The invisible manual scavengers of Kerala’s Kozhikode

In its response to an RTI query, the Kozhikode Corporation says that it has implemented no schemes to provide assistance to former manual scavengers, because no such worker has been identified under its jurisdiction.
Some of the residents in Chakkamkadavu colony
Some of the residents in Chakkamkadavu colony
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As the practice of manual scavenging continues to prevail, TNM examined five municipalities in the five southern states, which reported high instances of manual scavenging. Besides investigating the reasons for this prevalence, TNM also critically looked into the role of district administrations and what measures they have implemented.
Wearing a stained black lungi and faded blue shorts, Subramanian enters a nearly 8-10 ft deep septic tank from which arises a nauseating smell of wastewater and excreta. The stench seems to have driven everyone else, including the owner of the house, away from the vicinity — a luxury that Subramanian cannot afford. With the help of four other workers, he is in the process of clearing the tank of its thick black-coloured sludge. Isn’t it ironic, he asks. “We do this work primarily to feed ourselves and our families. But we don’t, and can’t, eat on days like these.”

As per The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, a “manual scavenger” is any person who is employed or involved in “manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta,” be it in an insanitary latrine, open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in any other spaces or premises. But in case what Subramanian and his friends are doing is suspiciously reminiscent of this definition, it would seem you are mistaken. They are not ‘manual scavengers’, but just a few among the hundreds of ‘tank workers’ who have been engaged in this work in Kozhikode for decades. Because if the government data is to be believed, there are simply no manual scavenging workers in Kozhikode.

In its response to an RTI query about the data of manual scavengers and deaths reported among them in Kozhikode filed by TNM, the corporation has asserted that it has implemented no schemes or provisions to provide assistance to former manual scavengers as per the 2013 Act, because no such worker has been identified under its jurisdiction.

According to the data available with the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation, as many as 518 persons were identified as manual scavengers in Kerala as part of the National Survey 2018, and provided one-time cash assistance. None of them, however, were from Kozhikode.

Speaking to TNM, R Ajayakumar Varma, former Executive Director of the Suchitwa Mission and former senior scientist in the Environmental Sciences division at the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS), says that the practice of manual scavenging was made illegal in Kerala as early as in 1959. “Following a protest headed by prominent freedom fighter Jubba Ramakrishna Pillai at the time, the practice was made illegal and the workers were made sanitary workers. After that, in 1982, the Kerala government issued an order banning the practice,” he says.

Three people cleaning a septic tank in Kozhikode

But despite officially abolishing the practice much before the 2013 Act enforced a pan-India ban, if anything, the state has so far only been successful in eradicating the usage of the word ‘scavenger’ to refer to the workers, even as the act of scavenging continues unhindered in the name of sanitation work, also known as ‘tank pani’ (tank work) in local parlance. Earlier, the practice used to be referred to as ‘thotti pani’ locally.

A worker being helped into a septic tank

“Manual scavenging was banned in 1982 here, after which some of us were absorbed into the Kozhikode Municipal Corporation as contingency workers. There, we became sweepers. Now we are called sanitation workers. Our names keep changing, but our fates do not,” says Marimuthu, a retired contingent worker and president of the Contingent Pensioners’ Association, who was inducted into the Corporation in 1985.

What the law says

As per The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, any person who is engaging a worker to clean sewers, septic tanks, drains, or any space where human wastes are to be handled, is in clear violation of the law; and any person employing a person to clean a septic tank (as in the case of Kozhikode) shall either be punished with imprisonment for a term that may extend to one year, or with fine that may extend to Rs 50,000, or with both. If the person repeats the crime, they may be imprisoned for upto two years, or with fine that may extend to Rs 1 lakh, or both.

Besides, a Supreme Court order of 2014 clearly lays down the steps to be taken towards the rehabilitation of workers “based on the principles of justice and transformation”. The order says that they are to be rehabilitated in the following manner: they shall be given an initial cash assistance; allotted a residential plot and financial assistance for house construction, or a ready-built house with financial assistance; livelihood skill training to at least one member of the family and a monthly stipend of not less than Rs 3,000 during the period of training; a subsidy and concessional loan for taking up an alternative occupation on a sustainable basis.

However, the administration has so far made none of these rehabilitation measures available to the workers in Kozhikode, a majority of whom, in fact, do not even know of the existence of such options. So despite the SC order, why has the Corporation done little to protect these workers? The answer is simple — it is because they have been systematically invisibilised. As Kozhikode Corporation Mayor Beena Philip puts it, “there are no scavengers working under the government right now, and hence there is no need for rehabilitation”. People who used to work as manual scavengers in Kozhikode before the practice was abolished here have already been provided rehabilitation, she says.

