THE MEN COME early in the morning at around seven. Some have had tea at home, some haven’t; but once they report for work, most will keep drinking country liquor from short plastic tumblers. It is the only way they can tolerate the feel of excreta in sewers and septic tanks against their bare bodies. Their eyes are floating globs of yellow, their cheeks as sunken as the city’s potholes. They sit on grimy mattresses in a bamboo shack at the end of a street, smoking beedis and passing bawdy remarks at the heroine of a film some of them have seen a few days earlier, as they wait for people to come and offer them work: opening up choked septic tanks, mostly, in this part of north-west Delhi.
The householders come, standing at a distance, telling them what they have come for. Someone among the men whose turn it is to go will nod as he pretends to listen; he is not interested in the full description—he just needs to hear the key word: sewer or septic tank. He will then look the householder in the eye and quote a price, usually a few hundred rupees. The man who has come with the job will make a face but usually relent quickly; nobody wants shit spilling out in the backyard.
Today, they are fewer by one. Last night, their senior-most worker’s son, who worked till recently with his father, had an altercation with someone and shot him with a ‘teen sau pandraah’, a .315 bore country-made pistol. The victim survived but has suffered grave injuries. Now, the father and son have fled, fearing police action. There is no other earning member in the family. The woman of the house waits discreetly nearby, her face covered with a dupatta, looking for both work and clues of the whereabouts of her husband and son. The men, in the meantime, go one by one, two of them together, because one of the sewers reported blocked is about 20 feet deep. After they are gone, stray dogs come in to escape the rain outside and spread themselves lazily over the mattresses.
The men come and go as the work comes. On most days, they get one job; some days, a few among them might get lucky and get two.
At 4 pm, the last among them is asked to clear a blocked septic tank in a nearby colony. Bittu is sloshed by this time. “If I don’t drink, I cannot get in,” he says. He is 44, but looks at least 10 years older. His eyes are partially damaged—a result of toxic fumes from a sewer pipeline he had to enter a few years ago. Sometimes, to humour his visitors, he pretends to be totally blind and calls himself Bittu bhikaari—Bittu, the beggar.
Bittu has worked with excreta for 30 years. One of his two sons (he also has five daughters) works with him now; he, too, started as an early teen, the age his father did. Bittu was initiated by one of his elder brothers; their father was a sweeper with the Delhi Municipal Corporation. Bittu gets work from government contractors as well as from private houses or businesses. Five years ago, his wife died of a mysterious disease, leaving him to take care of their children. The elder daughter now takes care of the house, a jhuggi in a nearby slum. “I am a Raja Babu and so is my son,” he says, alluding to their lack of formal education like the actor Govinda’s character in a film called Raja Babu. “We cannot get out of this cycle,” he says, “this is our destiny; but I hope my son is able to leave this. When I see him till his neck in shit, it breaks my heart.”
“The Indian Railways continues to be the largest employer of manual scavengers. It disguises the identity of such workers by calling them sweepers” - Bezwada Wilson, social activist
The Government has a name for Bittu and his friends: sanitation workers. But in reality, it is just a euphemism for manual scavenging as their work involves the use of hands to handle excreta. The Indian state has laws prohibiting the employment of manual scavengers and has largely been in denial of their existence. In May 2016, for example, the Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Vijay Sampla, said in the Rajya Sabha that the Government has identified over 12,226 manual scavengers across India. A year earlier, the Socio-Economic Caste Census revealed that India still has 180,657 households that are dependent on manual scavenging for a living. According to the 2011 Census, there are over 2.6 million dry latrines in India. These staggering numbers reveal how many people in India are actually engaged in this profession. The data is abysmally vague. But recent surveys by the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), an organisation working for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, suggest that manual scavengers could number above one million. Almost all of them are Dalits.
Moves to eradicate manual scavenging in India began in 1949, when a committee was formed in Bombay to look into the condition of manual scavengers and suggest ways to put an end to it. The list of efforts made is long; the Dalit scholar Anand Teltumbde points at the formation of several committees and other attempts in the later years: 1957, 1965, 1968, 1969, 1980, 1985, 1991 and 1992. Finally, in 1993, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act was passed. But, over 20 years later, not a single person has been prosecuted for the violation of this law. This was followed by the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act in 2013, which sought to include sewage workers left out in the previous enactment. But the new law has a lacuna, as it does not recognise work in sewers with ‘protective gear’ as ‘hazardous cleaning’. Nor does it specify what qualifies as adequate protective gear. In any case, most workers are like Bittu, who has never as much as seen a glove or a mask in his life. “I have infections all over my body. I speak to you, but all I want to do is scratch my body with a sharp object,” he says.
“We cannot get out of this cycle. This is our destiny. But I hope my son is able to leave this. When I see him till his neck in shit, it breaks my heart” - Bittu, manual scavenger
According to SKA data, 753 workers have died since 1993, with Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Delhi recording the highest casualties. But in the absence of proper data, these are conservative estimates; such deaths are believed to run into thousands every year.
