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The Rocket Science of Sanitation

Understanding the plight of the Indian workers who are not considered workers.

By Abhilasha Srivastava | May/June 2019

In 2017, the Indian Space Research Organization made a world record by launching 104 satellites for seven client nations on a single rocket. Yet a country that provides the world’s most efficient space and satellite launch service still relies on humans descending into manholes with hand tools to run its sewer system. According to unofficial estimates, more than 1,700 individuals die in India every year of asphyxiation while unclogging sewage manholes across its cities and towns.

Employing someone for manually cleaning human excreta has been illegal in India since 1993. A more stringent law prohibiting this practice as well as the construction and maintenance of dry latrines, which require manual cleaning, was passed in 2013. However, the practice continues to flourish not only in rural and semi-urban areas but also in big cities where municipal corporations and the federal government-owned Indian Railways employs thousands of sanitation workers for cleaning train tracks where railway toilets are emptied out. Dry latrines are usually cleaned in rural areas and towns by women for about $3 per month per household paid in cash, sometimes supplemented with leftover food from the employers. Septic tanks and sewer systems in towns and cities are cleaned by male sanitation workers for about $4 per day in cash as well. However, their work, though it is central to a civilized existence, is not even considered work. Instead, the traditional Indian worldview, based on caste, frames their jobs as degrading and ritually polluting acts that have been heaped upon them as punishment for bad karma in a past life.

“Manual Scavenging” in India

According to private estimates, about five million people in India are engaged in sanitation work in high-risk conditions, out of which 98% are women. In light of the government’s longstanding practice of underestimating these numbers, private estimates are the only reliable source. Some of these people, mainly women, clean dry latrines with hand tools and carry human excrement in wicker baskets or pushcarts every day as part of their work. Others, usually men, descend semi-naked into manholes and underground sewer pipes clogged with human waste, and the end of their shifts their clothes and body are contaminated. These sanitation workers, also known as “manual scavengers,” work mainly in the informal sector, are poorly paid, and usually work without safety equipment. The term “manual scavenger” is probably British, initiated during the colonial period, but is an absolutely misleading term. Unlike scavengers, these sanitation workers do not, or rather cannot, extract anything of use from human excrement and waste. Nevertheless, this term has become standardized and reinforces the (mis)understanding that sanitation work is not work and sanitation workers are not workers.

Sanitation Reforms Across the World

Outside of South Asia, manual handling of human waste, especially excreta, is rarely a core part of the sanitation system. While most modern societies began with a manual stage in the sanitation sector, they gradually moved toward the formalization of work, adoption of safety gear, and the use of machines. The brief comparisons below are instructive for understanding India’s sanitation sector.

United States
In the history of U.S. sanitation, race played a role comparable to the role of caste in India. Low wages, hazardous working conditions, and race-based exclusion from better employment, similar to the contemporary Indian situation, were the triggers that catalyzed the famous 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis through which Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to combine questions of racial and social justice with those of economic justice. Striking workers demanded dignity, better wages, and better collective bargaining with their employer, the municipal agency of the city. The Memphis strike was followed by another in New York City in the same year. These strikes were influential in reforming sanitation work in the United States.

Formalization of work, safety standards, and wage structures all improved over time. Nearly 50 years later, while sanitation workers in the United States are still more likely to die on the job than police officers or firefighters, the sector has undergone substantial reforms. There is large-scale automation and mechanization; better safety standards have been put in place; contact with human waste is rare; and the sector includes for-profit firms that see it as a legitimate sector of the economy. While average salaries are generally low, in large cities sanitation workers earn decent wages and are able to lead a decent life.

United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, formalization of the sanitation sector began with legislation in the mid 19th century that framed sanitation as a public service aimed at ensuring public health. Improvements in sanitation were motivated by the recognition of a healthy environment as a public good. The United Kingdom experienced rapid economic and technological growth in the early 19th century, but those gaining most from the growth sensed a “threat from below” caused by the increasing ghettoization of the working class in the cities. While diseases such as typhoid and dysentery were more deadly for the working poor, the spread of cholera and its unpredictability frightened the better-off, which brought the focus squarely on the need for sanitary and administrative reforms. Powerful elites realized that poor sanitation could undermine public health and increase morbidity among workers, hindering economic progress. Within these perceived threats, sanitation workers were able to reframe their services as being like any other work within the economy, and started to improve their working conditions through electoral pressures by the 1870s. They presented themselves as a labor constituency, and were welcomed within structures of mainstream political parties and labor movements. This political mainstreaming translated into better wages, working conditions, and safety within a highly mechanized sector of the economy.

