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The Cost of


Dr. Ambedkar had argued that the division of labour in India is accompanied by graded inequality and occupational immobility. Historically, lower-castes and especially untouchable communities have been forced to engage in dehumanising work. 

Words by Pradeep Salve

December 11, 2020


“Caste System is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers.”

- B. R. Ambedkar

Note: In the past month, the Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha (JJM) has profiled several families from a slum in Ranchi who are now excluded from ration provisions. According to a new nation-wide mandate, September 30th was the last date for linking ration and AADHAR cards. Anyone who failed to comply with this for whatever reasons automatically became ineligible for receiving their allotment of food-grains. Asrita and Pojhan Malhar are responsible for a family of five. The new rules have led to their ration cards being deleted. While Pojhan is a rickshaw-driver, Asrita is engaged in ragpicking work. Many of the families JJM spoke to were involved in some form of garbage collection. They are now excluded from the Public Distribution System because neither do they possess AADHAR cards nor do they have birth certificates required to obtain one. The Union Ministry’s notice to states and union territories about ensuring that no ‘genuine’ household is denied food-grain makes one wonder what is the official definition of ‘genuine’. This systematic deprivation of garbage and sanitation workers is not an exception. It has always been the rule. During the lockdown itself, eight workers have lost their lives to unsafe scavenging practices in Tamil Nadu. 


The British administratively formalized the pre-existing institution of caste-based sanitation work. One can find references to ‘town scavengers’ in colonial documents from the 1800s employed primarily from Dalit castes. In terms of the Hindu hierarchy, these were most likely the Valmikis, Doms, Mahars, Adi Dravidas etc. Halalkhors, Lalbegis, Khakrobs, were few of the many Muslim caste groups for whom the only acceptable jobs were that of sweeping-scavenging. Dalit Sikhs doing the same degraded work in Punjab were brought to Meghalaya by the British over 160 years ago to carry out official sanitation drives.


Dr. Ambedkar had argued that the division of labour in India is accompanied by graded inequality and occupational immobility. Historically, lower-castes and especially untouchable communities have been forced to engage in dehumanising work. Even today, they clean the streets, clear drains, collect garbage and waste, and transport it to and dispose of it at the dumping grounds. This is daily life for five million sanitation workers in India. These workers are exposed to various hazardous materials and toxic gases emitted by the waste which makes them vulnerable to health problems ranging from respiratory diseases to skin ailments. In Mumbai alone, 2721 workers have lost their lives between 2004 and 2014.  Presently, there are 30,000 sanitation workers in the metropolitan city of Mumbai. Septic tank and manhole cleaners are also at extreme risk of suffocating and dying while underground.


Over 50% of sanitation workers in urban India are women who are primarily from Dalit families. As frontline workers during the ongoing pandemic, they are vulnerable to a number of communicable diseases along with the virus itself. The dual burden of household labour and sanitation work is worsened by a gross lack of care for their concerns. While they too are not afforded the basic protection of safety gear, they also face difficulties in accessing public toilets due to either the non-existence of such infrastructure or because of caste segregation. There have been instances of women being denied basic necessities such as water by households they are collecting garbage from. These conditions also lead to complications during menstruation days for workers who then have nowhere to hygienically change their pads. Long walking hours bring about several health problems as women are not provided menstrual leave. In fact, a report by Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) interviewed Valmiki women in Uttar Pradesh who reported having no other option but to come to work either during their pregnancies or merely a few days after their deliveries. Their work is now considered an essential service but are they treated with the respect that essential workers deserve? Many women reported being routinely underpaid or even unpaid entirely a wage that itself stands abysmally low with a national average of Rs. 477 per day for every sanitation worker.


A recent survey of five states showed that 90% of sanitation workers in India do not have health insurance. Mortality rates among sanitation workers are generally higher than the rest of the population, at 9 workers per 1000 compared to the general population’s 7. They are now not only at heightened risk but also at risk of endangering their own families who have become more vulnerable to infection. The bureaucratic failure to provide them with protection gear too has remained unchanged during the pandemic. By the end of June, 23 sanitation workers had tested COVID positive in Bangalore. Would those banging pots and pans also dig through mounds of medical waste if it came to showing ‘support’ for frontline workers? There have been numerous reports of sanitation workers and their families testing positive for the virus while also being overburdened with financial hardships. 291 workers striking in Chennai because of these reasons were fired by the city’s civic body less than a month ago. Yet they continue to work through filthy and toxic conditions to maintain public cleanliness while having no access to equipment for their own safety.


Even worker deaths go largely unrecognized by the bureaucracy. Much like the Center has no data on lockdown-related migrant labourer deaths, it has no reliable information on the number of sanitation workers in the country. This could partially be because the state actively undercounts ‘manual scavengers’. Similar to the conundrum faced by ASHA workers who are designated ‘volunteers’ by the government, many sanitation workers are classified as casual or contractual workers in order to bypass regulations related to scavenging. So it isn’t surprising that two years ago, Punjab claimed it has only 91 ‘manual scavengers’ while a contradictory report estimated the number of households with scavenging labourers in the state to be over 11,000. The situation of workers hired as contractual labour is appalling as they are excluded from both labour protections and public welfare programs. We can learn several lessons from the COVID-19 experience; the most urgent is the need for rapid implementation of sustainable and non-human sanitation activities in India’s metropolitans. Dr. Ambedkar addressed the issues of ‘manual scavengers’ in 1943 while he was Labour Minister and stated that, “There is no meaning of having freedom if we fail to provide the basic needs, healthy and safety life for our labourers, particularly a life with dignified occupation.”

Funds for rehabilitation of people involved with manual scavenging work have still not been released while the allocations for it itself have been consistently shrinking over the years. It is hard to imagine that India will change its immiserate and casteist tradition of manual scavenging. A new proposed bill fails to adequately protect and guarantee the safety of those forced to do scavenging work. The administration and dominant caste citizens harbour only apathy. However, the strike in Agra on September 30th by Valmiki sanitation workers and the protest in Bangalore by women pourakarmikas in solidarity with the young Dalit woman who was raped and murdered by Thakur men in Hathras makes it clear that resistance against caste violence of all forms will not end any time soon.

DR. PRADEEP SALVE is an Assistant Director at Population Research Centre (PRC)

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