Death by sewage: clean-ups, caste and contracts in India

When five men died attempting to clean a cesspit in New Delhi on 9 September, it was news around the world and big news in India. The level of coverage was unusual, because a person dies cleaning cesspits and sewers in India about once every five days. Such deaths rarely rate more than a few media paragraphs.

A few things made the recent deaths different. The deaths in New Delhi happened in a middle-class gated community in the nation’s capital and a media hotbed; for five men to die on the same job was unusual; and the deaths happened after four years of a top-priority campaign initiated by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to create a Swachh Bharat—a Clean India—by 2 October 2019, the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into the Clean India enterprise, including a vast toilet-building program to eliminate open defecation. The campaign’s rural website shows over 85 million rural toilets built in the past four years with the number clocking up every minute. In urban areas, the ticker shows construction of close to five million household toilets and 400,000 community toilets.

Yet India’s towns and cities harbour a darker sanitation story. In scores of small towns, thousands of latrines are still cleaned by hand—faeces scraped from floors and tipped into wicker baskets usually carried on the heads of women and dumped in a drain or convenient water body.

In cities with sewers, blockages are cleared by men who are nearly always untrained and ill-equipped. And the “septic tanks” of public buildings and gated communities are often nothing more than large cesspits. When full, they get clogged, back up and need to be unblocked and pumped out—again by ill-equipped men like those who died in Delhi.

“Manual scavenging”—removing faeces with human hands—has been illegal since 1993 and was made even more illegal with further legislation in 2013. But the Safai Karamchari Andolan, an organisation that works for the welfare of such workers, has recorded 170 such deaths since January 2017.

The reason why this is so—and the reason that jeopardises the success of the Clean India campaign—rarely speaks its name. It is caste—the belief, still widely held, that certain people are born to do society’s dirty work. These people, once referred to as “untouchables,” have been receivers, removers and transmitters of “pollution,” ritual and real, for hundreds of years.

Today, they are called Dalits—200 million people (15% of the population). Dalits are themselves divided into various subcastes. They are spread fairly evenly across India, they speak the languages of their region and nowhere are they in a majority. Few things, except their deprivation, bind them as a nation-wide force.

The practice of untouchability was made illegal in the Indian constitution of 1950, and various affirmative provisions are part of the state apparatus. But most of the hands-on tasks of waste management are done by Dalits, augmented by poor Muslims and lower-caste people displaced from villages.

Long-standing caste prejudice fits disturbingly well with the goal of creating a clean and green India through managerial techniques such as public-private partnerships and sub-contracts that diffuse responsibility. Accountability and transparency quickly dissolve in a complex web, designed to redistribute risks and assign tasks to casual workers hired by fly-by-night subcontractors.

Dalits and others, desperate for work, are driven to continue their “traditional” occupations—of maintaining inadequate public sanitation, especially sewerage systems. They are sent into underworlds of sewage that can only be safely approached by well-trained workers in the elaborate gear of deep-sea divers and cleaned out by suitable technology.

Free-market enthusiasts often claim that if waste had value, profit would overcome prejudice. To an extent, this is proving the case, with private enterprise muscling into the waste and recycling industry, pushing out waste-pickers and recyclers in the informal sector. But human waste is a far less attractive proposition. Unlike places such as China and Japan, where faeces and urine once were harvested for their value as fertiliser, human waste in India is considered ritually polluting and its removal the responsibility of people born to the task.

Nevertheless, entrepreneurs and NGOs are developing mechanisms that transform the contents of cesspits into valuable manure for agriculture. In some part of India, trucks are fitted with pumping units that can clear up to seven cesspits a day. Such trucks have been fondly dubbed “honey-suckers” to describe the sludge that they extract and deposit on farm land on the outskirts of cities, where it is covered and allowed to mature into manure. Ideally, such systems can help minimise the need for sewage treatment plants and for manual cleaning of cesspits.

However, when hundreds of thousands septic tanks and cesspits need regular emptying, shady honey-suckers can make a fast buck by dumping contents quickly wherever they can. This adds to the thousands of litres of untreated sewage and sludge dumped into rivers, backwaters and the sea every day.

There are also inspiring efforts to develop sewer cleaning technologies to replace the need for manual scavenging. Bandicoot and Sewer Croc are two promising examples that use robotic devices fitted with sensors and turbines designed to clear sewage pipes, detect poisonous gasses and alert authorities to overflows and blockages. Several on India’s states are experimenting with such innovations.

But expelling human excrement from a household is only the beginning. It would be misleading to believe that technology alone can overcome India’s problems with sewage. The technology is still complex and costly to operate and requires steady maintenance. For now, it seems more likely that under-skilled and cash-strapped municipalities will continue to rely on “the cheaper version”: an unorganised labour force whose lives are locked into dealing with waste.

Sudharak Olwe, a documentary photographer, has described—and illustrated—the conditions of such workers in Mumbai: “All 30,000 of them are Dalits.  … all of them despise their work … They … work in the midst of filth, with no protective gear, not even access to water to wash off the slime … Alcohol becomes their near and dear friend.”

When people die in sewage-related deaths, they are almost always Dalits or very poor Muslims. But the five deaths in Delhi in September were a little different. One of those who died was a young Brahmin, who was on the “housekeeping” staff of the gated community where the deaths occurred. The young man’s cousin was reported as lamenting the death: “We are Brahmins. It was not his job to clean septic tanks. Nobody deserves to die like this, nobody from any caste.” It appears he may have been “management” seeking to discover why a contracted job was not being completed.

The Clean India campaign offers a vast opportunity to fulfil the implicit promises of the constitution to eliminate discrimination based on birth. But in all the official energy, expenditure and public relations devoted to the campaign, questions of caste prejudice and discrimination are not explicitly tackled.

A lasting, cleaner India depends on undermining the enduring belief that removal of tainted things, of which human waste is the most tainted, is the responsibility of people who are born to the task. A first step will be to ensure that those who do the work are armed with equipment, training and proper payment. And children of waste-workers need to see and believe that they are not destined inevitably for the sewers.

Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey are authors of Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India (Harvard University Press, 2018).

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