The caste-sanitation complex
The conversation about the relationship between caste and sanitation, therefore, must also encompass new ways of segregation and exploitation that is made possible by the primarily upper caste/middle class-driven notions of development
Lily Tekseng Delhi
Sanitation in India cannot be separated from the ideology of caste. Traditionally, bolstered by the cultural logic of oppression, the lower castes have had to provide labour for all things considered polluting, e.g., cremating the dead, working with leather, disposing of waste and excreta, and so on. To this day, ideas of purity and pollution coupled with the political economy of class inequality renders the task of cleaning and waste disposal solely on the shoulders of the lower castes and marginalised communities. According to estimates, out of the 1.3 million manual scavengers, 80 per cent are Dalits. They often work with bare hands for little or no wages, face very high risks of occupational hazards and are systematically marginalised by society into a state of perpetual socio-economic exploitation. Despite a series of legislation, ‘manual scavenging’ is still prevalent. Not only do private homes employ manual scavengers in dry toilets in many parts of the country but, more alarmingly, Indian Railways is responsible for employing among the highest numbers of manual scavengers in the country. This is in clear violation of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993.
Besides being burdened with the unacknowledged task of being the essential component of the sanitation economy, the lower castes also have to deal with the lack of the very infrastructure of which they form a vital part. The notion of defilement of water bodies by members of the lower castes prevents them from unrestricted access to water, thereby affecting their sanitary practices and health. According to studies, most public wells and taps are situated in the dominant caste areas and hence inaccessible to lower caste members. Public sources of water therefore become spaces of conflict. Since the onus of household chores fall on the females of the house, it is often women who face verbal and physical abuse first-hand.
In large parts of the country where sewerage has been introduced, manual scavenging has been replaced by equally oppressive sewer cleaning practices. In an interesting case study of in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Stephanie Tam traces the evolution of the labour provided by the Bhangis. The Bhangis were initially the caste that dealt in cleaning private dry toilets manually. With the introduction of sewerage in the 1880s, the Bhangis were absorbed into the public sanitation system. It was both empowering and endangering for the community: it threatened their employment but liberated them from the demeaning labour. Over the years, however, as Ahmedabad embraced capitalism and ushered in a modern notion of civic sense, the new economic system has done little to break the correlation between caste, class and occupation. The working conditions in sewers include standing on an average of two hours in each manhole to clear blockages and the work is afforded no respect. According to a 2006 study, 45.4 per cent of Bhangis still do not have access to toilets or bathrooms, and in the modern economy, their unsanitary living conditions are used to justify their polluting and economically low status.
For many of the lower castes who have moved from private employment to being employed by the government in the sanitation economy, the authority that public institutions have in the psyche of the people has been counter-productive. The appalling working conditions, their invisibility in government documents, minimal salary and lack of social respect is in a way a legitimisation by the state of the reproduction of old caste structures in the new labour economy. Also, the objective language of technology and development has made the perpetuation of caste exploitation seem necessary and logical. The conversation about the relationship between caste and sanitation, therefore, must also encompass new ways of segregation and exploitation that is made possible by the primarily upper caste/middle class-driven notions of development.