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Man or machine? Eliminating manual scavenging in India and Bangladesh

[By Sally Cawood and Amita Bhakta]

Manual scavenging – the hazardous removal of human waste from drains, latrines, septic tanks and sewers by hand or with basic tools – persists as a form of caste-based slavery in South Asia. Across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, men, women and children from low-caste, religious and ethnic minorities manually handle our waste, frequently resulting in injury, illness and even death. Since 2014, an estimated 156 people have died in septic tanks in Bangladesh alone, while in India one person dies every five days after entering septic tanks and sewers, often drowning after falling unconscious from toxic gases.

Over the last 5-10 years, there has been growing attention on the potential of robots, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machines to eliminate manual scavenging for good. Recent media and academic articles reveal opportunities and challenges brought about by mechanisation. We take this further and offer some avenues for inclusive practice on a process (mechanisation) seen by many as the only viable way to eliminate manual scavenging in our towns and cities.

A range of global technological innovations in sanitation have emerged in recent years, from sewer-cleaning robots such as ‘sewer crocs’ or ‘bandicoots’ and AI or manhole monitoring systems (to identify and resolve sewer blockages) to mechanical trucks (to suck out human waste from septic tanks) or Gulpers (hand-powered pumps). The creators of these innovations, including private technology companies, claim that they improve efficiency, safety and dignity of sanitation work, by removing or reducing the need for human contact with faeces. To help us understand some of the opportunities and challenges brought about by mechanisation, we first need to place this process into the deeper historical, social, political and economic context in South Asia into which it’s deployed, and ask: who is engaged in manual scavenging today, and has this changed over time?

In India, manual scavenging is most commonly associated with Dalit women (of various sub-castes, most notably Valmiki) collecting and dumping waste from dry latrines, often found in rural areas. Widows from the ghettos of Mumbai have also been found to do this work, often recruited upon the death of their husbands through manual scavenging, or ‘sewer deaths’. With the introduction of the 1993 and 2013 Elimination of Manual Scavenging Acts, subsequent directives to demolish dry latrines and improve sanitary facilities in line with the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), the mode of manual scavenging and gendered nature of the work is changing. Far from being eliminated, manual scavenging has simply adapted with modernisation, with a shift from dry latrines (though these also remain in some areas) to the removal of human waste from pit latrines, septic tanks and sewers – a task most commonly undertaken by Dalit men. In Bangladesh, too, low-caste men (largely from self-defined Harijan communities, or ‘children of God’ as they were originally referred to by Mahatma Gandhi) are predominantly involved in the handling of human waste, using their bare hands or basic tools, such as a bucket, rope, and spade. It is within these underlying social contexts that new technology is being trialled and gradually introduced, but to what effect?

Across India and Bangladesh, governments (national and local), international donors, NGOs and private companies have been instrumental in rolling out technologies and associated programmes to improve sanitation work, and sanitation services. In India, sewer-cleaning robots and machines such as the Bandicoot are slowly making their way to different municipalities and local authorities, most recently in Tiruppur Corporation to great jubilation (Tamil Nadu having the highest recorded number of sewer deaths across the country). In Bangladesh, Gulpers and mechanical trucks (known as Vacutags) have been introduced in a range of municipalities and city corporations. In both countries, the introduction of technology –  often accompanied by provision of uniforms, personal protective equipment (PPE; e.g. gloves, hat, boots, masks), skill training and, in some cases, higher wages, has helped to professionalise the sector. It also greatly improves health and safety, with workers better protected against chemical, physical and biological hazards, and some reporting greater respect from service users, though this is not always the case. The introduction of technology and PPE to safeguard the wellbeing of sanitation workers has also been supported by efforts to introduce social security schemes, such as the ‘Garima’ scheme in Odisha, India, covering 20,000 sanitation workers and their families.

A Mechanical Vacutag Truck in Bangladesh
Image credit: Sally Cawood

Whilst these interventions have brought about marked improvements, they have also brought tensions and contradictions. Two main points are noted here. First, the roll out of technology is still in early stages, with the majority of municipalities and local authorities being a while away from semi or full mechanisation due to the high cost, limited production of local materials, administrative hurdles, lack of political will or protests from workers. The lack of equipment or specialist skills required to repair machines, also means there are frequent operation and maintenance failures. In Bangladesh, for example, truck drivers and helpers complain that it takes a long time to replace parts on the trucks (mostly imported from overseas) when they break down, as they are not locally available (something that NGOs and businesses are working hard to resolve). In India, a sewer-jetting machine (to unclog sewers) of 6000 ltr capacity can cost Rs. 44 lakh (approximately 59-60,000 USD), making such technology unaffordable for many local authorities. Linked to this, PPE or other handheld equipment may be poorly designed for the climate, task at hand, and comfort of the wearer (an issue also reported by female road sweepers who often receive PPE designed for men). This frequently leads to non-use or the rapid wear-out of PPE that is not replaced. Yet, the provision of PPE for pit emptiers in Khulna, Bangladesh and in Lahore, Pakistan, shows some signs of increasing attention now being paid to this issue.   