On August 20th, a worker like Bittu died while cleaning a sewer in a government hospital in Delhi. On August 12th, two brothers died when they were asked to clean a septic tank in a shopping mall in east Delhi. Their father also does the same work. On August 6th, three workers died after entering a sewer pipe in a south Delhi colony. In a little over four weeks, 10 people have died in the capital alone.
In spite of the evidence, governments, both at the Centre and at the state level, have chosen to look the other way. In July 2016, a meeting was held by the National Commission for ScheduledCastes (NCSC) to arrive at a consensus on the number of manual scavengers. It was attended by senior officials from all states. According to a report in The Hindu, Telangana reported 157,321 dry latrines but zero manual scavengers; the Karnataka representative said the state had 24,468 dry latrines, which he claimed were cleaned by only 302 workers.
“The problem is that the Indian Railways continues to be the largest employer of manual scavengers,” says Bezwada Wilson, a social activist and a founder of the SKA. One stark example of such double standards is the Indian Railways. Though the Ministry keeps denying that it employs manual scavengers, Wilson says that it disguises the identity of such workers by calling them sweepers, employed through contractors, who handle excreta. “What other mechanism does the Railways have, for example, to remove excreta from its platforms?” asks Wilson. As many as 300 trains pass every day through the New Delhi railway station alone.
Activists say that manual scavenging results in the persistence of untouchability in India. Even in cities where caste lines get somewhat blurred, the profession marks a person out for discrimination. “Well, let me show you here itself,” says Vinod Kumar, 33, who cleans sewers for a living in Delhi’s Rohini area. “If I hand over a Rs 10 note to the local shopkeeper, he will hold it by the tip of the other corner,” he says. People who call him for work, he adds, do not even offer him a glass of water. “If I touch the tap, they wash it with soap and water in front of my eyes,” he says.
“If I hand over a ten rupee note to the local shopkeeper, he will hold it by the tip of the corner. If I touch the tap, they wash it with soap and water in front of my eyes” - Vinod Kumar, a manual scavenger
Vinod does not even remember how many times he has been hit by toxic fumes from sewers and septic tanks. In 2007, he almost died while extricating a dead body stuck in a west Delhi sewer. “After a lot of effort, I was able to take out the body. But the toxic fumes hit me and I was able to stay conscious with utmost difficulty,” he recalls. He had to be admitted in a hospital.
What does working in a sewer or a septic tank entail? The men describe how they do it:
“First, we open the cover and step aside. Sometimes, so much gas has been formed inside that a man can die immediately if he just peeps in. After some time, we stir the muck inside with a rod. If bubbles appear on the surface, it means there is presence of gas. Then, we just wait till the bubbles disappear. Sometimes, we throw dust over it; if the dust flies, it means there is still gas inside. Then we get in and work inside, unblocking the sewer or the septic tank. If the sewer is deep, we get in with a ladder. We take a deep breath and hold it for as long as possible.”
But sometimes the gas strikes. It is usually a mix of methane, hydrogen sulphide and ammonia, among other gases. In high concentration, methane is extremely poisonous. Even in small concentrations, hydrogen sulphide can lead to major medical complications. Even with utmost caution, it is not possible at times to escape their lethality. “It is sad that even now we cannot ensure that a human being doesn’t have to go down into the sewers. We take pride in technological advances, but do not spare a moment for such simple interventions,” says Dr Renu Chhachhar, SKA’s national coordinator.
Men like Vinod know the dangers of getting into a sewer, but they know of no other work. His father was employed by the Delhi Jal Board to do the same work; he passed away in 2003. He lives in a jhuggi with his wife and a daughter, who is mentally challenged. His younger brother died of tuberculosis about three years ago. His wife works as a sweeper, too. Together, they are barely able to make ends meet. “I just hope that the Delhi government can give me a job in place of my late father,” he says.
Vinod may want the same job because he knows no other work. But the problem, says Wilson, is also that many manual scavengers, especially those who clean dry latrines, have internalised it to the extent that they think they are doing some sort of social service by cleaning up for others. “They think, ‘I clean my anus, what is the big deal about cleaning three more?’” he says. Under the new act, loans starting from Rs 1 lakh onwards have been made available for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. “But in reality, banks are very reluctant to give it without a guarantee of property. If the workers had property to show, they wouldn’t be cleaning excreta in the first place,” says Mayank Jhinjotokar, an activist working among these workers.
In the longer run, activists fear, India might witness an increase rather than a decrease in the number of manual scavengers. Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has talked about building over 100 million new toilets in rural areas alone by 2019. “In the absence of sanitation facilities for these toilets, who do you think will end up cleaning these?” Wilson asks.
The battle, Wilson says, must begin from home, though. “We must think what we are pushing down our wash basins,” he says, “We are just content once it disappears from our sight.”