Caste, Power and Politics



A study of the operation of the Safai Karmi Scheme of the Uttar Pradesh government reveals the apparent weakening of the age-old link between caste and occupation, with Other Backward Classes and even upper castes competing with Scheduled Castes to secure the job of a sanitation worker in villages. Another significant fact which comes to the fore, is the struggle for power in the safai karmi unions between OBC and the numerically superior SC workers, with the former trying to establish their dominance, reflecting the nature of caste politics at play in the state.

Tulika Tripathi ([email protected]) teaches economics at the Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar.


Lewisian transformation suggests transfer of excess rural/agricultural labour to urban/industrial sector. This mobility has been considered as a necessary condition for development and structural transformation of hitherto stagnant economies and societies. In a way, mobility of labour across sectors (horizontal as well vertical mobility) is a precondition for development. Here the question asked is how far this mobility has been restricted by the caste system. It is true that post-independence India has witnessed a social churning facilitated by the constitution, the legal framework, policies and economic growth.

The old link between caste and occupation has been weakened. Now Brahmins do not necessarily carry out religious duties, and Vaishyas are not necessarily into trade. We also observe many Scheduled Castes (SCs) going into territories, which were earlier reserved for upper caste groups. But this mobility is seen largely in castes other than SCs, and whatever little mobility is observed within the SC community is confined to the better off SCs. It also needs to be pointed out that Other Backward Classes (OBCs), a relatively newer category, has acquired economic and political significance in the last few decades.

This picture of labour mobility is further complicated by the fact that skill content of work is rising, and wages now critically depend on skill content on demand as well as its supply. While there is a large supply of unskilled or semi-skilled labour, demand for such labour is shrinking. In a way, there is excess supply of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the labour market. Skill formation is a function of investment in human capital, and naturally the excess labour force is constituted of lower income groups. Public sector jobs, which  are highly sought after, are shrinking. The Safai Karmi Scheme of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government should be examined against this backdrop.

Under the scheme, the post of safai karmi (sanitation worker) at the panchayat level has been created by the state government to ensure cleanliness of a village. This scheme is a classic case where linkage between occupation and caste has been clearly broken. Though historically sanitation work has been undertaken by SCs, a tussle has been witnessed among various caste groups to secure jobs offered under the scheme, as they come with job security and all other benefits associated with government employment.

With the changing economic situation, caste lines are melting in the labour market (Gang, Sen and Yon 2012, Banerjee et. al 2009). Upper castes and OBCs have taken up jobs offered under the Safai Karmi Scheme just because they are government jobs (Tripathi 2012). In a reply to a question on why this menial job was coveted, the respondent (a Brahmin) said that “a private company doesn’t give this much salary. Very few holidays are given and there is no job security”. This statement shows the premium attached to a government job. Whatever be the nature of job, everybody is ready to take it up.

Perhaps today, discrimination at work cannot be linked to caste identities anymore. Economic liberalisation and tightening of the job market has blurred caste lines. A study by Gang, Sen and Yun (2012), which uses data from Employment and Unemployment surveys of National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) 50th round, shows that after 1991 SCs have progressed more than upper castes and OBCs. A study by Banerjee et al (2009) in their field survey of information and technology (IT) industries in Delhi region finds no discrimination in the labour market. In a way, liberalisation  has put a premium on skill and knowledge.

This paper examines the above mentioned facts in the context of the Safai Karmi Scheme in UP by carrying out field interviews with safai karmis, their leaders and concerned officials in Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh (UP). It is shown that caste and its related politics are at the core of the scheme, and the question of effective cleaning of villages has been relegated to the background. Qualitative data has been used to understand these issues. Section 2 deals with caste politics among SC and OBC safai karmis. Section 3 provides some general information about working condition of safai karmis, and section 4 examines caste and discrimination within safai karmis. Section 5 concludes the whole discussion.

Caste Politics and Safai Karmi Scheme

Appointment Procedure: This scheme is a brainchild of the previous Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government in UP and was initiated in 2008, seeking to cater to the Dalitsits primary vote bank. Given the caste dynamics in the state, it was assumed that no other castes would join the fray and that is why the recruitment process was tailored in a way to ensure that the principal beneficiaries were Dalits. Initially, the scheme was announced for SCs, but under pressure from other castes and in consideration of the existing labour laws, it was opened up for other caste groups with the applicability of reservation rules.

The then BSP government expected that either non-SCs will not apply, or even if they do so, they would not be able to get through the selection process and somehow if they get through, they would not join. A candidate had to apply in a particular district and that meant that his/her posting would take place within that district only. But applications came from all caste groups.