In Senegal, especially Dakar, domestic waste disposal has become central to labor protests over the last three decades. Sanitation workers have allied with the broader working class and used “Trash Politics” to bring the country to a halt numerous times in protesting austerity drives caused by neoliberal reforms. The dumping of domestic waste onto city streets, especially in elite neighborhoods, has been part of an effective repertoire for drawing the nation’s attention to the consequences of structural reforms. These protests have been effective in bargaining for better sanitation infrastructure, dignity of labor, and better wages for sanitation workers. These have, in turn, improved sanitation for citizens, especially working-class citizens in Dakar. —AS

In other societies, a sanitation worker transforms back into a regular human being after work, and lives a life comparable to others in their socioeconomic class; these workers and their families have full access to public spaces and lead a life shaped by their financial means. In contrast, Indian sanitation workers have minimal access to public space, live in segregated and squalid neighborhoods, cannot drink from shared water sources, are prohibited from common places of worship, are refused service in restaurants, and face other similar oppressions and indignities. They are considered “untouchables” because they belong to the so-called “low” castes perceived to be ritually polluting for those of the so-called “upper” castes. Thus, an Indian sanitation worker becomes what she touches—trash—and that’s how she’s treated.

The Indian sanitation sector remains largely primitive, even in metropolitan areas. Unofficial estimates put the number of households in India with dry latrines, requiring manual cleaning every day, at 2.6 million. Septic tanks and public sewer systems also require manual cleaning on a routine basis. Over the last three decades there have been a series of policies and programs aimed at ending manual scavenging, but with little consequence. The sanitation sector still engages millions of manual scavengers by subcontracting such jobs through private operators. Poor implementation of the law is not simply a reflection of the state’s weakness, but its complicity. Activists often flag violations such as rural police stations and administrative offices having dry latrines on their premises. This begets an important question. Why has the sanitation sector remained so primitive in India, which is otherwise a healthy and large economy well known for technical know-how and growth? Several other countries have integrated sanitation work into the formal arena of labor (see sidebar), so why not India?

Reflecting on the Indian Case

Understanding the caste system and its framing of labor is central to explaining why the Indian sanitation sector has not seen reforms like those in other countries. Caste is a mechanism of social stratification as well as economic oppression where one’s social status is tied to one’s occupation. All occupations are ranked on a social hierarchy with the top bookended by “priestly” or “knowledge” work that is monopolized by Brahmins, and the lower end occupied by lower-caste groups that have historically been engaged in agricultural and artisanal work. Further below these low-caste groups, and outside of the caste system, lie Dalits, a broad group of untouchable communities, that have been tasked with all sorts of abject work—removing dead cattle, skinning and leather making, and cleaning latrines. Members of the upper castes are inherently considered more “pure” than members of the lower castes, who are considered “polluted.” Further, one’s position on the caste totem pole is believed to be the result of one’s karma in a past life, thus a higher-caste status is a reward and a lower one is a punishment based on one’s deeds in a previous life. Within the reasoning of the caste system, then, occupations such as manual scavenging are penance for bad karma from the past.

However, it is important to understand that this notion of ritual purity and pollution, as well as karma, is a justification used by elites to mask economic, social, and political exclusion and inequalities. Dalits have been historically excluded from owning businesses, land, and other assets, and have often been forced into slavery or bonded labor as their only means of survival. They have been spatially segregated not only in their housing but also in their points of access to resources such as water and public infrastructure. Discrimination from the upper castes and complicit state machinery ensure their marginalization. Also, they are subjected to widespread social exclusion and humiliation, such as being banned from entering temples, prohibited from sharing public spaces, and confined to occupations considered degrading for the higher castes. Thus, the caste system ensures the availability of a large body of captive labor that does not have any other fall back option for work, and which can be used for abject jobs that can be excluded from the definitions of formal work. Sanitation in India is one such sector, which has utilized the ideology of the caste system to its advantage.

After India gained independence from Britain in 1947, the first native government placed Dalit communities within a constitutional category called Scheduled Castes, and created affirmative-action programs for improving their educational status and representation in the job sector and elected positions. These programs were aimed at mitigating the consequences of caste-based discrimination. However, this mitigation has not happened so far. Colonial modernity and capitalism have shaken the rigid connections between caste and occupation to a fair degree for the top half of the caste hierarchy. Individuals from the priestly castes are represented in factories, trades, and businesses, and those from castes that used to be restricted to trading can now be intellectuals in the knowledge economy. However, as we slide lower on the caste hierarchy, it is evident that the occupational choices for the Dalits have not changed substantively. Local governments and municipal corporations hire hundreds of thousands of sanitation workers either directly as full-time formal employees or indirectly through private contractors. Their job profiles are articulated such that they bypass legal restrictions. However, the nature of these jobs have remained unchanged. While these jobs are open for anyone, only those from the traditionally untouchable castes take up these scavenging jobs. However, their decision to take up these jobs is not a “choice,” as their decisions are based on their complete exclusion from other types of work. On the other hand, individuals from other castes never apply for these sanitation jobs because sanitation is considered abject work. Thus, sanitation jobs are filled by (low) waged, yet unfree laborers.