The ‘scavenger’ colonies

As pointed out by the Mayor, in the early 1980s the government had allotted five colonies within the Kozhikode Municipal Corporation limits for the rehabilitation of former scavengers. Besides being inducted into the Corporation as sweepers, approximately one-and-a-half to two cents of land was allotted to each worker. Some of these plots came with four walls and a thatched roof to call a home. “Apart from this, none of us have received any rehabilitation. Everything you see in those colonies now was built by the workers, with our own money,” says Karuppasamy, who had been a manual scavenger in Kozhikode for around 30 years. The residents of the five colonies also assert that none of them have been given any livelihood skill training so far.

One of the colonies allotted to workers of Kozhikode Municipal corporation as rehabilitation

Saamy from Chakkumkadavu colony tells TNM that the colony was initially called ‘thotti colony’, roughly translated to ‘scavengers’ colony’. “The official name is Chakkumkadavu, but people still address this place as the ‘thotti colony’. Those who live here, including youngsters, are only seen as scavengers or septic tank cleaners and nothing more. People come to the colony and randomly ask anyone standing in the area to come clean their septic tanks. They don’t give us any other job. This will continue to be so even if one of us becomes a doctor or an engineer, as long as we live inside this colony,” Saamy says.

Shiva, whose father and grandfather had worked as manual scavengers in Kozhikode, points out that even though the nature of their work may have changed, the essence remains the same. “Earlier, we had to collect the human waste from each house and carry it in baskets. During rains, these baskets would overflow and the waste would fall on us. Our bodies would stink all the time. We weren’t allowed inside tea shops or hotels. But what could we have done? We simply carried on with our work,” says Shiva, a native of Madurai.

Like Shiva, most of the residents of the five ‘scavenger’ colonies in Kozhikode are the third or fourth generation descendants of workers who had migrated from Tamil Nadu several decades ago — some before the Indian Independence, some others during the local protests during the late 1950s and early 60s against the practice of manual scavenging. In the early 1900s, before the division of the states, people belonging to the Chakliyan community were brought from Tamil Nadu to the Kerala region by the British to do menial jobs. Similarly, around 1959, the then state government opened its doors for more people from Tamil Nadu, in a seeming bid to foil the local protests against scavenging by getting immigrants to do the work.

“Our forefathers came here in search of better livelihood opportunities. But instead, we ended up getting sucked into this abyss, becoming scavengers for generations. The only difference between us and them is that they at least received a few benefits because they were scavengers on record. We do not have benefits or even a safety net, because we are not called scavengers and are not registered workers. But this does not mean that we no longer have to do scavenging work. We still have to do it, just without anyone knowing,” says Sathyanadhan, another ‘tank worker’ in the area.

Untouchability thrives

The Corporation’s ‘sanitation workers’ comprise people from all kinds of castes and religions, but no one other than them are asked to do tank cleaning work or referred to as ‘thotti panikkaar’ (manual scavengers), says Shiva. “Even if people from our community study abroad and return, they will continue to be called thotti panikkaar,” he says. “In fact, the sanitation workers from other communities do not even want to live with us in the government quarters in these colonies,” says Shiva, who continues to do tank work even after returning from Oman, where he formerly used to work.

Sathyanadhan points out that no one even bothers to clean their colonies or spray pesticides intended for mosquitoes there. They [the government] ban the word ‘manual scavenger’, but do nothing to help the people, he says. Sathyanadhan’s words are echoed by Subburaj, who says that they have received absolutely nothing from the government except ration rice. “Both my grandfather and father used to work as manual scavengers, and my father was later inducted into the Corporation. Ever since their pension stopped after their death, the government has sealed its eyes and ears shut and started to deny our existence,” says Subburaj.

Shyama, a colony resident, tells TNM that the children of the workers are not even able to avail scholarships or any other benefits, because they do not have proper community certificates. “We migrated here several years ago, so they say we are from another state. But we do not have any such record in Tamil Nadu because we were born here. Besides, the government does not take responsibility for anything that happens to us — be it a small injury or death — because we simply do not exist to them,” she says. According to Nachimuthu, the only thing that workers like him get from this job are diseases, from small infections to jaundice and cancer. “Those are our pensions,” he says.

Some of the workers who continue to engage in manual scavenging work in Kozhikode

The government takes notice of one issue though. In case some waste is dumped in some other piece of land and a complaint is raised, the workers from the colonies are the first people to be arrested. “We will later be let out after hours. But no one cares about the work we do or the fact that we do it without any protection gear. We are expected to exist like microorganisms, just for the purpose of cleaning up the waste that others leave behind,” says a Chakkumkadavu colony resident.

Forced discretion

There might sure be a countrywide ban on manual scavenging, but that has clearly done little to eradicate the practice. Instead, it is the mode of operation of scavengers, and the people who employ them, that has undergone changes. The workers are now called in during late nights by the building owner concerned or at times even by the Corporation. They are expected to complete the work discreetly, quickly and before daybreak, because the smell might cause discomfort to others including the house owner.

