We Are All Complicit in the Institutional Murders of Dalit Sanitation Workers

It is not as though people don't know that septic tanks and manholes are deathtraps, yet manual scavenging continues.

An Indian labourer looks on as he repairs a manhole in Mumbai September 14, 2005. Credit: Reuters

An Indian labourer looks on as he repairs a manhole in Mumbai. Credit: Reuters

It is not because of some random accidents that sanitation workers and labourers are dying all over India. They do not fall into the septic tanks and manholes because they are negligent; they are sent in to clean them by people who know the dangers. They do not accidentally inhale poisonous gases; they are sent inside septic tanks and manholes without any protective gear. These tanks and manholes are a deathtrap – one into which we routinely send workers, thereby gambling with their lives. We have to accept that our state is deliberately killing these labourers and that it has killed 51 sanitation workers in 91 days.

As a society, we cannot claim that we did not know this work is fatal. We knew when the 1993 Act abolished manual scavenging. We still knew when a new Act had to be brought around in 2013 because the previous one could not do anything to end manual scavenging. We knew that the Act makes it criminal to let any worker who is without necessary protection to clean human waste, be it in septic tanks, sewer lines, open drains, dry toilets, railway tracks or open areas. We also knew when Bezwada Wilson, an anti-manual scavenging activist and founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, won the Ramon Magsaysay Award last year. The problem of manual scavenging in India was then discussed on big international platforms. Even our government, which claimed that no manual scavenging happens in India, was found to be wrong in the Supreme Court in 2014 and ordered to take strict actions to end the practice. The government knows, the people know. But the deathtrap continues.

As often as every second day, a fellow citizen is dying. Yet all we care about is keeping the (financial) cost of cleaning our sewers and septic tanks at the bare minimum – no matter if this means risking someone’s life. We spend days debating the deaths at our borders, but conveniently ignore the murders we commit on a daily basis.

Valuing lives

In economics, the value of a life is defined as the cost of preventing a death as well as the cost of maintaining a quality life. It seems, then, that the value of the lives of sanitation workers is close to zero in the eyes of our state and central governments.

Photo essay: Where There Are No Sewers – The Toilet Cleaners of Lucknow

Most sanitation work in the country has been contractualised. That way, the government can easily circumvent the labour laws which ensure the security and welfare of workers. Sanitation workers aren’t provided with health benefits, provident funds, pension funds or life insurance facilities – things many of us enjoy and take for granted. Without any economic guarantees or safety nets, it becomes even more challenging for sanitation workers to come out of their dangerous and dehumanising job. They are rarely even granted the loans they need to start up small businesses. (Of course, loans alone do not ensure the success of ventures. There are many incidences of sanitation workers quitting their businesses because of casteism, for instance.)

It is a casteist mindset that allows people engaged in one of the riskiest jobs to continue without any benefits, not even health benefits. Also, the drastic cut in the Union budget for rehabilitation of manual scavengers to the current Rs 5 crore from about Rs 500 crore in 2013 says a lot about the low value our government places on the lives of manual scavengers. The government has made the life of a sanitation worker an impossibility, and death a certainty.

Death, designed by Hinduism

Manual scavenging, in which members of select Dalit communities manually remove human waste, is far from new in the subcontinent. How? Because the caste system not only allowed it, it actively encouraged it.

While the caste system results in the absolute exploitation and exclusion of those at the bottom of the hierarchy, it has also meant complete authority and impunity for those at the top. The privileged castes not only keep reaping rewards of all sorts from the exploitation of oppressed castes, but they are also saved from having to do dangerous and demeaning jobs themselves.

The value of a life decreases as we look down the caste hierarchy, going all the way to zero. Hindu society, which considers manual scavenging ‘polluting’ but still depends on it for its sanitation needs, has used caste privilege to force Dalit communities into the dehumanising practice. So-called sacred texts have been used to impose jobs such as handling waste and dead bodies of all kinds on Dalits. The system is no less than a Hinduism-approved system of bonded slavery. The hierarchies continue over generations, leaving little room for escape.

