manual scavengers india cleaning human faeces
The hands of a sanitation worker cleaning a sewage canal in the Vadapalani bus depot, one of the largest bus depots in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. Protective gear is never distributed by employers, and sanitation workers often contract skin diseases. "I asked the worker to pose with his hands open," said M Palani Kumar.

In Photos: The Short, Tragic Lives of India's Sewer Cleaners

The task of cleaning human faeces often falls on Dalits, a community deemed the lowest in the ancient Hindu caste system.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
February 19, 2021, 3:19am

Just before our scheduled interview, the photographer behind this series, M Palani Kumar, called to postpone.

“Three more deaths in [the southern Indian state of] Tamil Nadu,” he wrote via a text message. “I’m documenting them now. Can we speak tomorrow?”

Kumar, 29, is a photographer and cinematographer in Tamil Nadu. The deaths he was referring to were of three men who climbed into a sewer to scoop out a blockage of human faeces and didn’t come back. By the time Kumar arrived at the men’s villages, their families were preparing for their funerals. These men were not the first to die this way, neither will they be the last. 

manual scavenging man in a sewage tank

A sanitation worker submerged in an underground sewage canal, clearing out a blockage. A group of four or five sanitation workers had come there to do the same. “The workers are often related since they are recruited from the same caste, the Arunthathiyars,” said Kumar. “Sanitation workers are often forced to be completely submerged under human waste to clear blockages. Nauseating work situations such as these have forced many to take to alcohol consumption. Excessive alcoholism has become an area of particular concern for the Arunthathiyar community.”

In India, people who clear blocked sewers and handle human faeces called “manual scavengers”. Such people routinely enter manholes, sewers, septic tanks and pits without any protective gear. They use their bare hands to unblock pipes, and regularly submerge their entire bodies in raw sewage. Many suffocate to death in the toxic pipes, while others die via alcoholism and drugs

Manual scavenging was officially banned in India in 1993. Yet, a recent survey revealed that nearly 66,000 manual scavengers continue to operate across the country.

In 2019, official data shows that over 100 people died while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in India. The state where Kumar lives, Tamil Nadu, claims the country’s second highest rate of manual scavenging deaths in five years, with a grand total of 43. Human rights activists call these deaths “institutional murders”.

manual scavenger india tamil nadu

Two sanitation workers clearing a blocked open drainage canal in Guindy, a locality in Chennai. The equipment that sanitation workers use to clear such large blockages is limited to the metal pail seen in the picture and a shovel. These blockages often consist of many glass bottles, which break and tear the hands and feet of the workers.  

manual scavengers tamil nadu india

Manual scavengers in the Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu state. Since most contractors or employees fail to provide adequate safety gear, the workers are forced to use plastic bags as makeshift gloves.

In India, manual scavenging has been traditionally assigned to people from the Dalit community, which are considered the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy. The caste system, which is over 3,000 years old, divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups based on their work and duty, and dictates their standing in Indian society.

Many in the Dalit community are subjected to a form of social abuse called “untouchability,” even though the practise was outlawed in 1950.

manual scavengers india tamil nadu

A manual scavenger reaching in with his bare hands to clear out a blockage in a public toilet at one of the largest and busiest buses stops in Chennai. In addition to sewer canals, “untouchable” manual scavengers are also made to clean open drainage canals, septic tanks (human waste), and public toilets, including the toilets in trains.

“I wanted to explore why specifically the Dalits are forced into manual scavenging,” explained Kumar, who is also a Dalit, to VICE World News.

His first reckoning with scavenging came in 2015 while working on a documentary called Kakkoos (which translates to “toilet”). The film follows the daily lives of manual scavengers, along with their variously untimely deaths. 

The process of the film also made Kumar understand how his caste affects his career. “My work over the last few years made me realise things that I didn’t even know were happening around me, and even to me. The realisation is still a work in progress,” he said.

manual scavengers india tamil nadu

Suganya, the wife of the deceased 24-year-old Arunkumar, kisses her dead husband in 2019. Suganya was 22 years old at the time and had a seven-month-old baby, Dhiksha. They had been together for eight years. After Arunkumar’s father lost his eyesight and injured his leg in an accident, Arunkumar took on the responsibility of earning for his family of four. His mother was also a sanitation worker at the government-run hospital in Royapettah, Chennai. Arunkumar died inside a sewer while attempting to rescue his brother, who had entered earlier and lost consciousness. While his brother survived, Arunkumar didn’t. Most of the youth in the locality where Arunkumar ad his family lived were also manual scavengers.

