Toilets, drains and septic tanks full of human and animal excrement are cleaned by the poorest of the poor, across India.
Without gloves, masks, or any protective wear at all, they trawl through waste with their bare bands.
The practice is highly dangerous and unhygienic. In recent weeks, several sanitation workers, known as ‘manual scavengers’ died doing their jobs. And they’re not the only ones. Every year, hundreds die in a similar way.
Manual scavenging was outlawed years ago, considered dangerous and dehumanizing.
But as Bismillah Geelani reports from New Delhi, tens of thousands of Dalits, or low-caste Indians, continue to risk their lives in low paid and very unpleasant jobs.
The families of sanitation workers are gathered outside a New Delhi hospital. They’re inconsolable, mourning the death of four men, who recently died while cleaning a septic tank in New Delhi.
Prem Singh’s 35 year-old younger brother is one of the dead. Prem tells me how it happened.
“Two of them first entered the pit to clean it. But as soon as they opened the lid they collapsed and fell unconscious because of the toxic gases accumulated inside,” Singh explained.
“Then the third one leaned over the manhole to see what happened. But he also fainted and fell into the pit and then my brother went in with a rope. He thought he would help them and bring them out, but after some time he too collapsed motionless in the dirt,” Singh told me.
All four suffocated to death underground.
Bezwada Wilson, President of Safai Karamchari Andolan or Sanitation Workers’ Movement says there are hundreds of deaths like this every year.
“Very recently, from April 1 to July 10, the 100 days we have just monitored and found that 39 deaths happened. Now it is happening everyday here or there,” he said.
Sanitation workers in India are all Dalits or untouchables, that is, they’re on the lowest rung of India’s rigidly hierarchical caste system.
They are hired by government, either directly or through contractors, to do menial, unpleasant and undignified jobs—like sweeping streets, cleaning toilets, clearing blockages in the sewer lines and emptying septic tanks.
And they do all this with bare hands and no protective gear.
Fifty-five-year-old Shambunath has been cleaning sewer pipes for decades.
“Our conditions have gone from bad to worse,” he said.
“We get so many diseases, almost 90% of us are sick, even the doctors do not want to treat us. Now these days there is a dengue scare everywhere, but nobody thinks about us, they don’t considers us human, they think we are made of iron so there is nothing for us, no insurance, no medical allowance, no working tools, not even gloves,” Shambunath stated.
Most manual scavengers are women.
60-year old Shanti leaves her home early each morning, carrying a basketful of ash on her head.
She goes from house to house, and to public toilets, throwing ash over the night soil in dry toilets. She then scrapes it all into her basket, puts it back on her head, and carries it away.
“Every day as I begin my work I feel like throwing up. The smell is unbearable,” she exclaimed.
“It is so difficult to do this but there’s no other way. Sometimes, I take a day off but that just doubles my work the next day.”
In 1993, Indian Parliament passed a law banning manual scavenging, deeming it an undignified occupation.
But national and state governments openly flout the laws, continuing to employ manual scavengers despite the ban.
The Railway department hires the most manual scavengers. They clear vast amounts of human waste from railway tracks.
Bezwada Wilson of the Sanitation Workers’ Movement sees India’s caste system as the real culprit.
“When you are born into a particular caste you are supposed to do particular work. So when Dalits are doing their work and dying others think it’s not a big deal,” he said.
“They think Dalits are just doing their duty, and their duty is cleaning the shit and if they lose their life while cleaning it, well then, what can we do. They don’t think that the shit is theirs or that it’s the government’s responsibility to provide sanitation.”
Wilson continued, “all the ruling class, every party and whatever position they hold, everybody knows what is happening but everybody is silent and it is a criminal silence on their part.”
As untouchables, Dalits have faced persecution from the Indian upper castes for centuries.
But soon after independence in 1947, when India declared itself to be a secular democracy and adopted a constitution, the practice of untouchability was abolished.
The constitution provided quotas in education and jobs for Dalits and other low classes.
Affirmative action did help and today Dalit presence is visible in almost every walk of Indian life.
Dalits rose to political prominence, with many elected to Parliament.
And last month, India elected a Dalit president for the second time.
But despite that, the status of Dalits as a community hasn’t changed much, says Vivek Kumar, Sociologist and an expert on Dalit Studies.
“Some people rising to positions of power has not done any good for the rest of the community,” he argued.
“They haven’t been able to provide fair representation for them, they haven’t been able to create any institution or affect a policy change in favour of the community. The fact is, Dalits today are political orphans with no access to the corridors of power and nobody to speak for them.”
But Dalits are now starting to organize and assert themselves, holding huge rallies across India, demanding equality and dignity.
Hundreds of thousands of Dalit women have thrown away their brooms and baskets--pledging to give up the humiliating occupation the curse of caste has tied them to.
“When they throw away the basket it is like throwing away the entire social structure, the caste system,” said Wilson. “That is the reason we take it as a challenge. But the government is not ready to provide any kind of support and that is the major hurdle.”