The workers explain how this is done: A deep pit, depending on the size of the septic tank to be cleaned, is dug in a piece of land belonging to the owner of the building concerned. A small open canal-like pathway is made from the septic tank to the pit, if possible. After the tank is opened, all the waste and water are collected manually, in buckets, and poured into the pit. After the water is cleared up, one or two workers (depending on the size of the tank) manually dig up the solid waste using a spade and deposit it into the bucket, which is then lifted using a rope by the workers standing on the top. Thos workers then take the waste to the pit and pour it into it. After cleaning and washing the septic tank completely, the workers come out of the tank, close the pit and leave the spot, collecting wages between Rs 5,000 and Rs 8,000 depending on the tank. This amount is then shared between them.

A person stands inside a septic tank to clean it

The workers seldom use vehicles or suction tankers for the work, primarily due to reasons — financial and mobility concerns. “Even if a motor is used, we must clean the tank with our hands because the suction pump only takes out the liquid waste and the solid waste remains,” says Shiva. Besides, tankers and other vehicles cannot even enter several of these places, Karuppasamy points out.

“Even if the Corporation is involved, it is us who have to do all the real cleaning,” Shiva says. Karuppasamy pitches in to add that even the Corporation, at times, directs people to approach them for work like septic tank cleaning. “So now no one goes to the Corporation. They just come directly to one of our colonies or contact us,” he says.

Demands of workers on ground

The workers’ demands are simple. “People who approach us to clean their septic tanks should have a place of their own to dump the waste,” says Saamy. “We too need protection. If the land doesn’t belong to them, the neighbours sometimes file a police complaint and our people get arrested,” he says, adding that they also want the owners to stand near them when the work is underway. “They do stand with us for a while, but then they go away because of the smell,” says the Chakkumkadavu colony resident.

Saamy’s thoughts are echoed by Swarnakumar, who has been working as a scavenger for 45 years. Swarnakumar believes that as long as there is a piece of land belonging to the owner available to dump the waste, what they were doing was perfectly legal. “We cannot go and dump the waste in a random person’s land. That is prohibited,” he says.

A person digs a pit to dump the wastes collected from a septic tank

Like Swarnakumar, a majority of Kozhikode’s ‘tank workers’ are still unaware that the work they are doing is prohibited by law, which in turn means that they are oblivious to the rehabilitation benefits they can claim, or the fact that they are entitled to be freed from the inhumane work they have been forced to do for generations. “No one here knows that manual scavenging is banned. There has been no efforts to create awareness among people,” both Shiva and Subramaniam say.

Another worker from the colony, who preferred to remain anonymous, is of the opinion that the work they do should be legalised, and they should be given a proper salary, insurance, pension and protection for the same. As Saamy puts it, if they are permanent workers, they might at least get some compensation if they get sick or die in an accident. Shiva adds that they also need medical insurance and protection at their workplace, besides which at least one person in the families of manual scavengers should be given a government job. None of the workers, however, are asking the government to properly implement the ban on manual scavenging on ground. Most of them do not even see that as an option.

This lack of awareness among the workers and the public in general is a part of the problem, says Sundarraj Pappathi, state convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan. “They believe that only the removal of fresh faecal matter from dry latrines has been abolished by the government. They think that alone is manual scavenging. So when dry latrines are replaced by flush toilets, where does the waste go and who ultimately cleans it,” he asks, further pointing out how even the Supreme Court and the government had provided an all-encompassing definition of manual scavenging in 2014. While a few people in Ernakulam, Palakkad, Alappuzha and Kollam got rehabilitated along with some financial assistance in this wake, there are hundreds of others who received no benefits and still continue to engage in this work, he adds.

Mayor Beena, meanwhile, tells TNM that all Corporation workers who were engaged in scavenging work until it was banned long ago, as well as other sanitation workers, have been provided residential facilities in dedicated quarters. “Private workers continue to engage in septic tank work, which is impossible to put a stop to. We cannot monitor all private workers and agents,” she says, adding that no government workers, however, have been employed with such work.

A house in one of the colonies allotted for rehabilitation of manual scavengers

What happened to bandicoot?

Four years ago, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had officially inaugurated in Kerala the sewer-cleaning robot Bandicoot, developed by Thiruvananthapuram-based startup GenRobotics, to clean manholes and sewage lines and thus phase out manual scavenging. Bandicoot, which looks like a four-legged spider, cleans manholes and can also attach extra equipment to clean sewage lines. It removes the cover of the manhole using a permanent magnetic system, and climbs down it. After getting inside, it expands, collects the waste, comes out and releases the collected waste.

Bandicoot (File Photo)

While the equipment has been purchased and utilised in many states and districts, Kozhikode is yet to invest in the technology. According to Beena, the Corporation is planning to purchase the equipment soon, and has submitted a proposal regarding the same under the second phase of the Atal Mission For Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation. Up until then, it would seem that the onus to clean up would continue to be forced upon these ‘tank workers’.

(Edited by Lakshmi Priya)

This research was supported by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. The Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this report.

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