There is Nothing ‘Spiritual’ in Cleaning Sewage and Carrying Human Excreta

  • September 27, 2018

In his book Karmayog, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks of manual scavenging as a ‘spiritual experience’. He gives this sermon even while manual scavenging is banned by law in India. At least one person dies every day while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. Besides risk to human health and life the occupation employing thousands of people from the lowest of the lows in caste hierarchy is a symbol of indignity of human labour and human existence, writes Akash Bhattacharya.


On 25th September a protest was organized by Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organization highlighting the issues of manual scavengers and their rights, at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. The protest was organized as a response to recent deaths in DLF Capital Greens, a residential estate of West Delhi, where 5 sewage workers – Vishal, Umesh, Raja, Pankaj and Sarfaraz (all aged between 22-30 years) – died while cleaning a sewage treatment plant. On 16 September, Hindustan Times reports the death of 5 people in Jashpur district of Chhattisgarh. Among the deceased were Badu Tam (60), Paramjeet Paikra (19) and two workers Ramjeevan Ram (35) and Ishwar Sai (40) who were there to repair the newly constructed septic tank. The deceased included the house owner’s wife, Savitri (45), who went to check why the workers did not return.


According to SKA data, even after enactment of ‘Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’, almost one sanitation worker died a day in 2017. That’s over 300 cases of deaths due to manual scavenging. Bezwara Wilson, Convener of the SKA, mentions that this is still incomplete data.


While manual scavenging was outlawed in 1993, the cleaning of sewers and septic tanks was decided to be ‘perilous’ only as recently as 2013, in the amended Act. According to this amendment, the employment of manual scavengers, the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment, has been prohibited. The Act also recommends rehabilitation of manual scavengers by providing them with alternative employment and it was for this very reason that the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) was established to identify manual scavengers as the government announced compensation and rehabilitation for such workers.


In a recent survey, NSKFDC counted as many as 53,236 manual scavengers in India, which shows a four-fold increase when compared to the 13,000 sewage workers accounted for in 2017. A report by NewsClick clearly points out that the figures are gross under-estimation “as the data is collected only from 121 out of 600 districts. The survey is yet to be conducted in Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Telangana and West Bengal. However, various flaws and reports of inefficiency in conducting the survey have been reported from various states.  Moreover, the survey excluded cleaning of sewers and septic tanks, and manual scavengers in the Indian Railways – the largest employer of manual scavengers.” SKA’s data reveals there are 26,00,000 dry latrine cleaners, 7,70,000 sewer cleaners, and 36,176 Railway cleaners in the country.


Health Issues, safety equipments and categorization of work


The only time the stories of manual scavengers make it to the headlines of national newspapers is when they die. The death of five manual scavengers in West Delhi raises some important questions. As per reports, one of the workers entered the sewage treatment plant and did not return. The second person went in to check and he did not return as well and the others followed similar suit. The lack of safety equipment like gloves, boots, proper safety belt, mask, etc., has been a recurring problem in many of these deaths. Despite a Supreme Court directive in 2011 asking the Government to provide for these essential protective equipments and improve standards of the workplace, the situation continues as before. The death also highlights another chronic problem – the lack of training to handle such emergency conditions. Scavenging work in the aspiring “Vishwaguru” India is still not mechanized, and the manual scavengers here come under ‘unskilled labour’ category. This is when mechanized cleaning of sewage has been recognized as a highly skilled job across the globe, a job that requires a lot of training. Caste structure in India has however kept scavenging job as a manual task, preventing what should have been a simple technology transfer, and reserved such work as a caste profession.


Sewage workers also suffer from chronic ailments and injuries. The sewer gases include hydrogen sulphide, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide in high concentrations. The VOC meters should be used to measure concentrations of the gases before the workers enter the sewage pits, but such instruments are hardly made available. The methods in practice are to check if there are cockroaches in the drain or to light up match sticks to ensure the presence of oxygen in these death pits. It is needless to say that these are insufficient means. Even the first gush of the cocktail of poisonous gases, while opening the sewage, is enough to kill a person. According to the report Down the Drain, sewage workers suffer from hepatitis, leptospirosis and helicobacter, skin problems, respiratory system problems and altered pulmonary function parameters. Medical examinations are irregular and often exclude a lot of workers. The report adds, “they (the sewage cleaners) are unaware of the outcome of their medical examination. Their medical examination does not correspond to the type of work they are doing. The generic medical examinations devoid of occupational history, specific examination to diagnose occupational diseases without sharing the results with the stakeholders, or counseling of the workers are part of eyewash to complete the paper work to comply with the Supreme Court orders.”

