The degrading, dangerous work of manually cleaning India's sewers, septic tanks and manholes fall to those in the Dalit Caste, considered the lowest of India's caste hierarchy system.
The degrading, dangerous work of manually cleaning India's sewers, septic tanks and manholes fall to those in the Dalit Caste, considered the lowest of India's caste hierarchy system. | Photo courtesy of Sonu

One of India’s human scavengers describes deplorable conditions

I see human waste floating like dead fish around me. A skin-crawling mix of insects, drain flies, and spiders stick to the pipes and walls and swarm around me. I risk my life with each breath.

Sonu
Interview Subject
Sonu (name changed to protect privacy), 32, is a human scavenger in the Ghaziabad district of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

A member of the Dalit or “Scheduled” Caste, Sonu is part of the lowest social tier in Indian society. He dropped out of school in fifth grade due to poverty and for the past two years has manually cleaned municipal sewers for a meager sum of $134 per month.
Background Information
India outlawed manual scavenging in 1993, yet the practice continues across the country.

The work has historically been connected to Dalit communities, the lowest caste in the Indian society.

Recently, India’s social justice minister Virendra Kumar admitted in the Parliament that 58,098 manual scavengers were identified in two separate surveys in 2013 and 2018, and that the sanitation workers were losing their lives in the course of their dangerous work.

In February, he had informed the Parliament that 340 people had died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the past five years. Activists claim the toll is much higher, as the government differentiates deaths due to manual scavenging and deaths while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.

An interplay of caste discrimination, poorly enforced laws and lack of public engineering standards means the practice of manual scavenging persists. The World Health Organization criticized the Indian government in a 2019 report, alleging that manual scavenging has simply been allowed to move ‘underground.‘

GHAZIABAD, INDIA—I immerse myself in human and animal excrement every day to provide for my family. It is an unimaginable nightmare for most, but this has been my reality for the past two years.

Desperation leads to a last resort

Two years ago, I was looking for an honest way to earn money. Since I belonged to the Dalit Caste, everyone hiring for a decent opportunity turned me away.

Dejected, I applied to be a sanitation worker for my local municipal district. It is the most dehumanizing profession, but I didn’t have any other options. I did not have the education, affluence, or the “right” caste to pursue anything else.

My family opposed my decision, but the pressure to get employed and the assurance of a permanent government job overrode their concerns.

To my horror, my employer hired me as a private contract worker instead of a government employee, with a salary of just 10,000 INR ($134 USD) a month.

On paper, I was to assist in cleaning the sewers mechanically. But in reality, I had unwittingly become a manual scavenger, physically entering sewers, manholes, and septic tanks and cleaning the waste by hand.

My days are a living hell

The first thing many people around the world do in the morning is pray. I start my day by entering hell itself. 

I can barely bring myself to describe what I see, smell, and feel inside the sewers and manholes.

During my work day, I spend at least two hours inside a dark, filthy sewer with no safety equipment or protective gear. I unclog the public drains of human and animal waste, all while wearing my clothes from home.

I see human waste floating like dead fish around me. A skin-crawling mix of insects, drain flies, and spiders stick to the pipes and walls and swarm around me.

Everything smells burnt. The cocktail of gases circulating in the sewer is toxic and potentially lethal—I risk my life with each breath. I often suffocate and lose consciousness, but I survive.

Many of my fellow scavengers have choked to death due to asphyxiation or drowning on the job—they couldn’t sense the poisonous gases that lurked. Some lost their lives trying to help their trapped mates. Not all families who lost their breadwinner received compensation.

Since becoming a scavenger, illnesses and injuries plague me. From headaches, fatigue, gastroenteritis, skin burns, and cuts to respiratory tract infections, I have suffered tremendously.

The stigma of scavenging

I take a bath twice a day, but no one wants to touch me. The smell just doesn’t go away.

I entered into this profession because I had no choice. Life has stranded me here. Given a chance, I would quit. But who will give me that chance? Who will employ me?

The Supreme Court of India spoke out about the plight of people like me in 2019, saying manual scavengers are like people sent to gas chambers to die. The Indian government promotes movements like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which pledges to eliminate open defecation and improve solid waste management.

None of it has made a difference. I feel the government doesn’t actually count someone of my low status as a person, so why would they notice my despair? Or, perhaps, because it is the worst job in the world, neither the politicians nor the upper caste activists care to liberate us.

I have been deprived of my fundamental human rights. The disgust of everyone around me overwhelms me wherever I go. My life feels undignified and meaningless.

I am risking my life and health every day. But I feel helpless. The most undesirable, high-risk job is the only one in my country that allows me to bring food to the table, so I do it.

I die every day, but at least my family is living.

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Vandita Agrawal is an experienced journalist, published in The Times of India, Times Internet, Zenger News, and Dkoding Media. She holds Bachelor of Arts (Honors) and Master of Arts degrees in Political Science, a Master of Business Administration degree, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Journalism (Gold Medalist). She is skilled in writing investigative articles, news analysis, and breaking news and has written extensively on US and international politics, current affairs, police brutality, injustice, sustainability, climate change, health, activism, inspirational stories, psychology, and animal rights.