unwilling to accept their physicality, the savarnas have entrusted the dirt to Dalits, who are forced to physically dispose of the waste produced by the savarnas and serve as a symbolic dumping ground for the pollution they perceive in and around them. The guru quotes anti-caste intellectual Vital Ramji Sidde: "Avato is a kind of repulsive feeling, a kind of nausea, which is deeply rooted in the depths of the Brahmanical mind."

One of the rare interiors photographed by Sudharak Olwe is in the home of a Safai Karamchari family. Close to the floor, Olwe's lens examines what appears to be the master bedroom—perhaps the only one—where a slender wooden crib rests against the wall. Bare-chested, Safai Karamchari sits on the bed next to a rolled-up mattress and pillows, while a woman, possibly his wife, plays with a baby on the floor below. On the wall are a few photographs: a calendar illustrated with a Hindu deity; a portrait of the man-god Shirdi Sai Baba. and another much larger portrait, framed and decorated, by Ambedkar. Together, the forefather of the Dalit movement and his unnamed disciple look at the viewer, past and present, asking questions that we had no answers then and no answers now.


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