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.
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”.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”