Just before 7 am one morning in Mumbai, three men clearing a sewer pipe were overcome by deadly fumes and collapsed. Their deaths sparked a cat-and-mouse pursuit across India. Records show the bodies of the trio were rushed to an embalmer, where a certificate was issued declaring them safe for flying. Permissions were sought in their home state of Orissa. Within hours, a plane had taken off from Mumbai, bearing their remains, bound for the east Indian state. In a small office in central Delhi, a group of activists had been quietly tracking the bodies. One of their agents had watched the coffins being loaded onto the plane. An urgent message was sent to a member of their network in Orissa: get to the airport. Find those men. Chasing the remains of sewer cleaners across the country, and gathering post-mortem evidence to force their employers to pay compensation, has become regular work for the volunteers of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, or Sanitation Workers Movement.
‘Worse than slavery.’
For the past three years, the organisation has been recording every sewer death they can, stretching back three decades, to build a database many Indian lawmakers would prefer not exist. They are revealing the toll of what Indians call “manual scavenging,” one of deadliest occupations in the world, and starkest examples of the continuing blight of caste on millions of lives. Hundreds of thousands of Indians are still thought to make their living as scavengers, emptying dry toilets by hand, or cleaning septic tanks and sewers without protection. They belong overwhelmingly to a single community: the Valmiki caste, regarded as the very bottom of the intricate system that still governs who most Indians marry, what they eat – and who unclogs their sewers. This past year, more than 300 people are estimated to have died doing the work, including seven in the first seven days of 2018. “This is the most hazardous job,” says Bezwada Wilson, the leader of Safai Karmachari Andolan, whose own parents were manual scavengers. “It is the most undignified job, an inhuman, barbaric practice. It is worse than slavery.”
‘I am born to do this’
The sun has barely risen in Fatehpur Sikri, a small city south of Delhi when the veiled women gather carrying battered baskets and brooms. Manual scavenging in 2018 takes two forms, split along gender lines. Men clean sewers; women go house-to-house clearing waste from deep holes used as toilets. Khushba approaches the first of the 40-odd house she services with practised ease. “Get away, this is not clean,” she cautions, mouth and nose covered tightly by her scarf, as she douses the hole with fly ash and scoops its contents into her basket. She first learned she would become a scavenger six months after her marriage at age 17. “I felt sad in the beginning,” she said. “But there was poverty, and we had to fill the stomachs of our family. So there was no other option for me – I covered my nose and started doing it.”
Caste is governed by an obsession with purity. Traditionally, food or water touched by Dalits is considered to be spoiled; in extreme cases, even their shadows were regarded as polluting. This apartheid persists, even in Indian cities, severely limiting the work available to women such as Ladja, another manual scavenger. “Suppose I have money and open a shop,” she says, her face covered by a sheer veil. “Non-Valmiki people won’t buy from me. Suppose I want to be a cook. Nobody will let me enter their kitchen.”
Five hours’ drive from Fatehpur Sikri are the gleaming tower blocks of Gurgaon, a satellite city south of Delhi, home to multinationals, breweries and other badges of modern India. Deepak Valmiki moved to the city ten years ago looking for work. He knew that wherever he applied, there would be only one job available. “I am a cleaner,” he says, leaning on his motorcycle. “I am born to do this.” As India has modernised, so too has caste discrimination. Deepak owns a smartphone and wears aviator sunglasses. But at least twice a month, he is forced to enter the septic tank at the automotive factory where he works to clean it without protection. In September, three of his colleagues died at the bottom of a company tank. “It was a total chemical smell,” says Binesh, the only survivor. He entered the tank first and collapsed in seconds. The other three piled in after him, managing to secure a rope around his waist before they too succumbed. He was the only one pulled out alive. Incidents such as these spark call for compensation, but few Valmikis seriously question why they do this work, says Wilson. Part of what makes caste so stubborn is its divine sanction in the Hindu tradition. “It has been given legitimacy by the religion,” he says. Deepak thinks hard when asked if he should find another job. “I’m not very sure I could,” he finally says. “The people who are supposed to do a job should do that job only. I take it as my responsibility. I clean my country.”
Indian governments have passed several pieces of legislation outlawing manual scavenging, the first in 1955. But the gap between Indian law and what prevails on the ground is often vast. Nobody has ever been convicted for using scavenger labour. India’s rail ministry is thought to be the country’s largest employer of manual scavengers, employing thousands of Valmikis to clear excrement and rubbish flushed from trains. Most are informally hired at arm’s length by contractors. “Recruiters, contractors, they know whom to ask,” says Ashif Shaikh, a human rights activist. “They will go to where the Valmikis stay and ask them to clean the tracks.”
Through their investigations, the team at the Safai Karmachari Andolan have documented more than 1,500 scavenger deaths since 1993. “And that’s a low estimate,” Wilson adds. “We think each year it is not less than 500.” A flagship promise by the Narendra Modi government to build toilets for every Indian offers hope for liberating some scavengers. Robotic technology is also being trialled in Kerala state to automate the work. But activists say a lasting solution will come in the form of women such as Ladkunwar. Four years ago, she too wielded a basket and broom to clean latrines in Rasulpur, her village near Agra. Until one morning, when she felt overcome by the truth of her work. “I was carrying someone else’s faeces on my head,” she says. “I sat down with many sisters and started encouraging them that we had to leave this job.” One-by-one, Valmiki women in Rasulpur began to leave the profession. It took four years to eradicate it. Many still struggle to make an alternative living. “There are lots of jobs we are not allowed to do. There is still a taint,” Ladkunwar says. But there is also something new in the eyes of the other villagers. “Respect,” she says. “Now if someone forces me to clean their toilet, I will lift up my slipper and hit them.”
Credit: Michael Safi for The Guardian, 4 March 2018.