‘What’s worse than the job is the humiliation we face’

India’s sewer cleaners speak up on their caste-ridden occupation, outlawed but not eradicated

This is part of a weekly series of feature stories, videos and podcasts in which The Straits Times correspondents cast the spotlight on people and communities around the region who are living in the shadows of their societies where they exist largely unseen, unheard and little talked about.

BANGALORE – Mr Pedanna G had just put his feet up on the bed in his two-room house in Bangalore when his phone rang for the fourth time that Sunday.

“Another person with a blocked toilet,” he said, hopping off the bed and slipping on his khaki work shirt and mask. Even before he had reached the end of the street, his phone rang again. It was the same person, confirming if Mr Pedanna was on his way. Could he hurry please? Could he take an autorickshaw instead of the bus?

“Rich people panic when their loo is overflowing. That is when they need me the most,” said Mr Pedanna, 55.

Mr Pedanna G waiting for work at his usual place near the fish market of a middle-class neighbourhood in south Bangalore. PHOTO: ARVIND DEV

The man on the phone called Mr Pedanna “anna” (older brother), but after 20 years of cleaning toilets, drains and manholes, he knew that it was lip service.

As soon as clean water began to gush through the pipes and the customer was flooded with relief, their hierarchies would snap back in place.

“I just hope he gives me fair wages,” Mr Pedanna said, hailing a tuk-tuk, whose fare he hoped the customer would pay. He usually charges 1,000 rupees (S$18.30) per cleaning job, but without fixed wages, payments are always uncertain for freelance workers like him.

A caste-ridden curse

Mr Pedanna is what India calls a manual scavenger.

In cities and villages, it is common to see men and women cleaning latrines and sewers using brooms, sticks and, often, bare hands. These workers manually carry and dispose of human excreta from streets, gutters and septic tanks in homes, offices and hospitals. Some enter manholes with sewage water up to their necks to unclog pipes.

The work remains essential due to the country’s inadequate sewerage system and lack of home toilets, which leads to open defecation.

In rural India and slums, a third of the people relieve themselves in the streets and open fields.

Even in urban areas, only 30 per cent of households have toilets connected to waterborne sewer systems. Common latrines are often little more than holes in the ground, and when they get full, someone is needed to clear them out. Where it exists, the sewerage system is often old and easily clogged.

Some cities such as Bangalore have mechanised systems to fix major blockages, and corporations are banned from using manual cleaners.

But in old or rapidly growing neighbourhoods without proper drainage systems, people still call for someone to put their hand into faecal sludge or jump into a sewer to manually unclog it.

Mr Pedanna removing a manhole cover to find the source of a blockage. PHOTO: ARVIND DEV

Unless poor, most Indians tend to employ someone else to clean their toilets and, by extension, their sewers. In a caste-ridden society, this work was often forced upon a sub-group of Dalits, a marginalised community of former untouchables.

To repair centuries of oppression, India today penalises such caste discrimination and has a system of affirmative action. The present Indian president is a Dalit man.

But to this day, Dalits in the country remain poor and shunned by society. The most oppressed groups among them are forced to clean sewers.

The work is disgusting – and dangerous.

In the past five years to December last year, 340 people have died from inhaling noxious fumes or slipping in manholes.

Thousands of others such as Mr Pedanna have had wounds and cuts all over their hands and legs, chronic aches and breathing difficulties. Unlike sanitation workers, they get no equipment or protective gear.

“But what hurts most of all is the humiliation we are subjected to,” said Mr Pedanna.

It is not uncommon for people to abuse or beat him up. As he waited for a cup of tea at a small shop, the store owner kept a wide distance and put the water jug away to prevent him from drinking from it.

“People hurl insults at my caste. When I take the bus, some don’t let me sit. Maybe I stink. Some won’t give me water to drink or wash my hands. Frankly, it is very painful. I keep a smiling face but at the end of the day, I feel depressed,” Mr Pedanna said.

“Why am I stuck doing this job?”

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India’s sewer cleaners speak up on their caste-ridden occupation, outlawed but not eradicated.

Forced underground

Manual scavenging is perhaps modern India’s greatest shame. Recognised as a form of slavery, it was outlawed in 1993. Since then, it has been illegal for anyone to employ manual scavengers.

Still, thousands continue to manually clear sewers and toilets due to their poverty and place in the caste hierarchy.

Officially, their numbers have dropped from 770,338 in 2008 to about 48,000 in January last year. But activists say this is a gross under-assessment, and put the number closer to around 1.2 million. The Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 has also identified 182,505 Indian households with the primary occupation of manual scavenging.

Incomplete and half-hearted surveys seek to make an already invisible community disappear from the records, said Mr Bezwada Wilson, one of the founders of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a nationwide movement to eradicate manual scavenging.

A cesspit bubbling with toxic fumes. Sewer cleaners are sometimes forced to physically enter these holes to unclog the sewerage system. PHOTO: ARVIND DEV
A latrine chamber being cleared out in a Bangalore neighbourhood. PHOTO: ARVIND DEV

A November 2019 report by the World Health Organisation found that the Indian government’s attempts to show fewer Indians engaged in this dehumanising work had only driven manual scavenging underground.

Ms Vani Nagendrappa, managing director of a company the Karnataka state government formed in 2016 to offer loans and support to sanitation workers to shift to other jobs, said: “We do public awareness campaigns to inform citizens that if they employ manual cleaners for their homes, they will be jailed. But they continue to call them out of ignorance and habit, and the workers continue to go.

“We need citizens to report where it is happening for us to be able to stop it,” she said.

Dignity neither in life nor death

The workers’ lack of bargaining power, illiteracy, social vulnerability and poverty, combined with weak legal oversight, have led to the worst, riskiest sanitation jobs such as sewer cleaning being subcontracted to temporary, informal workers.

