Untouchables And Your Trash: How Indian Sanitation Counts On Caste

A case study of Angul in Odisha highlights just how much urban centers rely on lower castes when it comes to sanitation.

Villagers in a drainage system
Villagers in a drainage system
Ranjita Mohanty and Anju Dwivedi

ANGUL — Sanitation in India's cities relies heavily on the most oppressed castes — the erstwhile untouchables, the Dalits. Not only is the work itself degrading, it is also performed under extremely hazardous conditions. But it is only when tragic incidents occur in the metro system — as they did last year in New Delhi and the beginning of this year in Mumbai and Bangalore, where manual scavengers died while fixing and cleaning sewers and cleaning septic tanks in hotels — that their social background, the indignities they face and the risks they take to keep cities clean come to public notice

Results of a study conducted by the authors in the industrial town of Angul, in the northeast state of Odisha, shed light on how urban sanitation work perpetuates caste stereotypes, which are further reinforced by city residents.

Angul is an industrial city surrounded by a number of public and private sector mining companies. According to the most recent Census, in 2011, Angul has an urban population of 43,794, of whom 5,039 belong to Scheduled Castes and 1,473 to Scheduled Tribes. The Angul municipality has 27 slums, out of which 13 are unauthorized and 14 are authorized. The slum population is 10,950.

Sanitation in Angul city comes under the purview of the municipality. Currently, on-site sanitation with septic tanks and pit latrines is the practice in the city. The city largely has open drains, with only limited closed drains. Household waste, waste in the market place, garbage dumped by people, household toilet waste (from toilets connected to drains) and sludge collected by manual scavengers are all dumped into the drains.

The city residents avoid the question of legality. The municipal officials avoid talking about it.

Manual sanitation in urban centers rests on the caste system. The lowest castes, whose traditional occupation has been sweeping, scavenging and dealing with dead animals, work as sweepers and scavengers in urban centers as well, keeping them clean. Their work as manual scavengers continues despite legal prohibitions. All municipal sweepers in Angul municipality are from the the Hadi and Ghasi SC communities, who live in slums and separate hamlets away from other castes. The Angul municipality employs sweepers both directly and through contractors. People from nearby villages are also recruited as sweepers, but no one other than lower castes is willing to work as a sweeper. The sweepers say that their work, though considered dirty and degrading, is readily available to them because there is no competition. A majority of them work as contractual laborers for low salaries.

For municipal officials, the caste dimension is not seen as an anomaly; it is expected: "Those who know the best are in the job" is the rational a municipal official gave, thus attaching a professional skill dimension to what is otherwise a consolidation of caste status quo.

The cleanliness of the city depends on a host of services – sweeping the streets, garbage collection, rag picking, cleaning the open drains, removal and disposal of dead animals, cleaning sewers and sometimes desludging toilet tanks where on-site sanitation is practiced and mechanization is either not available or expensive, or manual cleaning is preferred by the residents for the reasons such as long gap of desludging turns fecal matter into solids that it becomes difficult for machines to clean, or because of the cost involved in diluting the solid waste that clients have to pay when they opt for mechanized cleaning.

The sweepers collect door-to-door garbage as well as garbage from the market and public buildings, they sweep the streets and clean the drains, cut bushes, spray mosquito oil, chlorinate the open wells and collect unknown dead bodies, both human and animal.

While the sweepers are mostly provided with gloves and boots, they don't use them as they find them unwieldy. The officials are of the view that sweepers find these accessories an obstruction to free movement. However, given the risk involved, the officials should enforce the service rules that make it mandatory for sweepers to take precautions. But official will for that is missing.

Cleaning a drainage system without any protection from toxins — Photo: openshutterstudio

Manual scavenging, though legally prohibited, is widely prevalent in Angul city. The state government is currently undertaking a survey to identify it. The sweepers work also as manual scavengers and clean private toilet tanks. The practice is not a secret, and is allowed to continue in the absence of mechanized methods of sludge disposal as well as residents' preference to get toilet tanks cleaned manually. High-income households, though well equipped with modern sanitation technology, use traditional ways of toilet cleaning by employing people from lower castes.

The city residents avoid the question of legality, often remarking that they are not the only ones who are using manual labor, or say that the law is not imposed. Some even say that the scavengers are willing to do the work; that they do not view manual scavenging as degrading. The municipal officials avoid talking about it, shrugging off the question with a brief answer that it is a deal between the employers and the scavengers, and the municipality is not involved.

It seems unlikely that the social composition of the sanitation workforce will change.

Sweepers and manual scavengers are often treated with disdain. As one manual scavenger said, "People have an image about our caste – we are seen as dirty, alcoholic, badly behaved and wayward." His remarks reiterate the fundamental schism between the so-called upper and lower castes: the perceived purity and impurity of body.

The caste system is thus a visible presence in the sanitation practices in a city that otherwise is a modern industrial center. The practices that have been legally challenged have social legitimacy due to traditional caste divisions and practices. Without caste, sanitation in Angul, as in other cities in India, would be paralyzed. Given the caste stratification, it seems quite unlikely that the social composition of the sanitation workforce will change in the near future.

The challenge is to implement the legal restrictions as well as to make strategic plans to eliminate manual scavenging. While Swachh Bharat strives to make India open defecation free by 2019, it will be a fitting tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birthday, if India can free itself from the practice of manual scavenging.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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