All applicants were called to the district headquarter, and two types of tests were administered. One was a personal interview by the district panchayati raj officer (DPRO) and his team, and the second was a practical test. The second test constituted entering into deep sewer lines, cleaning of roads and a bicycle race. A substantial percentage of upper caste candidates did not appear in the second test when they came to know the nature of the test. However, our field interviews hinted that some upper caste and OBC candidates did manage to clear the first and second test through their economic and political clout; and in many cases, they did not even not appear for the second test.

However, if we look at the nature of work, these jobs should have ideally gone to the community of scavengers. In fact, under the caste system, scavengers do not even fall under the SC category; they are  outcastes or Ati-shudras. But under the reservation system they are clubbed under the SC category. In our earlier study (Tripathi 2012), we find merely 1%  of them got these jobs. However, in the present survey of Varanasi district, we did not find even a single safai karmi from this caste group to interview.

Interestingly, the new Samajwadi Party (SP) government, which came into power in 2012, initially did not pay attention to this scheme. This was only natural given the economic and political tussle between SCs and OBCs in the state. Any attempt to promote this scheme was against the political interests of the SP. No further appointments have been made in the last couple of years, though a number of posts are lying vacant. In the Sewapuri block of Varanasi district, there are around 230 posts out of which around 120 are lying vacant, as reported by the block officer of Sewapuri. In our survey, it was found that nearly all SC safai karmis voted for the BSP in the 2012 assembly elections in UP.

Unionisation of Safai Karmis: The caste politics and inherent caste dynamics in UP are clearly seen in the unionisation efforts of safai karmis. In fact, after the emergence of the SP government, the union of safai karmis started passing into the hands of OBCs from SCs. The attempts to unionise started in 2010. Initially these attempts were local, and safai karmi unions were formed in a couple of blocks of Varanasi district. There was no voting, and office bearers were selected largely on the basis of consensus.

At that point of time, the scheme was in its early stages and clear cut guidelines for implementing it were missing. The appointments were politically motivated and were hastily made without doing the necessary home work. The rules for transfers and postings were not formulated, and there was chaos accompanied by corruption. The primary motive for unionisation was to ensure timely and regular payment of salary. The early union leadership essentially emerged from SCs. This leadership was supported and encouraged by the local BSP leadership, as the whole scheme was positioned as a gift of the then Chief Minister Mayawati to the Dalits of UP. However, things started changing, when the BSP government was replaced by the SP government in 2012.

The Safai Karmchari Association is formed at the block level, and the chosen representatives at the block level go on to elect office bearers at the district level. The block association office bearers are directly elected and district level office bearers are indirectly elected. The district association is registered as a member of Uttar Pradesh Çhaturth Vargiya Karmchari Maha Sangh (UP Fourth Class Employees Association).

The union elections in eight blocks of Varanasi district were announced in August 2014 for posts of president, vice-president, treasurer and general secretary. All elected office bearers, except one, were either OBC or SC. Table 1 shows that in elections held between 2012-2013 in blocks of Varanasi district, 4 SC and 4 OBC presidents were returned. In the 2014 election, 3 SC, 4 OBC and 1 Brahmin presidents were elected. It was observed that this was the only post for which an upper caste candidate contested. Upper castes’ participation in the election process was otherwise marginal.  Another point to be noted is that while out of 4 OBC presidents, 2 were re-elected, none from the SC community were re-elected. According to our observation, the newly elected SC presidents were those who were in close coordination with OBCs.

A similar kind of pattern can be observed in elections to the three other posts. In the current elections, the number of posts occupied by SC as compared to the previous elections was reduced and OBCs’ representation went up. An estimate based on responses of safai karmacharis show that though 55 to 60% of safai karmis were SCs, they obtained fewer positions than earlier. Whereas OBC safai karmis, who are only 25 to 30% of the workforce, dominated the elections.

If we see the percentage of SC and OBC elected members in relation to their respective numbers in the workforce, it is lower for SCs and higher for OBCs. In a way, OBCs are overly represented as compared to their share in the electorate. The numerically strong SCs were marginalised and the whole election process was controlled by OBCs. Even many elected SC office bearers were supported and controlled by OBCs.