Second, and a particularly recurrent theme from fieldwork in Bangladesh, is that the most marginalised workers involved in manual scavenging or emptying are often not able to access improved sanitation work or alternative livelihood options, due to entrenched stigma linked to identity, occupation and place of residence, as well as bribery, nepotism and corruption. Some manual emptiers also fear job loss associated with the switch to mechanisation. Likewise, in India, fears over job redundancy and takeover among Dalit workers are supported by evidence that indicates higher-caste or other socio-economic groups (predominantly men) are more likely to own or operate machinery and, even, to access rehabilitation support under the remit of ‘manual scavenger’. In both countries, improved or alternative livelihood options also require scrutiny, as many ‘liberated’ manual scavengers also remain in low-paid, informal or exploitative work arrangements, even if it is regarded as a step-up from handling human waste (for example, road sweeping or solid waste collection  –  which can, in fact, also expose workers to faeces). Whilst many may argue that job takeover by other (non-Dalit) groups can reduce stigma around sanitation work (an important avenue for future research and action), these challenges raise critical questions over who actually benefits from mechanisation, and who these technological innovations are designed for in the first place.

The road ahead

It is clear that societal attitudes, personal aspirations after hundreds of years of dehumanisation and viable alternatives for manual scavengers will not change, right away, in line with mechanisation. As we show above, mechanisation can also reinforce gendered, classed and casteist inequalities. This might be especially so when interventions oriented primarily towards profit, efficiency, proving one’s ‘business model’ or prototype, takes precedence over the realities of those cleaning our waste. With this in mind, we end here with some tentative avenues for further research, discussion and action among academics, activists, journalists, governments, NGOs, private businesses and workers themselves:

  • Place greater attention on the priorities of manual scavengers relating to improved or alternative livelihood options, especially the new generation of educated youth. For example, via education, vocational and skill-based training, business grants.
  • Integrate ‘transition plans’ into sanitation interventions for workers to prepare for mechanisation, including skill-development training to operate machines, or in the case that fewer jobs are available, appropriate re-deployment or support in seeking alternative (non-sanitation) work.
  • Improve working environments for all ‘sanitary workers’, including appropriate PPE, health insurance and work benefits (pensions, maternity leave, annual leave), which are currently lacking.
  • Support workers to organise (via unions, cooperatives or associations), to bargain with employers for improved pay and more regular, secure work, which remains a major challenge in light of informal subcontracting.
  • Deepen and expand our understandings of the impacts of mechanisation on manual scavenging within and outside of India and Bangladesh, for example, to Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Nepal, where these caste-based occupations also exist, and persist.

In the midst of this focus on mechanisation, sanitation workers will remain integral to the operation of this technology. Mechanisation in sanitation services should also include improving sanitation for workers themselves, to ensure their health and wellbeing. Yet, Dalits remain excluded from services, including toilets for their own homes, leading many to defecate in the open. The SBM’s construction of toilets without improvements in sewage systems (increasing the number of pit latrines and septic tanks requiring emptying) also means that manual scavengers will remain in India, denying other employment opportunities and worsening caste oppression. More research and activism is sorely needed to deepen our understanding of the impacts of mechanisation and ‘improved’ sanitation, and propose inclusive solutions and responsive alternatives, to make sure that not one more life is lost in manual scavenging.


Dr Sally Cawood is a Global Challenges Fellow at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (USP), University of Sheffield, UK. Sally is currently leading a Global Challenges Research Funded (GCRF) project with WaterAid on gender, caste and sanitation work in India and Bangladesh.

Dr Amita Bhakta is a freelance consultant in the UK. Amita specialises in delivering inclusive infrastructural services in the global South, particularly in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector.