Police and Government Response


In the recent killing of DLF Greens, Monika Bhardwaj, DCP (West), was quoted by The Hindu as saying “We have registered a case under IPC Section 304-A (for causing death by negligence) and other relevant sections. It has been found that they were not provided safety belts or masks while being lowered into the tank.” Following these deaths SKA is mounting pressure on the Delhi and Central Governments to act on this matter. The Delhi Social Welfare Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam said, as quoted by the TOI, “In case of death of an individual entering a sewer line or septic tank, the person in-charge of the cleaning work will face charges under IPC Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and not 304A (causing death by negligence).” It is a routine practice of the police, in these deaths, to register cases under 304A. Appropriate laws such as the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act of 2013 are hardly invoked. In cases when the sanitation worker involved is a Dalit, the practice of manual scavenging also violates the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 with its amendments of 2015. The person in-charge of cleaning is hard to determine, as in most cases the manual scavengers do not have any identity cards. So firstly they do not have any recognition as a manual scavenger and secondly many workers have never seen their contractors. The police mostly identify the most vulnerable person in this, and book them under Section 304-A.

The Delhi Government’s alleged search for long term solution by employing sewage workers in Municipalities would be interesting to monitor. In 2013, talking about the condition of manual scavenging in West Bengal, Vidya Bhusan Rawat told Dalit Camera that the CPI(M) government during their rule too had brought them under municipalities. The state government replaced the term Safai Karmachari with a new term – New Resident Methar. The left front government claimed that opening up municipal positions for  manual scavenging has led to the employment of people from other castes into the occupation. Rawat mentions that in many cases these municipal jobs were taken up by the upper castes, OBCs and other non-manual scavenging Dalit communities. But in most such cases these people paid a part of their salary to the manual scavenging workers to outsource the work – this he terms as absentee manual scavenging. He adds that the same thing is prevalent in other parts of India; when Mayawati government opened up government positions for manual scavenging, same thing happened there too.


The Valmiki Community is one of the ‘lowest’ castes in the Hindu social order whose primary occupation, as scriptured by the Hindu order, is cleaning of toilets, latrines and sewages. The rigid caste structure ensures that they are not provided with any other employment opportunity. Critiquing the Central Government’s role, Bezwara Wilson writes,

In his book, Karmayog, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks of manual scavenging as a ‘spiritual experience’. I urge him to ask a manual scavenger if s/he feels even remotely spiritual while cleaning other people’s excreta, whether the daily round feels like a pilgrimage. Without exception, they do it because there is no option, no alternative employment for those born into castes identified with scavenging. It’s this kind of ‘spiritual’ whitewash that prevents the government from allocating money for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. Even the little that is allocated is squandered on government departments’ organized seminars, on forming committees and surveys. The government can allocate Rs 2 lakh crore for a sanitation campaign to build toilets. Most such toilets have pits or septic tanks. The target to build 50 million toilets means 50 million pits. Who will clean these? Valmikis, no doubt?


In a reply to an RTI filed by The Wire, it was revealed that the present government since they have been in power, has not allocated any fund for manual scavengers till September 2017. The ‘spiritual’ white wash of the most undignified job in human history, by the Prime Minister, is just an attempt to hide the oppressive casteist stigma associated with cleaning of sewages. The Varna system of Hinduism has ensured a complete ghettoisation and ostracisation of sewage cleaners. Their issues and rights hardly find any mention even in so-called democratic movements. The grade hierarchy of caste system also ensures that they remain the most marginalized even among Dalits. The worst off are the children and women. Over 70% of the labour carrying faeces are women. Though some of the men workers have made into municipality jobs, the condition of women workers remain unchanged. The children born and brought up in designated slums have almost no access to electricity, drinking water, toilets etc. Education is a distant dream. The stigma of ‘untouchability’ associated with the occupation ensures every day humiliation and discrimination right from their childhood. Several legislations been made but all of it stays on paper. Deep rooted caste prejudice in the ruling class and society in general, has made it impossible to look for alternatives to such dehumanized and undignified labour practice. The long standing demand to mechanize the work and ending the caste based occupation has been forced to remain outside the purview of the State.

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