In India, sanitation has always been seen as ‘unholy’ work. Governments take sanitation workers for granted, and continue to exploit them.

Raees Muhammad speaking at a podiumTwitter
Features Sanitation Workers Friday, December 30, 2022 - 17:01

If you don’t like it, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude: Maya Angelou

“It is a shame that you are cleaning septic tanks even after earning a postdoctoral degree. You should have become a lecturer in a university”— This is the refrain that I constantly hear from those around me, including my parents, for choosing to clean septic tanks for a living. Their objection to my choice of work is partially because of the outmoded ways in which septic tanks are cleaned in India. Their disapproval also stems from the association of academics with white collar jobs. All my work during PhD, Post Doctorate, and the fellowship at Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS) were focused on sanitation in India. Both my research and my experience in this line of work have shown me that the stigma attached to sanitation can be removed only if we address the circumstances on the ground. I chose this occupation in the hope that I will be able to do that.

Actual problems drowned in popular debates

The stigma around sanitation work is still prevalent in India. The little discussion that is there on sanitation workers is limited to two approaches: one advising workers to ‘leave the job’, ‘let other castes work’, and calling it ‘forced labour’, and the other demanding ‘safety equipment’. The popular perception of manual scavenging is restricted to cleaning of dry latrines and manholes. However, the deplorable working conditions of septic tank cleaning workers, which often involve manual cleaning, and the several humiliations that they endure while working with low budget equipment, are seldom discussed. Instances where workers got drenched in sewage or are forced to enter septic tanks are not rare. The actual problems facing the workforce often get drowned by popular intellectual discussions on the lot of sanitation workers. 

Low budget equipment

To start a septic tank cleaning business, one requires an investment of Rs 10-15 lakhs. Since this is a large amount, most workers function on low budget alternatives that include a water pump, a plastic tank of around 2000-litre capacity, and a pick-up vehicle. Working with low budget equipment involves several hassles. Napkins, condoms, and other objects tend to block the pump, forcing us to manually remove them from the septic tank. Frequent pump breakdowns would again require us to manually remove sewage. There is hardly any equipment for septic tank cleaning available in the market, for needs ranging from opening the tank, measuring its depth, checking if it contains solid waste, to converting it to liquid for the motor to pump. The unavailability of machinery and indifference of the authorities force septic tank cleaners to continue manually disposing the waste. This aspect of manual scavenging is rarely addressed by civil society. 

However, a modern vehicle such as the compressor lorry does not require manual cleaning. Even though the compressor vehicle is the government-approved method for septic tank cleaning,  no one follows the rules. In the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu, there are around 30 septic tank cleaning vehicles, a majority of which are of the low budget variety. None of them, except me,  are locals who hail from a sanitation worker’s background. They are from Malai Kuravars, whose traditional occupation is making bamboo products.

Discriminatory treatment

Persons engaged in septic tank cleaning also have to face discriminatory treatment at the hands of the house owners where they work. Often, we are refused drinking water and/or tea. Once, we were denied water while cleaning the septic tank at a close friend’s house because they didn’t have disposable cups to serve us water. Some house owners pay us in large amounts as no one else is willing to do this work, while others take us for granted and pay very little. Neither of them respect our labour. 

Evolution of caste-based sanitation work

Sanitation work in India has evolved through the years. Earlier, only workers from certain castes were engaged to manually dispose of human waste from dry latrines. Later, latrines were connected to a septic tank or to a sewage pipe. When manual scavenging was still the norm, the workforce was composed of one particular caste. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, they were the  Arunthathiyars (formerly known as Chakkiliyar). They were branded as ‘thotti’ (manual scavengers) based on their work. Until the abolition of manual scavenging in 1990, workers would go door-to-door to collect human waste and dispose of it in dumping yards. After this practice was abolished, the workforce diversified to include multiple castes, albeit only from within scheduled castes (SC) and backward castes (BC). In India, a change in working conditions also affects the composition of the workforce.

Initially no other community was willing to do manual scavenging. Vijay Prashad , in his book Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community (2002), recounted how this forced the government in Delhi to visit certain Dalit colonies and offer them the work. Such practices were found in states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, West Bengal, and Kashmir, among others. Wherever the sanitation workers went, they were excluded by the general public and not accepted by any other castes. This was a peculiar treatment faced only by those castes that engaged in sanitation work. This is one of the reasons why the scavenging population in each state speak a different language from the official language and are considered migrants. The states also did not want the scavengers to become organised and hence preferred ‘outsiders’ to do the work.

After the abolition of manual scavenging, the government stopped collecting manual scavenging tax and stopped offering its services to remove human waste from houses. It also changed the workforce’s name from scavengers to sweepers. The public was encouraged to construct flush-toilets. However, even today, officials hardly pay attention to how toilets and septic tanks are built in each house. In Tamil Nadu, the government released the Operative Guidelines for Septage Management for Local Bodies, but officials do not follow these rules while giving approval for houses. Due to government negligence, public toilets, as well those in houses, are poorly maintained. Hence, oftentimes manual scavenging is still practised while cleaning the toilets. 

