By Ankush Pal / Waging Nonviolence
In late August, hundreds of women sanitation workers came together at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. The 18th-century astronomical observatory has become a popular place to publicly show dissent in India due to its proximity to the Parliament, a little more than a mile away.
The protesters were opposing recently released official statistics regarding the death of sanitation workers. The women claimed that the number of so-called “manual scavengers” who died while on duty due to the precarious nature of the occupation was much higher than what the Parliament claimed.
Timed to coincide with the government’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of India gaining independence from the British, the demonstration was part of a widespread series of coordinated actions using the slogan “Stop Killing Us.”
It also marked the 475th day of a nationwide campaign launched in May 2022 by the Safai Karamchari Andolan, which translates loosely to the Sanitation Workers Movement. The organization works to create awareness and to engage government bodies towards eradicating the practice of manual scavenging, referring to the removal of human waste from dry latrines and sewers by people with bare hands and no safety gear.
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Those in this occupation face several health hazards, including exposure to gasses such as ammonia, methane and hydrogen disulfide. This often results in visual impairment, respiratory problems and sometimes even death. Manual scavenging is a unique feature of sanitation in India — a nation embedded in a caste system that is also present in other nations in the subcontinent — and it is a problem intrinsically linked to untouchability.
The 2011 nationwide census identified about 1.3 million scavengers, 95 percent of whom were from the Scheduled Caste communities, a legal classification given to communities considered to be “untouchable” in Hindu religious scriptures, and 98 percent were women. This puts the women who do this work at risk of double marginalization due to their caste and gender identities. However, the number of scavengers is likely much higher, given that civil society and human rights activists have often reported seeing them in regions where the practice has been officially “eradicated.”
Even in Kerala, which is otherwise seen as a progressive state, the Safai Karamchari Andolan has said that the practice of manual scavenging is being undertaken discreetly. People no longer carry feces openly, but sanitation workers are still engaged in cleaning septic tanks and sewers, and many are deployed to clean manholes. However, these allegations have been denied by the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, a temporary body that investigates the conditions of the sanitation workers and makes recommendations to the government.
The Safai Karamchari Andolan is a people’s movement headed by Bezwada Wilson, one of its co-founders. Around the time he was 15 years old, Wilson started thinking about the lives of manual scavengers since he was born into a family involved in the occupation. A few years later, the Safai Karamchari Andolan emerged with other like-minded individuals over three years — from 1982 to 1985 — not as a registered non-governmental organization but as a movement that gave voice to the anguish of the people.
According to Wilson, the movement was inspired by B.R. Ambedkar, who was born in a Mahar family (one of the several communities classified under the Scheduled Castes) in 1891. He turned to education to emancipate himself and was a vehement critic of most politicians of his time, no matter how progressive, who seldom perceived the people derogatorily called untouchables as humans. Ambedkar believed that the Scheduled Castes must collectively and permanently quit such occupations. By doing so, he argued, they will reaffirm the belief that democracy lies not with the small ruling elite but with the masses of the common people, most of whom come from a marginalized caste group.
The organization is opposed to working with various governmental and non-governmental organizations unless they agree to work towards eradicating manual scavenging. Most organizations, Wilson says, celebrate the victimhood faced by sanitation workers, which he and the organization oppose. Though a few state governments have approached him, they often expect the movement to work according to their terms rather than following the people’s demands.
The Safai Karamchari Andolan critiques ministers who often speak of the welfare of the Scheduled Castes yet hold back on working towards completely eradicating manual scavenging. “The ministers who pick up a broom and clean a specific location for photo-ops … are doing nothing but glorifying an occupation that people are forced to do,” Wilson said.
Defecating in India has been a serious and unique problem that the administration has tried to remedy by providing households with toilets. However, many people who still hold onto the notions of purity refuse to defecate in their homes and expect people from the Scheduled Caste communities to clean human waste manually.
At the recent G-20 Summit, one could see how the government resorted to making the capital city of New Delhi appear more aesthetically pleasing to foreign delegates. This came at the expense of the working class, most of whom are migrants from marginalized communities. Ashamed of their citizens, ministers scrambled to remove beggars and the homeless from the streets. Slums were draped with green cloth so they would not be visible to the visiting delegates.
Barriers to change
For many Scheduled Caste populations, it is difficult to change professions as they face social boycotts. Harsh, a Delhi-based lawyer who has worked with manual scavengers, noted that when people have tried to quit, they have been ostracized for doing so. In one case, a man in Meerut started selling vegetables, but people would not buy from him.
“He was then forced to return to the same manual scavenging work, as no one was ready to purchase from him,” Harsh explained. “In this case, you cannot use any means of legal action, since they are not resorting to using any slurs.”
The movement’s different state chapters call on the government to enforce the established law prohibiting manual scavenging. Wilson and the movement, including former sanitation workers who have turned their backs on the occupation, have simultaneously organized legal petitions and on-the-ground mobilizations.
The movement has gradually gained momentum, and it has managed to help many sanitation workers come to terms with the dehumanizing conditions of the work.
Progress only on paper
Legislation passed in 2013 outlawed all manual cleaning of human waste. It made it a punishable offense to coerce someone to do manual scavenging. But it has not been implemented properly. Then, in 2014, the Supreme Court directed all states to abolish manual scavenging and to rehabilitate the workers. No one has been prosecuted, even when so many manual scavengers have lost their lives.
Earlier this year, the finance minister proclaimed that there will be a complete transition of sewers and septic tanks in every city and town, which will be cleaned through a mechanical process rather than having sanitation workers manually climb into them. However, no progress has been made.
The Safai Karamchari Andolan stated that the government did not mention a clear deadline by which they expected to complete this process, nor did the budget ensure a separate package to provide alternate employment for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers.
Most recently, on Oct. 21, India’s Supreme Court issued directions to the national and state governments to ensure that the practice of manual scavenging is completely eradicated and that no person has to enter the sewer for any reason whatsoever. They have also been directed to fully rehabilitate manual scavengers by guaranteeing employment and educating their children. The government was directed to increase the compensation paid to the dependents of victims who have died due to manual scavenging.
Though this is tremendous news and a sign that agitation by the sanitation workers is working, Wilson thinks that mere directions from the court will not be sufficient. He says there has been legislation and favorable court decisions, but the lack of political will has made these apparent victories illusory. To ensure that the directions are followed, he says they will organize more demonstrations. Furthermore, the different state chapters will tell the victims’ families about their rights, which they can collectively demand.
“We are often told that the steps we are taking are pointless, and that it will not be fruitful, but it does not matter to us,” said an organizer of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, who asked to remain anonymous out of concerns for their safety. “Our dedication to the cause will not be shaken, and we will stay united in the fight for our rights and keep raising our demands.”
Ankush Pal is an undergraduate student of sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, India. He is a researcher and writer whose work is on exclusion, marginalization, and people’s movements for the reclamation of rights. His work has been published by leading media houses like Indian Express and Outlook, while his research has been published by Economic and Political Weekly and recently as a book chapter in an edited volume.