How Does a District Keep Its 'Manual Scavenging Free' Status?

Sanitary workers as the government imagines them, and as they really are.

Coimbatore: The dark, thick sludge moves along the water. Thiry-year-old Jothi attacks it with a shovel furiously. She pushes out the garbage from the drain on to the road, pausing for just a bit to adjust the cloth around her head. There is a dead rat in the oozing muck. Jothi picks it up and throws it aside.

“You shouldn’t have done that with your hand,” I end up saying.

“Someone’s got to do it, right?” she says. As Jothi moves around in the drain, pushing her shovel down, the conflict is clear. “I have to do it for my children. If you are a manual scavenger and a mother, one minute you’re using your hands to pick up a rat, and the next you’d be feeding your children with the same hand,” Jothi says.

Soon after she finishes her work, Jothi cleans up and puts on a bright yellow colour coat, the official garb for the “sanitary workers” of the Coimbatore municipality. Jothi is one of many women in Coimbatore who supplement their Rs 3,000 monthly income as a government sanitary worker with manual scavenging for Rs 200 a day whenever work comes in. For all practical purposes, Jothi is a missing statistic. Sanitary workers employed by the government in Coimbatore cannot involve themselves in manual scavenging. If they do, they aren’t included in the data.

The sanitary workers, as the government imagines them

We speak at a corner of the corporation office, right next to a poster of the government’s flagship scheme, Swachh Bharat. The workers on the poster with hats and protective equipment look nothing like Jothi.

A typical day for Jothi starts at 4:30 am. “I wake up, make food for my children and husband, and work from 6 am. We have to clean the ditches near the bus stand and on the road. I fell sick recently and lost a lot of money because of that. When the ditch smells, we almost faint from the smell. But after that we deal with it. The only problem is, I have seen many people have long-term problems because of this. At least the men can drink to deal with their pressures, we as women can’t and won’t do that,” she says.

A pensive Madan Kumar looks on as he discusses the rampant caste discrimination of manual scavengers.

A pensive Madan Kumar looks on as he discusses the rampant caste discrimination of manual scavengers.

According to news reports, Tamil Nadu has the highest number of manual scavengers. Chennai, Trichy, Pudhukottai, Kumbakonam all made it to list of places where manual scavengers were to be rehabilitated – but Coimbatore, to the surprise of many, remained absent.

An official from the Adi Dravidar Welfare department in Coimbatore district who did not want to be named has been fighting to get Coimbatore included. Late last year, 210 manual scavengers from Coimbatore city came forward to self-declare. “The district collector was supposed to forward this data to the Tamil Nadu government, but it remained stuck at the collectorate level. The collector wants to scrutinise it,” he says. ‘Scrutiny’, according to the official, is a euphemism for hushing up cases, even threatening those who self-declare to withdraw their applications, all in a bid to keep the districts’ manual scavenging free status. “I’ve sent reminder letters, I’ve even told the collectorate to forward the applications many times, but to no avail,” he says. The collector has refused to comment.

A majority of the manual scavengers reside in the western belt of Salem, Coimbatore, Namakkal. They belong to the Arunthathiyar caste, part of the Dalit community, also referred to as Madigas in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The Arunthathiyars, along with two other castes Pallar and Paraiyar, form the major sub-castes. “We are known as the Dalit of the Dalits,” says Dharmaraj, a manual scavenger. “Often the sanitary inspectors and supervisors are from the dominant caste, and while they treat us well, we often overhear how lowly they talk about us to other inspectors,” he says.

Dharmaraj explains his experience of 20 years as a manual scavenger.

Dharmaraj explains his experience of 20 years as a manual scavenger.

Caste in stone

Dharmaraj J. belongs to the Arunthathiyar caste, and has worked as a manual scavenger for over 20 years. He has now joined a collective that fights to eradicate the practice. In his rented home behind a small landfill, he pulls out a bunch of xerox copies. “I secretly picked up the registration books belonging to supervisors. Most of the names of people who showed up were marked as absent,” he claims. This means money from the day’s work that was supposed to given to people who did the job of cleaning was taken by the supervisors. “Names are also made up. I’ve worked here for 20 years. There is no person called Celine here,” he adds. It’s a big allegation, and Dharmaraj knows that. Why isn’t out in the open, I ask him?

“I feel like this will do more harm than good. I have brought this up with my seniors, and they have dismissed me, saying it is too explosive as corruption,” he says.

An attendance register procured by Dharmaraj detailing the inconsistencies of marking manual scavengers as present at work.

An attendance register procured by Dharmaraj detailing the inconsistencies of marking manual scavengers as present at work.

Almost all manual scavengers are Arunthathiyar, and a lot has to do with how they can be taken advantage of due to their caste. “That we cannot form a group or voice out our concerns. That we will forever remain subservient,” he says.

“We are born into this caste, and relegated to do this work, and we will die like this. What can any of us do?”

Behind Dharmaraj’s house is a slum, where many others like Madan Kumar live. He works for a private sewage treatment plant. The companies often outsource the work to people like Madan at a meagre price. “Even if the government tries to put an end to this work, private companies still exist to employs us. Both me and them make a quick buck,” he says. Rs 150 for a day’s work is all he gets.

The Arunthathiyar community in Coimbatore city believe that there is no way they can find alternate sources of income. “Manual scavenging is such that your family is born into it, when you’re 13, you come of age not only in life but also in work. We have no capital to start a shop, we aren’t included in any list which the government can use to say that they will rehabilitate us, we are invisible,” says Madan.

Jothi at work in the middle of the road while vehicles pass.

Jothi at work in the middle of the road while vehicles pass.

This caste, this work, was set in stone long ago

Then there are those who are doubly invisibilised. “Why is this not being covered more in the media?” Jothi smiles at the camera and asks. “It is not very nice to show people that we do the work that they can’t even bear the stench of,” she answers herself. A few others in her vicinity agree. Not all of them clean drains like Jothi does. “In Tamil Nadu, even if the Arunthathiyar caste is uplifted from these ditches, it will be the men who will be considered first, women second,” she says. There are uncomfortable looks all around Jothi. “These women, these Arunthathiyar women, will not talk because we don’t know how to do anything other than this work. We are not expected to talk or fight. Because this caste, this work, this body of labour,” she says, moving her hands up and down her body, “was set in stone long ago.”

All photos by Divya Karthikeyan.

Divya Karthikeyan is an independent journalist based in Chennai.