This is the first part of “India’s Dirty Secret”, a new series for on manual scavenging and sewage worker deaths. Based on a study of the International Labour Organisation, Delhi, it will bring together stories of families whose members died during sewage cleaning, and also highlight failures in the implementation of the various laws to protect their rights, dignity and life.

In the shadows on India’s glittering cities and towns, and in some urbanised villages, men continue to die cleaning sewers and septic tanks. These are typically casual or contract workers, always poorly lettered men, and mostly from the most disadvantaged castes. They are paid dirt daily wages. Without any safety gear or elementary safety precautions, they enter the sewers and tanks, risking their lives each time, for the few extra hundred rupees that they can take home that evening. If they die, post-mortem reports often conclude that they died of asphyxiation by drowning. In simple words, this means that they die drowning in human excreta.

As Clifton D’Rozario, a labour lawyer in Bangalore, put it, “These workers are literally swimming in human excreta.” There could be few more miserable and unacceptable ways to live, to work and to die. That this endures in modern India with its galloping growth-rates and the glitter of its wealth makes both government and society culpable.

Sewage work and manual scavenging

The large majority of India’s population – in the countryside and in urban slums – have for long defecated in the open. The latrines that existed, in private homes, factories, offices and courts were often dry latrines, which required cleaners to physically clear the excreta often with their bare hands, a shovel and a basket, and to carry the excreta on their heads to cast away in a river, drain, pit or dump. This socially humiliating and unsafe practice was imposed as a caste monopoly on India’s most oppressed and disadvantaged castes, who occupied the lowest rungs of the caste hierarchy, even within the Dalits; and that too mainly to women among them.

Dry latrines and manual cleaning were declared unlawful by legislations in 1993 and an improved and expanded law in 2013. But states were always reluctant to implement these laws, and almost no one has been punished for the violation of these laws. But powerful movements of manual scavengers themselves, aided by interventions by India’s highest court, have led to the gradual erosion of this practice. Dry latrines still exist, but in much smaller numbers, as do women who physically handle human excreta.

However, one outcome of the movement from dry to flush latrines – a kind of collateral damage if you like – has been that the caste humiliation of forcing a segment of people to handle human excreta while cleaning and disposing it has not got eliminated: it has just changed form. The requirement of disposing human excreta that is flushed out from these toilets remains, and has grown manifold as dry latrines are gradually eliminated, and the government has given a massive push for the construction of toilets. But most city and no rural local authorities have not made the necessary investments in technologies that would eliminate human contact with faecal matter.

Credit: Dushyant Kumar

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, made significant advances on the earlier Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, by including sewer cleaning in the definition of manual scavenging, thereby bringing within its purview the hazardous and demeaning practices by which sanitary workers were forced to enter sewer lines and wade in human excreta, risking their lives.

However, there are still many escape clauses built into the new law, which allows governments to continue these old practices as long as they introduce “protective gear’. Technical options exist today that can ensure that no human contact with excreta is necessary. But urban municipalities have refused to make the investments necessary for human dignity of the sanitary workers, and the new law does well to bring them under the law.

Govinda, 19

Gur ki Mandi, Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh

March 27, 2017

His mother Geeta Devi brings food home each evening by cleaning excreta from dry latrines in homes around her village. Her daily work is to go from house to house in the village, scooping up human shit using a metal scraper. She shovels the shit into her basket, and when the basket fills up, she carries the baskets on her head, to throw on an unused piece of land at the periphery of the village or into open drains.

For this she is paid a single roti a day from every house she cleans. No cash, just a roti.

This is in the year 2019.

Her village is in the periphery of Fatehpur Sikri, close to the Taj Mahal, one of India’s most-travelled tourist destinations. Despite two laws that outlaw the practice of “manual scavenging’, nothing has changed in Geeta Devi’s life. She accepts this work as her destiny, written for her by her caste. No official has ever told her that it is now illegal to have dry latrines and to employ people to clean their shit with their hands, that people can be sent to jail for this. And that she is eligible for a grant from government to release her from this humiliating caste profession. Or that she is entitled by law to be paid a minimum cash wage by anyone who employs her.

