This is an excerpt from the sixth edition of the India Exclusion Report, a collaborative effort involving institutions and individuals working with a shared notion of social and economic equity, justice and rights. The report seeks to inform public opinion around exclusion and the role of the state and to influence policy-making towards creating a more inclusive, equitable and just society. The annual publication is anchored by the Centre for Equity Studies and edited by its director, Harsh Mander.
When India imposed lockdowns to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, “essential services” – including sanitation and sewer workers – were required to continue working, putting them on the frontlines. A study conducted in June 2020 showed that 93% of all sanitation workers, including sewer workers, received neither personal protective equipment kits nor training on how to stay safe from Covid infection.
The impact of this inaction was deadly: in Bangalore, at least three sanitation workers died after contracting Covid-19 and received seemingly little support from the state in accessing healthcare. While Covid-19 brought these disparities in occupational health risk into stark relief, the disregard of the safety of sanitation workers in India is perhaps as old as the profession. Sanitation workers have long been marginalised as this profession was marked by caste status and continues to be so. Among an estimated 1.2 million sanitation workers in India, most are Dalits or from denotified tribes.
Caste in waste management work
Manual scavenging has historically been linked to caste in the Indian subcontinent. The Brahminical social order assigns the most “polluting” tasks such as removing human excreta to Dalit castes. There is some evidence in ancient texts, such as the Narada Samhita and the Vajasayeni Samhita, that describes manual scavenging as work undertaken by slaves, coerced into cleaning waste.
Recent scholarship has demonstrated how this association between caste and the purity/pollution axis came to be institutionalised with modernisation. The introduction of underground sewerage systems and the building of dry latrines and railway lines in the colonial period created a demand for sanitation workers who would clean them.
India Exclusion Report
Notes about lives on the margins.
Colonial officials and the then-nascent municipal authorities drew on the edifice of caste to recruit sanitation workers and brought in Dalit workers, many of whom were agricultural labourers in the countryside, to the cities.
Wherever there was a shortage of sweepers and scavengers in urban areas, municipal authorities looked to Dalit migrants from rural areas to meet the shortfall. This cemented caste oppression into a waged “occupation”. Today, in municipal sanitation jobs, there is almost an unstated 100% “reservation” for those belonging to scheduled and backward caste groups. Our fieldwork found that caste and kinship continue to play a strong role in both entering sanitation work and passing on the occupation to one’s children, through systems such as preferential treatment that hire the kin of a sanitation worker on their retirement or death.
Our research found that even those with higher education qualifications feared unemployment, and due to a lack of social networks that could provide them guaranteed work, many saw staying in municipal sanitation work as a stable option with the possibility of promotion to a supervisory position.
Hazardous working conditions
Despite modernisation, waste management remains one of the most underpaid and dangerous jobs in India. There are significant occupational morbidities and a high mortality rate among sanitation workers, and sewer workers bear a great deal of this risk.
A scan of newspaper reports from the last few years demonstrates that workers have died cleaning manholes, septic tanks and sewage treatment plants in a variety of urban locations – from hospitals and shopping malls to residential neighbourhoods, farmhouses and apartments complexes. Workers who enter sewer lines, sewage treatment plants and septic tanks are exposed to hydrogen sulphide, a colourless odourless gas, that is fatal upon inhalation.
The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment stated that 110 deaths had occurred while cleaning septic tanks and sewers in 2019. Data collected by the Safai Karamchari Andolan recorded over 300 deaths in 2017 across India, while 142 sewer workers died between 2012–2014. All India Central Council of Trade Unions data estimates that at least 75 workers have died in 34 such incidents between 2008 and 2018 in Karnataka.
Apart from this, there are associated comorbidities with more long-term effects. In 2015, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation found that 1,386 sanitation workers had died in the last six years. A 2006 study conducted by the Centre for Education and Communication among sewage workers in Delhi found a high incidence of mortality after age 55. The estimated life expectancy of sewer workers is at least ten years lower than the national average.
Contractualisation and caste
Over the years several attempts have been made to eradicate manual scavenging and improve the working conditions of sewage workers. In 1993, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was enacted with the stated objective of declaring the employment of manual scavenging an offence.
However, the definition of manual scavenging was restricted to dry latrines, which are not the only place where workers are at risk. Several court petitions in the Madras, Gujarat and Delhi high courts were filed through the 2000s, asking for judicial remedies and stringent guidelines to prevent the deaths of workers in sewage lines. The courts and the National Human Rights Commission dispensed guidelines for safety and ordered the full mechanisation of cleaning.