Mr Narayanswamy Muniappa lost his 25-year-old son to the job years ago. He says he never received compensation for his son's death. PHOTO: ARVIND DEV

Manual scavengers working independently under the radar have no protections or safety nets.

Mr Narayanswamy Muniappa, a 66-year-old sewer cleaner, lost his 25-year-old son to the same job two decades ago.

“The municipality contractor had forced my son to enter a manhole. He felt faint due to the gases and fell. He drowned in the sewage before his partner pulled him out,” said Mr Narayanswamy, who cannot forget the black sludge oozing from his son’s nostrils throughout the funeral.

Accidents from losing consciousness and death by asphyxiation in septic tanks and sewers, pit collapse or falling masonry and wounds from sharp debris are shockingly frequent.

If a worker dies while performing such work, even with safety gear and other precautions, the police are required to investigate the case and get the employer to pay a million rupees to the family.

Mr Narayanswamy tried to collect the compensation, but the municipality asked for proof that his son was indeed hired for pit cleaning by the said employer. The municipality claimed the young man had died because he was drunk.

“I didn’t have the energy, money or time to fight it,” said Mr Narayanswamy. Since that day, however, he has kept a notebook with a neat list of names and addresses of people who call him for work. “If the police ask me for proof that I do this work, I will show them this,” he said.

He also quit drinking, a harder decision for pit cleaners than most can imagine.

Mr Munisamy Katappa, a 70-year-old worker in Mr Narayanswamy’s neighbourhood, said: “I drink so that I can endure the horrid stink of excrement, and the disgust and humiliation I feel.”

He nursed a swollen hand that had been cut by a piece of glass in a toilet chamber some weeks ago.

Many like him also work at night to avoid neighbours’ objections or ugly abuses.

These common practices exacerbate the risk of accidents.

In 2019 alone, even as India expanded a nationwide Clean India Mission to end open defecation, build toilets for homes in poor areas and mechanise sewage cleaning, 110 people died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

In the past decade, the average toll has been one or two each week killed by toxic fumes and accidents in slippery manholes.

Despite stringent provisions, few police complaints are filed when a manual scavenger dies, and employers who illegally force workers to climb into sewers often go scot-free.

“If employers force us to work without safety gear or go inside a manhole, we are helpless,” Mr Munisamy said.

ABOVE: Mr Pedanna G, 55, waiting for work at his usual place near the fish market of a middle-class neighbourhood in south Bangalore. He is what is known in India as a manual scavenger, someone who cleans toilets, drains and manholes by hand. RIGHT:
Mr Munisamy Katappa at home with his family. He says he drinks so he can "endure the horrid stink of excrement, and the disgust and humiliation" that he feels. PHOTO: ARVIND DEV

Hard to break out

India introduced rehabilitation packages and skills training workshops in 2013 to manual scavengers who wanted to quit – one-time cash assistance of 40,000 rupees and loans of up to 1.5 million rupees at low interest. Last year, the Indian government also launched the Safaimitra Suraksha Challenge, which aims to completely mechanise all septic and sewage tank cleaning operations in 243 cities across India by the end of this month.

But these policies have had little impact on the ground.

"The government gives the families of the manual scavengers 1 million rupees if they die at work, but what use is that? For them and their children to survive, the government should give them 5 million rupees and a decent job," said Mrs Shakuntalamma, a social worker with the Safai Karamchari Kavalu Samiti, a committee that monitors manual scavenging in Karnataka.

"If the workers are illiterate, at least give jobs and a loan to their children. That would bring real change. Instead, we see no rehabilitation, and every day, people die in the sewers."

Of the 87,913 manual scavengers identified in a 2018 survey in 14 towns, for instance, only 27,268 received any form of help from the Social Justice Ministry in charge of the rehabilitation programme. Activists say the programme is made redundant by too much bureaucracy and corruption.

At a union meeting in February in Bangalore, dozens of experienced sanitation workers who qualified for the state rehabilitation package said they had found the paperwork daunting.

Mr Munisamy's teenage granddaughter Chandana helping him put on his gloves before he heads out for work. PHOTO: ARVIND DEV

Ms Nagendrappa said manual scavenging is largely fuelled by individuals and private businesses, and that the government uses only mechanised cleaning equipment. But the sanitation workers said the government cannot absolve itself of responsibility.

They asked why they were not included in the nationwide shift to mechanised sewer cleaning.

“The sewage department trained us one year ago to operate the jet-cleaner, but when residents call them for a cleaning, they rarely take us along. Private contractors who own the machines employ their own set of workers,” explained one worker.

Hopes for the next generation

It is no surprise that many manual scavengers pin all their hopes on their children.

“My kids and grandchildren should be educated so they get other job opportunities. That is my wish,” said Mr Munisamy.

His granddaughter Chandana, 17, said she wants to become a lawyer, if only “to shame all the people who call us names, close their nose when we pass by and don’t think of us as humans”.

“First, people left my grandfather no option but to clean their excrement, and then they said they won’t touch us because we are dirty,” she said. “We all have the same blood, eat the same food. I wish people would see human ability, and not box us in by caste.”

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Mr Pedanna’s son Ravindra Kumar, 26, holds a bachelor’s degree in commerce, but found work only as a part-time garbage collector for the municipality.

“Once new employers know what caste we belong to, they refuse to give us anything other than sanitation work. But I want manual scavenging to end with my father. I will never do it,” he said.

After five jobs that Sunday, Mr Pedanna vigorously washed his hands and legs, and sat down.

As Mr Ravindra massaged his father’s calves with medicated oil, he said: “As a boy, I was ashamed to tell people that my father is a sewer cleaner. But now I know that he is actually a public servant, like a doctor or a policeman. I just wish people would respect him.”