Unlike upper castes, we have neither money nor education: TN's manual scavengers

"Time and again, deadlines and dates were set to end manual scavenging. Nothing changed," said Samuel.
Unlike upper castes, we have neither money nor education: TN's manual scavengers
Unlike upper castes, we have neither money nor education: TN's manual scavengers
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The common refrain among the Scheduled Castes of across Tamil Nadu is that they are forced to do manual scavenging because unlike people of the upper castes, they were neither educated, nor had the money to invest into a business.

In 1993, the government of India banned manual scavenging – the handling of human faeces directly by humans. In 2013, it also banned the handling of human excreta in any form by expanding the definition of the term to include people who descend into manholes to unclog blocked drainage or to clean septic tanks. However, in Tamil Nadu people of the Chakliyar, Domban, Parayar, Koaravan castes continue to do this work.

Thirty-nine-year old Koppaiya’s life is a summary of the problem and the contradictions of the system. Belonging to the Chakliyar caste, he works both under private contractors hired by the Chennai Corporation to clean the city’s clogged sewerage system and also cleans septic tanks of private persons.

He says that cleaning of septic tanks was all the only work he knew. “Unlike people of upper caste, we are not educated and do not have money to start our own business. So we are forced to continue to do what our fathers were doing,” Koppaiya said.

Like other sanitation workers who end up doing manual scavenging, Koppaiya too is exposed to health risks and even a threat to his life. “The gases inside the septic tank are very harmful. Our eyes burn and they cause skin allergies. It can also cause breathing problems,” Koppaiya added.

For 32-year-old Zechariah, the profession has, in a manner of speaking, passed from father to son.

“My father Lazar suffered from Tuberculosis for 10 years and died in 1996 because he did this work. At the age of 17, I also started working as a sewage worker and have been doing it for 15 years now,” said Zechariah, resident of Tambaram.

Sewage workers earn between Rs 300 and Rs 600 for cleaning one septic tank. In a month they would be called to clean between four and six septic tanks, meaning that their earnings will not exceed Rs. 3000. Many of them also do domestic work and take up clerical jobs in hospitals when they are not hired by contractors for cleaning septic tanks.

In Madurai district’s Usilampatti village, Amutha’s story is slightly different. “Municipal Corporation officials come and threaten us not to go for sewage work but what other work can we go for?,” she said. Her husband died in a septic tank, but their son, Paalapati continues to do the work in Chennai to feed their family.

To add insult to injury, literally, the children of sewage workers are ridiculed for their parents’ work.  “Other children make fun of my children because we work as sewage workers,” says Pandichelvi of Madurai.  


In order to remind the state governments that they are supposed to put an end to this practice and also implement a 2013 Supreme Court order regarding the rehabilitation and compensation of manual scavengers, the Safaikaramchari Andolan has organized a 125-day Bhim Yatra.

The yatra, which began on December 10 last year, will cover 500 districts across the country and culminate on April 13.

Currently in its Chennai leg, the Andolan urged the state government to pay Rs 10 lakh to the families of all deceased workers since 1993 and cash payment of Rs. 40,000 as immediate relief to individual manual scavenging workers.

Tamil Nadu Convenor of the Andolan Samuel Velankanni told The News Minute: “Time and again, deadlines and dates were set to end manual scavenging. Nothing changed. Manual scavenging is a manifestation of untouchability and caste oppression and is followed shamelessly till date.”

The law must be followed, but it must be supplemented with the provision of alternatives for people like Koppaiya, who say: “We are not educated and this is the only work that we know so we tend to do this for supporting our families.”

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