Caste-wise Distribution of Office Bearers
PresidentElections held between 2012-2013440
Elections held in 2014341
Vice-PresidentElections held between 2012-2013440
Elections held in 2014710
TreasurerElections held between 2012-2013710
Elections held in 2014260
General SecretaryElections held between 2012-2013440
Elections held in 2014530
TotalElections held between 2012-201319130
Elections held in 201417141


Approximate Caste-wise Composition of Safai Karmis
55-65 %SCs
25-35 %OBC
10 to 5 %General

This dominance of OBCs at the district level union is quite apparent as well. The election officer and secretary are SC and the rest of the positions are occupied by OBCs (Table 3). During our observation of the election process, it came became evident that OBCs were playing a much larger role than the SCs. At the block level election in Cholapur in Varanasi district, the district coordinator (Yadav-OBC) announced the name of the candidates for the four posts. Then these names were put before the members. They verbally approved the list without any discussion or voting, though Cholapur is dominated by SC safai karmis.

Caste of Some Key Functionaries
Election OfficerSC
State Vice-PresidentGupta (OBC)
District PresidentGupta (OBC)
District CoordinatorYadav (OBC)
SecretarySonkar (SC)


The above analysis shows the emergence of OBC leadership in safai karmi unions. At present, the state level association of safai karmis is controlled by the SP. This association successfully organised a massive rally of safai karmis in Lucknow and presented its demands to the government. This movement was coordinated and led by the OBC leadership of safai karmis at the district as well the state level. There is pressure from OBC groups on the SP government to make the safai karmis permanent and place them directly under the state government (at the moment they are managed under the panchayati raj system). The present SP government has accepted many of their demands in principle. One important thing that this government has done is to provide confirmation letters to these workers to make them permanent. This can be attributed to the fact that a large number of OBCs are largely SP supporters.

Work Conditions 

Since our first visit to the field in 2010, a number of changes have taken place in the working conditions of safai karmis. Salaries have been regularised, and they have been issued confirmation letters. The provident fund is also now being deducted from their salaries. Earlier they were only posted in their own villages, but now they can be transferred anywhere in the block. Whenever there is any function in a village or an urban centre within the district, safai karmis from different block are pooled and taken to that place to clean it. Most of the safai karmis reported that four to five times in a month they have to go to other places for cleaning.

Those who are educated can be attached to the block office to do clerical work. Attachment to a block office also relieves them from cleaning work, and at times it is sought after, as it helps them in developing a social network. During our visit to the Sewapuri block of Varanasi district, we found three safai karmis who were permanently attached to the block office for clerical work. While we were there, all safai karmis of the Sewapuri block were pooled and sent to Sikhari and Nahvanipur village to clean it, as there was an announcement that these two villages might be visited by the local member of Parliament (MP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was observed that two safai karmis were not cleaning but were monitoring and co-coordinating the work of others. Incidentally, these two safai karmis were OBCs. In a response to a question regarding improvement of  job conditions after coming into power of the SP government, the response of OBC safai karmis was generally positive, but SC safai karmis were a bit skeptical.

Caste, Occupation and Discrimination

During our survey of safai karmis conducted in Varanasi district, we found that economic considerations overshadowed the traditional caste-based hierarchy in occupation. Shrinking government jobs, flexible labour laws and job crunch in the state have compelled upper castes and OBCs to accept menial jobs, which are traditionally meant to be performed by SCs. Having accepted these jobs, they are now faced with discrimination and ridicule.

From our interviews with the upper caste safai karmis, we gathered that they had lost their status in their community due to the nature of their job. Many of them were embarrassed about their work. At times they were subjected to mockery by other castes for doing this dirty work. One Brahmin safai karmi was taunted by his SC co-workers – “let Pandey have a saw (an instrument for cleaning)”. Another brahmin safai karmi said that when he was on the job people were shocked and gathered around to see him working.

Some OBC safai karmis also shared incidents about such discrimination. One instance is worth narrating here. We had invited two OBC respondents for an interview at the house of an upper caste family. There they were offered tea, but other OBCs present there refused to drink tea with their fellow caste men because of the type of job they were doing. Such discrimination based on occupational hierarchy is discussed by Thorat & Umakant (2004). The survey of safai karmis reveals that this kind of discrimination cannot be addressed in a conventional sense and an interplay between caste, class and education has to be taken into account.

Experiences from the field in this regard are presented in a summary form in Table 4. One safai karmi, a SC graduate aged 34 years, said that “there is reduction in caste-based discrimination especially in this job”. Another SC safai karmi said that “we even tease the upper caste people”. One needs to keep in mind that this particular job involves cleaning of public areas, which includes toilets and sewerage in villages. In this job, the person is expected to do work, which earlier was out of question for an OBC or upper caste person to undertake. There is a specific community in SC which used to perform this polluted job and was considered outcaste (Nigam 2014). But now people from all castes are ready to undertake sanitation work. It is ironical that people from upper caste who discriminated against people on the basis of the impure work principle are doing the same dirty work.

