The Unbearable Stench Of Caste

Would you want your child to grow up inside a toilet? For manual scavengers, the sewer life is all-pervasive.
Jagdish earns Rs 4,500 a month by cleaning blocked sewers

Pintu lowers himself into a manhole and struggles for a toehold in waist-deep filth. As the grey-green discharge envelops his legs, a look of pain settles on his face. He quickly gets to work with a shovel. Bare-handed and barefoot, he dredges putrefied refuse converging here from toilets in Rohini, a settlement in north-west Delhi.

Each time Pintu bends to scrape more waste off the pit’s bottom, he frowns as if he is in agony. Indeed, his work is a kind of torture but not many in India think so. For isn’t it ordained by his caste?

Manual scavenging—any task where a person comes in contact with human excrement—is banned by a 2013 law. Yet it continues unchecked, with official collusion. Yes, right in the heart of the national capital too. An informal survey conducted in July identified 286 manual scavengers like Pintu still working in Delhi. Officially, though, they do not exist.

Long after India’s 12 lakh scavengers have washed off a day’s work and kept their sticks and brooms aside, the taint of having come in contact with garbage—human waste, in particular—sticks to them. “I would do anything but this work,” says Pintu, “if only I can find another job.”

All manual scavengers bear a heavy burden—that of keeping India clean. And most, like Pintu, are Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy. Three years ago, Pintu worked in his brother’s factory, stitching leather footwear. But the brother went broke and Pintu started looking for other work. That’s when he bumped into his current boss, Dilawar, a strapping man in his mid-40s. “Dilawar taught me sewer work,” says Pintu, reminiscing. “I went on a few rounds and saw it fetches Rs 500-700. I overcame my hesitation about entering manholes then, but I regret it now. I won’t let my children do it.”

Ashok, 50, works in Delhi’s unauthorised colonies as a manual scavenger. In his youth, he tried everything out there—right from property broking to fish farming. Nothing clicked. His partner in the fishing ­enterprise was an old friend from his village in Jhajjar, Haryana. But the friend tricked him out of his money. He switched to striking property deals in Gurgaon. “Income from property was too erratic to sustain a family,” says Ashok. “Clients cut independent deals and I regularly lost my brokerage.” He ended up a manual scavenger, learning the ropes from a nephew—not out of choice but after both the market and personal contacts had failed him.

“Certain menial tasks are clearly and systematically allocated to certain caste groups,” says Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), an organisation that works for the eradication of manual scavenging. “Once allocated, nobody thinks about these tasks anymore. Does anybody wonder who stitched their slippers or who cleaned their streets?”


Kishan lives in a toilet complex with his family


What Wilson is referring to is the willed amnesia, the indifference towards caste oppression, a key reason why India—an infotech “superpower”—hasn’t developed a single technology to ferry dead animals to be skinned. This task is ‘assigned’ to a Dalit subcaste, and so conditions of employment or renumeration are all but forgotten.

Nor has sanitation been mechanised, even in the capital city. That role is ‘allotted’ to another Dalit subcaste. Cities, too, are planned top down—first, houses are built, then drainage thrown in, as an aft­erthought. “Our cities reflect our casteism,” says Wilson. “Everybody knows, without having to think about it, that refuse will be taken care of. Who does this? Nobody cares if it’s the Dalits.”

In India today, there are over seven lakh sanitation workers,. Nearly all of them are Dalits. They haven’t discarded tradition-­ascribed roles such as skinning, tanning, leather-stitching and sanitation as other employment is systematically denied to the ‘lower’ castes.

“Would anyone from another caste do this work?” asks Kishan, who manages a public toilet.
Delhi is among the states that have consistently denied the ­existence of manual scavenging and scavengers. The others include Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The practice persists, but often in secluded Dalit colonies, or the work takes place during the wee hours while the towns and urban villages sleep. Social segregation along caste lines exacerbates the neglect in a structural sense, for it shelters other castes from having to confront ‘impure’ waste—not even one’s own.

“Would anyone from another caste do this work?” asks Kishan, who manages a public toilet near Model Town’s swanky metro station, a stone’s throw from the local police station. Located in a slum too crowded to build drains in, the toilet’s waste simply accumulates in a tank that has to be cleaned manually at regular intervals. “It’s awful,” he says. “I enter the sewage pit and pull dirt with my hands. It’s especially terrible to handle what women throw into the toilets.”


Sanitation workers cleaning railway tracks


Kishan’s work, which earns him a mon­thly wage of Rs 9,500, is physically and emotionally exhausting. The toilet, meant to cater to a community of 2,000 slum-dwellers, opens at 5 am and the loc­als want it running until past midnight. He has to spend a part of his wages on implements, phenyl and acid to keep the place clean. He lives in the toilet with his family, but spends Rs 2,000 more to hire a room in the slum where they can cook and eat. His mind is always on the sewer below the toilet, for nobody knows when it will overflow. When it does, he will clamber underground, pulling out waste, one stinking pile at a time.

Kishan’s parents worked as manual scavengers and now, despite his best efforts, his children seem to be losing interest in school. “A toilet is no place for a child to be growing up,” he says. “I definitely don’t want them to be in my kind of work.”

Jagdish is known to all in Jehangirpuri’s small-scale industry area. After all, ‘Jaggi’ is the one who cleans its blocked sewers, with two other workers. His contractor, also named Jagdish, handed Jaggi the job—they call it “private” work, a neat way for contractors to slip past the ban on manual scavenging.

For Rs 4,500, Jaggi wades knee-deep into industrial slush mixed with human waste from septic tanks. He does occ­asional private jobs too. His refuge is a tea shop, whose owner lets him stay there. His family is just a half-hour’s bus ride away, on Mall Road opposite Delhi University, but he cannot afford the Rs 30 daily bus fare, so meets his family only on festivals.

Jaggi dropped out of school in Class 8. That was the best his parents, also manual scavengers, could manage in their circumstances. But Jaggi today wants his two children to study and break this vicious cycle. An imagined future. The past is clearer. As a cleaner at Pashupati Spinning in Connaught Place a decade ago, he had a uniform and salary. Now, he tackles everything the iron and chemical works can throw at him with no protective gear. Jaggi’s skin is peeling and a white patina of chemical burns has ­deposited itself all over. “I burned myself several times with acid in the drains. Now I don’t do acid-waala kaam,” he says. “There is nobody to speak up for us, though.” And not even an official acknowledgement that people like him exist.