Infrastructures of Modernity and the Labor of Sanitation in Urban India

Lalit Batra

When the sweepers change their profession, they will no longer remain untouchables. And they can do that soon, for the first thing that we will do when we accept the machine, will be to introduce the machine which clears dung without anyone having to handle it- the flush system. Then the sweepers can be free from the stigma of untouchability and assume the dignity of status that is their right as useful members of a casteless and classless society.

    Mulk Raj Anand, The Untouchable;  pg. 251-52.

On November 11, 2015, exactly 80 years after the young latrine cleaner Bakha, the protagonist of Mulk Raj Anand’s didactic novel The Untouchable, came to invest his desire for liberation from a life of caste-based indignity and humiliation in flush toilets and sewerages, Vinay Sirohi, a 22-year old Valmiki sanitation worker, left home for work at 6:30 in the morning. A vault operator at Keshopur sewage treatment plant (STP) in West Delhi, Sirohi was responsible for regulating the balance between the inflow of raw sewage water and the de-sludged water in what is called the ‘sludge digestion tank.’ Like the human digester, the sludge digester is a notoriously fickle but essential component of the wastewater treatment process. A blockage in any of the connecting pipes, if not immediately attended to, can cause substantial overflows of raw sewage or excessive production of toxic gases and bring the entire treatment process to a halt. The Standard Operating Procedure for STP maintenance mandates a coordinated intervention by a team of six – two operators, three helpers, and a safety inspector – to deal with overflow incidents. However, to cut costs, the private company managing the Keshopur plant had significantly reduced the number of workers in the Plant over the past few years. Consequently, instead of the required six, only one operator has been designated per shift to deal with overflows.

That fateful day when Sirohi opened the lid of the 30-feet deep digester, he noticed the wastewater level in the tank slowly rising. There was a blockage somewhere. Not wanting to risk incurring an overflow penalty amounting to a loss of 40% of his monthly salary, he stripped down to his underwear and went inside the tank. He never came back. After more than 24 hours of frantic search, Sirohi’s family and co-workers found his partially decomposed body in a one-foot pipe attached to the digester tank. The First Information Report, reluctantly filed by the local police station after sustained pressure by Sirohi’s family and friends, said that he probably died of asphyxiation caused by noxious gases present in the tank and got sucked into the pipe because of the vacuum created by the blockage. It could have been the other way around. We will never know.

Sirohi was neither the first nor the last one to lose his life clearing the city of unwanted matter and restoring the flows of urban water metabolism. Even the most conservative estimates tell us that at least 1000 workers die cleaning sewer pipes, sludge digesters, and septic tanks in Indian cities, mostly from exposure to noxious gases and pathogens. These numbers do not even include workers who die a premature death due to diseases caused or compounded by the hazardous nature of work. I foreground monstrous levels of bodily harm and injury that sewage-related work processes generate on a daily basis for us to think the sacrificial cut that marks the mundane and everyday violence afflicting our urban infrastructure. In any case, work-related morbidity and mortality are the key elements of the script through which the social and occupational violence that marks sewage and sanitation workers has become legible in the wider public discourse.

As appalling as these numbers are, perhaps more horrifying is the fact that almost all the sanitation workers who lose their lives cleaning urban India’s shit come from Dalit caste-communities such as Valmikis who for centuries have been identified with the handling of human excreta by the Hindu caste order. The cruel irony is that in the Indian context, modern sanitation technologies like flush toilets and sewers have been imagined precisely as the means to liberate these castes from the indignity and hazards of manual scavenging.

The antinomies of modern sanitation

Sewage treatment plants such as the Keshopur plant are central to the functioning of India’s modern sanitation system. Since its inception in the mid-19th century Europe, modern sanitation infrastructure- a complex assemblage of interconnected technologies including ‘flush-and-forget’ toilets, underground water-borne sewers, sewage pumping stations and treatment plants- has been lauded the world over as the harbinger of public health, environmental sanitation, urban development, and general social well-being. Indeed, few technological artifacts of urban modernity have enjoyed the kind of sustained and uncritical legitimacy and acceptability that flush toilets, sewers, and treatment plants have. Only a decade back, the readership of the British Medical Journal, including the who’s who of global medical and public health world, voted modern sanitation as the most important scientific invention in the past two centuries. While its adoption in cities outside the West has at best been patchy, it nevertheless remains the unsurpassed horizon of the modern sanitation imaginary across the world.

Notwithstanding all the positive social and public health outcomes that are, often mistakenly, attributed to flush toilets and sewers in the West, the consequences of sanitary modernization in the Indian context have been anything but disastrous. In fact, one could argue that modern sanitation has today become the key site for the production of subcontinental geographies of urban marginality, caste-labor degradation, and untouchability. This is ironic, given that the intertwined projects of sanitary modernization, urban development, and infrastructure augmentation in postcolonial India have often been legitimized in terms of their putative role in dismantling the age-old coupling between lower-caste status and stigmatizing occupation, and to create enabling material and social conditions for occupational mobility of sanitation caste-communities. The postcolonial state has in fact actively promoted toilets, sewers, and treatment plants for seven decades with an explicitly social and political agenda: the liberation of Dalit sanitation castes from the indignity and occupational hazards of what is called “manual scavenging”- a ‘customary’ occupation of manually cleaning and disposing human waste from dry latrines.