Classification of responses of the upper caste, educated SC and OBC safai karmis from families where one or more person was in government service revealed a loss in their social stature due to their job. A postgraduate SC, with one brother in the police service, said that “initially my family members were not happy with me because of joining this job. My brother asked me to resign from this job as it will insult us socially. Initially, I used to cover my face while working, because I felt shy to be recognised in public while doing this job”. Many SC safai karmis said that it was good that they were not posted in their own villages; at least people could not see what they did for a living. Interestingly, responses of educated SCs and OBCs were the same as those of upper castes.

In contrast, responses of illiterate or semi-literate SC safai karmis showed that their position had improved after getting this job. Poor SC women and those above 40 years of age mentioned improvement in their social status. A SC woman safai karmi said “Log ab shadi byah me puchate hain” (people give importance to me during weddings and social events).


Interplay between Caste, Class and Education
Indicators of ChangeDirection of ChangeCaste
1. Change in StatusSocially downward after joining.OBCs, SC Graduates, Brahmin and those below 35 years.
Improvement in social status.SC
2. Job SatisfactionIntend to continueSCs and OBCs above 35 years with little or no education
Trying other optionsEducated from all Castes


When respondents were asked for reasons behind taking up sanitation work, the response of everyone was almost the same – that it was a government job, it will get permanent and that they will get promoted. However, in terms of information about the job and associated benefits, people from upper castes were better informed than other caste groups. It is interesting to note that educated SCs and upper castes harboured similar sentiments regarding the nature of their job.

During the survey it was observed that how the caste of the safai karmi determined his relationship with the gram Pradhan, who he reported to. Given the political scenario in UP, most gram pradhans are either SCs or OBCs. If both the gram pradhan and the safai karmi are from the same caste, then the latter have smooth sailing, and if not the safai karmi can, at times, be at the receiving end. This is a typical of the present caste-based mobilisation of society in UP.

It was also observed that OBC gram pradhans treated upper castes, especially Brahmin, safai karmis, with respect, sometimes even allowing them  to outsource or sublet their work to someone else. Some safai karmis from upper castes reported that “Pradhan greets me even before I greet him” and that the “Pradhan also invites me to his personal functions”.

While the educated and young SCs have become more assertive, old and poor SCs still feel hopeless about their situation. An old SC safai karmi said that ”Nothing will change. Even if we become the district magistrate, a separate glass will be taken out for us and we would also have to clean it after using it”.


The Safai Karmi Scheme was launched in the state with a political motive and had little to do with cleaning of villages. The issue of village sanitation was secondary. Under the scheme, cleaning of villages has been reduced to cleaning just the local school and gram panchayat bhawan. The scheme has basically meant replacement of sweepers of village schools and gram panchayat bhawan by safai karmis. It can be seen as an extension of the state machinery at the village level along with Anganwadi worker and accredited social health activist (ASHA). This is not surprising as the whole scheme was not conceived with the right motive.

The scheme has become a battleground for different caste groups, especially the SCs and OBCs, with the latter trying to establish their dominance. This may have to do with change of government in UP. Moreover, upper caste safai karmis are mere spectators in the power game between SCs and OBCs. While they still enjoy old caste privilege, they have also become a subject of mockery. Though we can say that caste boundaries have melted in the workspace, they remain intact in the social arena. And caste politics among safai karmis, is only an extension of the prevailing caste polarisation in UP.


Banerjee Abhijit, Marianne Bertrand, Saugato Datta & Sendhil Mullainathan (2009): “Labor market discrimination in Delhi: Evidence from a field experiment”, Journal of Comparative Economics 37 (2009) 14–27.

Gang Ira, Kunal Sen & Myeong Su Yun, (2012): “Is Caste Destiny? Occupational Diversification among Dalits in Rural India,” Working Papers id: 4769, e Social Sciences.

Nigam D Dhamma (2014): “I, a Manual Scavenger, Not Your Vote Bank”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol – XLIX No. 41, October 11.

Tripathi Tulika (2012): “Safai Karmi Scheme of Uttar Pradesh Caste Dominance Continues”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol – XLVII No. 37, September 15.

Thorat Sukhdeo, Umakant (2004): “Caste, Race, and Discrimination: Discourses in International Context”, Rawat Publication, New Delhi.