Last year, the government launched a slew of measures to put an end to manual scavenging by August 2021, which included adopting mechanised tools and helplines to report illegal activities. The Indian government has also launched a massive cleanliness drive called the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission).

Kumar, who has been documenting manual scavengers for six years, started using his photographs to highlight the inequalities that sanitation workers and their kids are forced to tolerate. A survey by UNICEF found that 51 percent of all Dalit children drop out of schools because of caste-based discrimination. Not just from other kids, but from teachers. 

manual scavengers india tamil nadu

The body of Mari, a 33-year-old sanitation worker who died in the Mathampattu village in Tamil Nadu state. He, too, was a victim of the lethal gas build-ups in a sewage tank. The hand is that of his wife, Anushya. He had three daughters, with a fourth born after his death.   

manual scavengers india tamil nadu

People mourn the death of Mari, a 33-year-old sanitation worker, in 2019. The young girl below the lady in blue is Mari’s eldest daughter, Elavarasi, who was 10 years old at the time. There have been multiple reports of Dalit students being forced to sit apart from other students and to clean the toilets in schools. This leads to the students dropping out of school.

“The kids of sanitation workers are not exposed to any form of development, and the activity is forced upon them by birth,” said Kumar, who also runs Pep Collective, an audio-visual initiative. “Manual scavengers also live in the fringes of society, and earn around INR 10,000 (US $137) a month, which means both parents pick up jobs to make ends meet, and even have second jobs as cleaners in houses.” 

During COVID-19, a series of global surveys highlighted the risk sanitation workers are exposed to. Yet, the Indian government confessed they didn’t collate any data on the sanitation workers who died cleaning hospitals and medical waste without protective equipment. 

The lack of data exacerbates the invisibility of the community. At the same time, deaths continue to be underreported: something Kumar witnessed first-hand.

“Many deaths by manual scavenging are stated or reported differently,” he said. “In some cases, these deaths are reported as ‘fell to death’, or mere accidents. Actually, they should all be called murders.”

manual scavenging india tamil nadu

Sanitation worker Mari’s brother, Shakthivel, carries his body back home. They live by the river, in a secluded place away from the village. This small pathway, flanked by shrubs, is the the only way to reach their home.

Even during the COVID-19 lockdown, Kumar managed to photograph cleaners by following them during early mornings when nobody was out.

“Manual scavengers are employed at a time when people are not out. They’re usually away from society’s vision,” said Kumar. “It made it easier for me to venture out too, and come back by the time they finished.”

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In many instances, Kumar approached contractors employed by the Indian government, under whom the sanitation workers are employed. But many contractors instructed the manual scavengers not to be interviewed or photographed, which is why most of these photos exclude people’s faces.

“In one case, the contractor had fired a woman right after he got to know that she had spoken to me about the working conditions,” said Kumar. “My work appeared to endanger their livelihoods, so I found it very challenging to continue documenting the undocumented.”

manual scavenging india tamil nadu

Thamayandhi, who was married to a sanitation worker named R. Mathavan, stands alongside her two children after her husband’s death on 16 August 2019, in Tamil Nadu. The state government promised Thamayandhi a government job so that the family can sustain itself. “However, owing to her caste, it is likely that she too will be employed as a manual scavenger. I asked her to pose with photos from their wedding,” said Kumar.

But, he added, people keep dying.

“The manholes were the main reason for deaths. It became all the more important to shoot those sentenced to the manholes,” said Kumar. “When I started doing that, contractors started sending them at night so that they’re not seen. The greater risk, however, is that rescuing them from the manholes at night is even more difficult because there’s no immediate help available.” 

manual scavenging india tamil nadu

Sanitation worker Mari’s body is lowered into his grave. Even the graves of these workers are separate from those of others since they belong to an untouchable caste. The compensation of INR 10 lakh ($13,781), stipulated by the 1993 Act, is often delayed and families face various hurdles in receiving the compensatory amount.  

Over the last few months, several Indian cities have claimed that manhole-cleaning robots are now able to clear blocked pipes. In the meantime, three more men died of asphyxiation while cleaning septic tanks early this week.

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