The promise of sewers in the Indian context partially lies in Gandhi’s reworking of the ground of untouchability from ‘permanent’ i.e. ontological to ‘occupational’ i.e. temporary. Following Gandhi, if pollution and untouchability of Dalit bodies are seen to be emanating from their occupation that necessitated contact with human waste, modern sewers promised to do away with the need for contact with excreta. Sewerage design manuals across the world posit that that, other things being equal, water-borne, and gravity-fed underground sewerages would not generate significant blockages. Crucially, the equations on which the sewerage design is based are premised on the idea that other things- including availability of water, sanitary habits of residents, a certain topography, well laid-out built environment that allows for strategic use of machines, the kind of matter that is authorized in sewers, and above all, an enormous amount of money since it is perhaps the most expensive excreta disposal system etc. Of course, in real life other things are rarely the same esp. between western cities and cities in the global South. As it happens, sewer blockages are not the exception as the planners and engineers had hoped but the norm in Delhi. Consequently, a large army of workers is needed to remove these blockages and keep the wastewater flowing. For instance, both NYC and Delhi have roughly 7000 km of sewer network. In NYC, this network is kept functional by 300 workers whereas in Delhi, currently, 8000 workers are doing sewage cleaning.

Dalit body, technology, and the nightmare of the ‘Clean India’ 

I do not believe that they (Valmikis) have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood.… At some point of time, somebody must have gotten the enlightenment that it is their duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries.

Narendra Modi, Karmayog, 2007; pg. 48-49.

A year before Vinay Sirohi’s dead body was found trapped in a sewage pipe, Prime Minister Modi had launched his celebrated Swachh Bharat Mission on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday on the 2nd of October 2014. As we are all aware by now, through this mission, the Modi government aims to produce a “Clean India” by Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in 2019, primarily by building millions of toilets and expanding sewerage networks across the country while simultaneously “encouraging” people to change their excremental practices and dispositions. The question of sanitation, as it is articulated by SBM’s almost anal-erotic obsession with excremental practices, particularly open defecation, has today become an important trope with which to render legible, and sharpen a host of social and economic fault lines. The lynching of Zafar Hussein in Rajasthan recently, not to mention the shaming, coercion, and humiliation of the poor, Dalits, Muslims, tribals, and women is a clear indication of the kind of ‘encouragement’ the architects of the SBM have in mind. The diabolic shrillness around ‘behavior shift’ and infrastructure building is complimented by an almost complete silence on the labor of sanitation infrastructure. The tireless warrior for the cause of elimination of manual scavenging, Bejwada Wilson, of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, pulls the rug under the carpet of the monumental hypocrisy of the Modi government. When asked about his view on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, he said that the government might be able to deliver on its promise of building millions of toilets under the SBM, but the real question is who will clean these toilets. Implicit in Wilson’s sarcasm is a denunciation of the way SBM’s silence on the labor of sanitation serves to erase one of the foundational question of Indian modernity: the entrenched relationship between caste and sanitation. It is perhaps symptomatic that Modi launched Swachh Bharat Mission from a Valmiki neighborhood!

The important critique of the caste-blindness of SBM notwithstanding, even activists often tend to view modern sanitation infrastructure as a panacea. While it would be obviously churlish to blame sewers and toilets for the degradation of Dalit laboring bodies, an uncritical faith in these technologies may also not be wise. This is not to space to go into a discussion of the profound and extensive connection between sanitary modernization and reproduction of Dalit dehumanization. However, the struggle against manual scavenging requires a clear-headed audit of the postcolonial career of this quintessential artifact of urban modernity.

Manual scavenging has been outlawed. Even in practice, there is no denying that the “customary” manual scavenging, still widely prevalent in rural areas and small urban centers, has significantly declined in cities. However, my research on urban sanitation and Dalit labor in North India reveals that institutional and social processes that tie sanitation castes, particularly Valmikis, to handling human excreta are not only intact but in fact strengthened and reproduced, precisely through the processes that are supposed to undermine them. Thus, while manual scavenging as we usually understand it has declined, manual handling of excreta-filled sewage has proliferated – only this time in the form of a far more hazardous work process, involving manual cleaning of enclosed sewers rife with deadly gases. The association of Dalits with waste and refuse might have primordial origins, but it has nonetheless survived democratization of polity, the secularization of work, and modernization of the city-space. In fact, successive mutations in the infrastructural and institutional landscape from the pre-colonial to colonial and the postcolonial periods have only served to displace this connection from the ‘customary’ manual cleaning of human waste, sanctioned by religion and custom, to a ‘secular’ work process of cleaning excreta-filled sewage approved by modern sanitary science. In short, when it comes to shit-work, the discursive and material distribution of laboring bodies show no sign of allowing for a social ‘division of labor’ and instead continue to be governed by what Dr. Ambedkar aptly described as the logic of the ‘division of laborers.’

[Lalit Batra is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography, Environment & Society, at the University of Minnesota. He is currently finishing his dissertation titled Untouchable Labor and Wastewater Infrastructure: The Cultural Politics of Sanitation in Delhi. He can be reached at]






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