Manual scavenging is still a grim reality in India. Courtesy: Safai Karamchari Andolan

Manual scavenging is still a grim reality in India. Courtesy: Safai Karamchari Andolan

Why celebrate a religion which helps keep Dalits powerless and marginalised by denying them any education, property, dignity or alternative livelihoods? It helps tag one section of our society as ‘untouchable’ and keep them out of the private lives, homes and social circles of Hindus. As B.R. Ambedkar said,

On the basis of the economic relations a building is erected of religious, social and political institutions. This building has just as much truth (reality) as the base. If we want to change the base, then first the building that has been constructed on it has to be knocked down. In the same way, if we want to change the economic relations of society, then first the existing social, political and other institutions will have to be destroyed.

Society is making sure that the caste system does not collapse. It tries to keep sanitation workers dependent on their caste-sanctioned job, the only job it offers them. It tries to convince them to keep believing in the goodness of Hinduism, its caste system and caste-imposed duties. Society tells them not to think, not to question. It uses all its might to maintain the nexus of social, political, religious and economic marginalisation of those at the bottom of the caste system, as Ambedkar explained, to keep them where they are so that they keep serving society. The privileges of caste Hindus remain intact.

The government’s persistent inaction on saving the lives of sanitation workers and abolishing manual scavenging is also a major contributor in safeguarding these caste privileges. Its mere silence is a potent support of the system. Clearly, the government is with the privileged castes – which makes sense, when you look into the backgrounds of those in power.

We must understand why the Maharashtra government announced in November 2015 that a sanitation worker can nominate one family member or relative for a job in her/his place while retiring. It is because nobody would normally apply for one of the deadliest and dirtiest jobs in the world, even if paid heavily. That, however, does not end the demand for cheap workers who can be left to die for our society and whose families will not be able to seek justice. That is what is behind the Maharashtra government’s seemingly attractive and unconditional job offer that resembles the reservation system. This, however, is a reservation for death. This is not a reservation for dignified opportunities to be educated, progress and earn a livelihood. People who oppose the reservation system in education and at work never question the reservation in sanitation jobs. This is a covert attempt – supported by both society and the government – to continue the caste system, by making the coming generations of Dalits also stay in sanitation jobs. The Warsa system of the Maharashtra government is no less than a modern incarnation of the law Manu.

Also read: ‘There Can Be No Swachh Bharat Without Ending Institutional Discrimination Against Dalits’

Caste is rarely mentioned when the media reports these death cases – somehow they are able to report and discuss sewer deaths without ever connecting them with the problem of caste. The media cannot be too naïve to understand the caste system in its entirety. Their silence, then, is as supportive of the caste system as is the government’s.

This is no less than a conspiracy to ensure an unending supply of disposable cheap labour, as well as to maintain the caste-induced status quo. A conspiracy of “criminal silence”, as Wilson puts it, in which everyone is involved: our government, our news media, our prime minister and our chief ministers who also stay silent on the issue, and our intelligentsia who have no awards to return to oppose these political murders. People question – and rightly so – individual atrocities, communal crimes and even demonetisation, but manual scavenging and these institutionalised sewer deaths are not acknowledged as cases of human rights violations or crime. In a country where some are even “twice” born and doubly valued by their religion, the lives of Dalit manual scavengers do not matter at all. Our society deliberately sends them down horror chambers without any protection, to work for it and then die for it. As Ambedkar wrote in his Annihilation of Caste:

I shall be satisfied if I make the Hindu realize that they are the sick men of India, and that their sickness is causing danger to the health and happiness of other Indians.

Will the murders continue?

That one section of our society is left to die while (literally) cleaning the entire country’s shit, and the rest cannot even try harder or spend little extra to mechanise the sanitation process, is shameful. Maybe our society should openly admit that it does not feel ashamed. It does not feel ashamed to seek pride in India’s technological advancements and space missions when it still uses humans to fix its choked toilets and sewer lines. It is no mystery why a country which loves the idea of a Swachh Bharat is so silent on these unclean murders: Swachh Bharat is only for the privileged castes; for Dalits it means a duty to clean India at the cost of their lives. It is time to openly admit that caste-ridden India is a barbaric society, and it always has been so. It should stop pretending to uphold human rights and the principles of justice and equality for all.

Of course, the murders will continue to happen, who is there to stop them?

Dhamma Darshan Nigam is with the Safai Karmachari Andolan and Sheeva Dubey is doing her PhD from the School of Communication at the University of Miami.