In 2011, the Supreme Court held that the government could not “absolve themselves of the responsibility to put in place effective mechanisms for ensuring the safety of the workers employed for maintaining and cleaning the sewerage system”. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013 was later passed, intended to remedy many of the defects of past legislation. One significant improvement in this Act is its focus on reforming the working conditions of sewage workers.
Such policy measures and legal amendments come after years of struggle and yet, working conditions remain hazardous. The insight of our research is that the failure of legislation and regulation in this area is no accident or a mere problem of implementation, but should be understood within the broader landscape of labour market changes and labour law.
The precarity that workers face, the unregulated conditions within which they work, and the segmentation of the workforce between “permanent”, “contract” and “daily-wage” workers mark many occupations today. This informality makes justice for workers within a legal framework extremely challenging. Further, as an activist told us, “the biggest defaulter of the Contract Labour Act in India today is the government and other state institutions”.
What this demonstrates is that caste fundamentally inflects and shapes the processes of contractualisation and informality in India. Dalits have been historically drawn into sweeping and scavenging work, and their exclusion from other sectors of the labour market is inextricable from their caste status. Through institutional practices that perpetuate their continued recruitment in municipal corporations, Dalits continue to be the group employed in sanitation tasks.
The move to contractualisation and erosion of job security, therefore, directly affects Dalit workers by eroding the bare minimum level of security that permanent employment offered. It also legitimizes a system by which they continued to be paid far less for equal work. Contractualisation not only lowers pay and working conditions for Dalit workers, but it also serves as a fig leaf over the state’s responsibility for their deaths.
Urban local bodies regularly evade responsibility for the deaths of contract and daily wage workers, claiming to be unable to trace the contractor or arguing that it is the contractor’s responsibility to provide safety equipment for the cleaning of public sewer lines.
These notions of public and private provisioning in sanitation are changing. While privatised cleaning takes place in drains or pipelines that either the municipal authority services but has contracted out to daily-wage labour or refuses to service, it increasingly also occurs in septic tanks/STPs attached to private houses, apartment complexes or commercial establishments.
The question of “private” or “public” cleaning and the extent of the municipality’s responsibility often determines the level of risk, supervision, and safety equipment that workers have access to. Where access to underground drainage is minimal, the state’s abdication from providing sanitation facilities (particularly in working-class settlements) encourages the use of septic tanks that must be privately cleaned.
The responsibility of clearing septic tanks as one that is borne by septic tank users is also what incentivizes the use of cheap casual labour. As a result, it is extremely difficult to monitor working conditions or understand the processes by which the work is sub-contracted out.
Collectivisation and resistance
There is a distinct lack of commitment towards enforcing labour standards and legal regulations in this area. This has been compounded with increasing casualisation. The only space for negotiation has been through collective mobilisation through unionising and advocacy. NGOs and civil rights groups (notably, national groups like the Safai Karamchari Andolan, the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan and grassroots organisations like Thamate) have played a significant role in highlighting the deaths of sewer workers, by linking this struggle to that of the manual scavenging of dry latrines and in pushing for legislative change.
This has taken the form of writ petitions, fact-findings into deaths and Right to Information requests on the machinery possessed by state governments for mechanical cleaning and compensation paid to families. However, the widespread practice of subcontracting means that the safety and compensation guidelines that apply to permanent and contract workers are rarely extended to casual labourers.
Other unions representing contract workers have had significant wins. Fieldwork that we conducted among unions in Karnataka indicated that union membership has made workers feel more able to access and demand safety equipment, as well as a mechanism to demand delayed wages and workers’ compensation.
Activists we spoke to expressed their visions of transformation. One idea they had was to organise sanitation work on a cooperative basis, worker-led and worker-run, to bring an end to the hierarchical structure within which contract system functions. In such a model, the role of the municipality would remain as one of financial support and occasional supervision, but it would eliminate the contract system without subjugating workers directly to state control.
Interviews we conducted in a town where contract workers had been employed directly under the state and later under a private contractor underlined this point that direct employment under state officials was not always an improvement in working conditions. This speaks to an important concern: in demanding permanent jobs or regularisation for sanitation workers, it is important not to further subject workers to the control of the municipality, replacing one oppressive set of overseers with another.
The struggles of sewer, as well as other sanitation workers against contractorisation and poor working conditions, are intimately linked to their struggles against the lack of state accountability for hazardous working conditions. The continued attitude of disregard and exploitation towards Dalit sanitation workers is reminiscent of feudal relations, where caste continues to determine occupation and employer-employee relations are individualised, based on patronage and oppression. The irony of the neoliberal era of contractorisation is that while workers labour for wages on contract, the work remains as wholly marked by caste status and state impunity.
A more detailed discussion and case study of sanitation and sewer workers can be found in the India Exclusion Report 2020.
Read the other excerpts from the India Exclusion Report for 2019-’20 here.
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