The state and political parties exploit the divisions of caste. Since castes are vertically organized, with each caste higher or lower than others, labor solidarity across caste lines becomes hard to achieve. This lack of solidarity across the working class ensures that power elites have no comprehensive threat from below as long as they co-opt electorally significant sub-castes separately. The presence of hierarchies between and within caste groups severely undermines the formation of alliances across caste groups, especially between the untouchables and other castes. Thus, India’s working class is fractured across caste and sub-caste lines, further limiting its potential for collective bargaining. Market forces in India also leverage the caste system to their profit. Untouchable castes are excluded from other occupations through social discrimination and economic boycotts such that the only acceptable work for them remains in the sanitation sector. Since they have no alternatives because of social taboos, their captive labor is at the mercy of the employers. This means that their wages, as well as their working conditions, remain poor since there is no collective bargaining in the sanitation sector. India has a history of strong labor unionism and collective bargaining that saw its peak in the country’s socialist past. Neoliberal reforms since the 1990s have increasingly weakened these unions, as is also the case in other parts of the world. However, even at their peak, labor unions in India never included sanitation workers, as they neither treated sanitation as “work,” nor scavengers as “workers.”

Despite their overall mistreatment, sanitation workers are occasionally valorized and treated as selfless individuals serving society. Gandhi famously called sanitation workers harijan (children of God) deserving of social respect and gratitude because they take care of the body politic, by literally cleansing it. Successive governments have continued to perpetuate this symbolic imagery of sanitation workers in India. Recently, Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister, washed the feet of sanitation workers in a televised event, symbolically treating them as highly respected beings. The irony here is that sanitation workers are considered everything but workers. They are either treated as sub-humans on an everyday basis and distanced from public spaces or, occasionally, glorified as selfless individuals serving society through their spiritual mission.

Anti-caste activists and campaigns have engaged with the issue of manual scavenging for decades, especially the Safai Karmchari Andolan, an NGO headed by Bezwada Wilson, himself a Dalit and winner of the Magsaysay award, Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. These campaigns aim to completely eradicate manual scavenging from India and place manual scavengers in more dignified industries. It was a campaign organized by the Safai Karmchari Andolan that led to the enactment of the recent Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act in 2013. This act aims to eliminate dry latrines, prohibit the employment of manual scavengers, end hazardous manual cleaning of sewer and septic tanks, and maintain a survey of manual scavengers and their rehabilitation. Lack of enforcement and a lack of alternative occupations have, however, significantly undermined this relatively new law.

A Way Forward?

India’s sanitation sector remains primitive despite social advances and improvements in other sectors of the economy such as agriculture, dairy, space exploration, and computers and information technology. Manual scavenging, an illegal and dehumanizing practice, continues to persist in India unlike other societies that have witnessed vast improvements in how human waste is managed, and how sanitation workers are treated. There are multiple factors that contribute to this situation in India. Sanitation work is alternately denigrated as punishment for bad karma and venerated as self-sacrifice. In either case, it is seen as connected to the essence of who “untouchables” are rather than a job that they do. In fact, they are not treated as workers at all. The current system poses no threats to political elites, enabling them to place no value on sanitation work. There have not yet been cross-caste and cross-sector alliances among workers that can connect the struggles for economic and social justice. These factors undermine the political will of the state, and enable the state and the markets to maintain poor working conditions in the sector and treat sanitation workers as disposable. All of these factors stem from one common root: the ideology of the caste system. This ideology treats sanitation workers as divinely sentenced to their occupation; it prevents alliance building among workers; and permeates the state and markets which are dominated by upper caste elites. For anything to change in earnest, it is important to rupture the nexus between state, market, and caste. An engine for this change is possible in a labor movement that targets neoliberalism and transcends the boundaries of caste and abjection and creates broad alliances based on the dignity of labor.

is a development economist interested in race, caste, and gender issues and how these affect and are affected by economic processes.

“ISRO Sends 104 Satellites in One Go, Breaks Russia’s Record,” The Economic Times, Feb. 15, 2017 (; United Nations, “Breaking Free: Rehabilitating Manual Scavengers,” 2015 (; Safai Karmachari Andolan (; Dalberg Advisors, “Understanding Indian Sanitation Workers, and Finding Solutions for Their Challenges,” Dalberg Advisors, March 19, 2019 (; Michael Keith Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign, W.W. Norton, 2008; S.E. Chaplin, “Cities, Sewers and Poverty: India’s Politics of Sanitation,” Environment and Urbanization, 1999; Rosalind Fredericks, Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal, Duke University Press, 2018; M .N. Srinivas, “A Note on Sanskritization and Westernization,” The Far Eastern Quarterly, 1956; Rupa Viswanath, “Caste and Untouchability,” Hinduism in the Modern World, Routledge, 2016; Kapil Dixit, “PM Narendra Modi Washes Feet of Sanitary Workers,” The Times of India, Feb. 5, 2019 (

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