Even when machinery is available, for instance, to clean roads and unclog ditches and manholes, local bodies are not interested in introducing them. Not even garbage lorries have yearly fitness certificates. Very often, they are overloaded, with tires and brakes in poor condition.  Even though the term used to address the workers has changed from scavenger to sweeper in government records, the working condition of sanitation workers and septic tank cleaners and the stigma associated with them have not improved because of the absence of mechanisation. Nevertheless, India has shown progress by officially abolishing manual scavenging.  This has encouraged persons from other SC and BC communities to take up the job of government sweepers. Yet, due to the absence of machinery and the stigma, they prefer to work as drivers, peons, security guards, etc. Nevertheless, I see the change in the caste composition of the sweepers as an interesting progressive development.

In India, sanitation has always been seen as ‘unholy’ work. Respective governments have evaded addressing the stigma and appointed workers from SC and BC communities, who don't have anyone to question their working condition. Authorities take sanitation workers for granted, and continue to exploit them. For instance, despite being an exclusive department, sanitation work is the only government job without specific rules, let it be morning and afternoon roll calls, working on holidays, no leave on weekdays, and no medical insurance. Unlike other government employees, these workers are held at the mercy of their sanitary inspector. Until a few decades back, a sanitation worker had to give a notice of 30 days even to take leave, failure to do which could even result in imprisonment. These days, punishments take the form of not being given work for the next week or two.  

Until the formation of municipalities, sanitation workers were an unorganised workforce. After municipalities were set up, those engaging in sanitation work were integrated into the system and became an organised workforce. In other modern societies, the focus of governments has been on providing good sanitation service through the building of toilets, sewage connection, and introduction of  cleaning machinery. In India, however, the focus is only on disposing of human waste at minimum expenditure. The labour force is nothing more than a means to address the public's needs, and are considered easily disposable. Sadly, even government quarters, railway stations, and schools built at an earlier point in time did not have toilets. Even now, toilets are hardly seen in public spaces. It will require a separate paper to discuss how India’s public spaces are not people-friendly. 

Alternatives to door-to-door garbage collection

Neglected from all sides, the conditions of sanitary workers have become worse with each passing day. For example, town panchayats in Tamil Nadu employ very few permanent sweepers to dispose of garbage, despite the growing  urban population.  For a long while, they used to take in daily wage labourers, who, in some cases, had been working for more than 10 years. Two years back, the government decided to organise them into self help groups (SHG) with a secretary. The secretary could remove/appoint anyone as they please. Often, these secretaries are appointed by the local administration. Repeated RTI queries in different panchayats have revealed that none of them have the rules about how the SHGs should function. It is understood that SHGs were introduced only in order to prevent the workers from organising and demanding permanent status. 

When the Union government introduced the Swachh Bharat policy, many women were recruited under SHG for door-to-door garbage collection. Incidents of sexual harassment faced by these women go unnoticed. Repeated requests to follow the Vishaka guidelines (procedural guidelines for use in India in cases of sexual harassment) go unheard by the authorities.  These women are paid amounts lower than the minimum wages and cannot approach labour courts as they are not contractual labour but part of SHGs. 

I fail to understand why sanitation workers are asked to collect garbage from every house. These workers are not even provided proper equipment to collect garbage and have to themselves buy sacks for it. Most houses hardly segregate the waste. Even if they do, sanitation workers can barely drag two sacks through the gullies. This is nothing but a modern replacement for the old method of collecting human waste from houses. The Union government’s Municipal Solid Waste Management Manual gives authority to the workers to fine those houses that do not segregate waste. Local bodies do not implement these rules. Hence, in practice, the workers are helpless and have to segregate the waste themselves. Instead of putting the pressure on the public, the government puts the burden of collecting garbage on the workers.  The Tamil Nadu government introduced a programme called My Garbage, My Responsibility. But whose responsibility is it when the garbage is in the dustbin? Many hotels in the state ask customers to drop used plantain leaves in the dustbin. Even then, sanitation workers have to use their hands to separate  food waste from the leaves to compost the waste. Instead of merely proclaiming that one’s garbage is one’s responsibility, the government should approach garbage as everyone's responsibility rather than individualising it. It is high time that the government, which currently focuses only on clearing the garbage from houses, starts paying attention to the conditions of sanitation workers.

The government needs to rethink both the door-to-door garbage collection and its My Garbage, My Responsibility campaign. Until then, local authorities should strictly implement the existing rules regarding door-to-door collection and septage management.  

Raees Muhammad is the director of Dalit Camera and the owner of Kotagiri Septic Tank Cleaning. He can be contacted at

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