It is the death of her teenaged son inside a septic tank that has ravaged her. Her husband cleans floors and toilets in an upmarket hotel in neighbouring Fatehpur Sikri, and gets paid between Rs 4,000 and Rs 6,000. Her elder son, Rinku, now married, also works in a hotel, on similar terms. They were not able to educate their two older sons beyond primary school.

Their youngest son, Ajay, they hope to free from this destiny of cleaning shit. They spend Rs 2,400 a year as fees for a low-income private school. It is a little better than the government school, in which they say the teacher only comes to distribute porridge to the children. The private school is just a little better, “but you can get only what you are able to pay for”.

A newspaper clip about Govind's death.

Their middle son, Govinda, would be on the lookout for any work that people would offer, to bring some more money home for his family. He tried to find work in construction, but there was not much on offer. Given his caste – theirs was a family of Valmikis – it was only cleaning work that came their way.

One evening, on March 27, 2017, word came that a septic tank behind a modest roadside eatery right next to the highway needed to be emptied. The owner of that dhaba used a government septic tank for the toilet that he had built for his customers. Drawn by the prospect of earning a bit more than usual, Govinda – just 19 years old – along with three more boys climbed down the septic tank, never to emerge. There was no question of any protective gear.

We met Geeta twice in her home. She sat in the large common space outside her house, with neighbours crowding up around her. The house was a ruinous old construction with open drains in the front courtyard and pigs feeding on them. Still grieving the loss of her son, she recounted what happened in that March.

“They were offered Rs 500 for the job,” Geeta said. We enquired if each of them was to get Rs 500 each. “No, no, in a lump sum – they all were being paid Rs 500,” clarified one neighbour.

“Only a few days were left for Holi, and the boys thought they will get some extra money before the festival,” Geeta recalled. “They did not even tell us that they were going for this work.” Another neighbour who was a distant relative explained, “No one among them had done such work in past. Had they done it before, they would have known how is it to be done, like getting away after opening the cover and letting out the gases.”

Ajay, the youngest of the sons, said, The septic tank was pukka from one side but was broken by them from another side.”

Even though all four workers were affected by the poisonous gases emanating from the pit, Govinda was the only one who could not survive. The rest were discharged from the hospital after a few days of treatment. Amar, one of the four workers that day, described what happened. They had broken a part of the cement cover of the septic tank, and scooped out with buckets much of the sewage from the seven-foot tank. Govinda then said he would get into the tank to shovel out the residual faecal matter. But soon after he lowered himself into the tank, he fell unconscious, his head sunk into the sewage and waste.

In panic two other boys jumped in to save him, and they too became unconscious. Amar ran to the Valmiki settlement, raising an alarm. People rushed, and pulled out the boys with ropes one by one. They rushed them to the hospital. The other two boys survived. Govinda had probably died in the septic tank itself. The post-mortem report recorded the cause of his death to be asphyxiation by drowning.

The family altar.

They went later to the police station. The village Pradhan, a Pandit, advised them not to pursue the case. He assured them that he would organise some help or the family. The men in Govinda’s family conferred. The owner of the dhaba was a poor man like them. Why get him into trouble? they reasoned. He had even tried to save the lives of the boys.

One of the relatives said, “We went to meet the local MLA and even went to Delhi, but to no avail. We just always told – kal aana, kal aana” [come tomorrow]. How can a poor person afford to spend so much time on seeking justice? We are struggling to make our ends meet.”

They said that the police assured them that they would help them get the compensation. “A poor person can’t say anything due to fear of police. We still went to Agra later, but got nothing.”

No one has been punished. Not a single rupee has been paid as compensation. Geeta Bai still goes from house to house in the village, cleaning shit with her hands. Her husband spends his days at the upmarket hotel, wiping floors and toilets, as does their older son. Their younger broth is their only hope.

“Gareeb admi baith hi jaata hai haar ke,” Geeta said. “A poor person then just gives up.”

It is as though Govinda has just evaporated from their lives.

This series is from a study of the International Labour Organization conducted by the authors. Valuable support was extended by activists of Jan Sahas and Safai Karmchari Andolan, and by the families.