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The future of ‘dishonourable’ work

[By Payal Arora]

I was a waitress for three and a half years at an Indian restaurant in San Francisco in the early 1990s. Having been brought up in a privileged family in Bangalore, the ‘waiting’ on people was a novel experience for me. I was excited though as it was my first job abroad and I saw it as performing a part. We waitresses had to wear salwar kameez, traditional Indian attire, and namaste people as they entered. When the restaurant closed each night, the staff got to eat their dinner for free before heading home. There was a ritual to that. The owners, an old Gujarati couple, sat at the front desk, the waitresses and the cooks ate their meals on the floor of the kitchen, and the Mexican dishwasher had his dinner in the backroom storage space. What now strikes me as odd was how quickly I slipped into this social arrangement. At the time, it did not occur to me to ask why we didn’t all just sit at the table and eat together, using the nice restaurant cutlery.

Dirty work, dirty people?

It is easy to fall into the explanation of the Indian caste system as a way of sorting ‘our worth’ based on the ‘purity’ of our occupation, ‘once a servant, always a servant’ logic. This was one of the most imaginative social ordering inventions of rationalizing group hierarchies along arbitrary principles, including that of occupation. This system of applied status has somehow stood the test of time and persists in the global and modern economy.

What is remarkable is how this valuation of human virtue based on the work we do has manifested across the world, albeit in different ways. For instance, Sara Asselman, a researcher at the City University of New York, paints a vivid picture of Filipina domestic workers’ struggle for respect and recognition in Morocco as what they do is largely considered “dishonorable work”. The stigmatization that comes with engaging in the economy of care has an added ethnic dimension in this context, given that majority of their domestic workers are migrant women from the Philippines.

Image credit: UN Women / Flickr

Naturalizing an entire group of people based on their gender, ethnic and citizenship status as intrinsically adept at a given industry and simultaneously degrading that industry as ‘lesser than’ has served the political economy of global supply chains through reduced wages. We see this through the circulating of global clichés, from women as naturally good at care work,  to Chinese as not the ‘creative type’ but the ‘manufacturing type’. As Carly Fiorina, a former boss of Hewlett-Packard argued in The Economist interview:

“YEAH, the Chinese can take a test, but…they’re not terribly imaginative. They’re not entrepreneurial. They don’t innovate—that’s why they’re stealing our intellectual property.”

The social labelling of entire groups as innately good or bad at certain kinds of work, becomes more complicated as the ‘virtue’ of that work shifts over time. If we follow social progression over the ages, under traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs, work was considered penance for Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Greeks viewed work as a curse while Romans saw artisanal work as “vulgar.” The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century turned this around, webbing as Max Weber argued, morality and virtue to an ‘honest day’s work.’ As Gayle Porter, Organizational Change Management scholar explains, “the meaning of work has varied across time and culture – a curse, a calling, a social obligation, a natural activity, a means to better life, or simply what we do because we have to.”

Respecting “disgusting work”

Choice is a privilege. In Corona times, the choice of work is an astounding luxury to most people, particularly in precarious and vulnerable contexts. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) more than 1.7 million Kenyans lost their jobs in the first three months of the pandemic. The Kenyan government is offering hundreds of thousands of such citizens alternative urban maintenance jobs, many of which are considered undignified work. In Kibera, one of the largest informal settlements in Nairobi, Abdul Aziz, a driver who lost his job, scoops up plastic bottles, dirty nappies, and garbage from the open sewer, trying his best to dodge the “flying toilets” of human faeces that is swung out from homes while he toils. “It’s disgusting work,” says Aziz, but he recognizes that it’s still better than staying at home, “hungry and jobless.”

Image credit: Claude Renault / Wikimedia

Inserting honour in this equation is perverse. Yet, this social ‘quality’ that somehow people at the margins have found themselves needing to defend and to preserve seems to accompany several types of jobs they engage with, such as tailoring, butchering, artisanal work, domestic care, and sanitation. But, what is honour though? It is a resource that can be accumulated and/or reduced based on established behavioural codes, signalling one’s inherent worth. These codes are often distinctly gendered across societies.  In honour cultures, typically women working outside the house, and with and alongside strangers, is looked upon with “a tinge of immorality”—shop girls, daytime security personnel, airline hostesses, traffic cops, beauty tec­­­hnicians, tuk-tuk drivers, and even as trekking guides.

The management of reputation has become even more confounding as women workers are compelled to take to social media platforms, as in the case of Bangladesh garment workers to resell wares. Given that honour can be taken away by inappropriate and visible behaviour, social media poses specific and new forms of threats for women as they struggle to manage their self-impressions online while conducting their day to day work activities. Katy Pearce, a communications scholar from University of Washington captures the spectrum of fears as young women in the ‘honour culture’ of Azerbaijan go online. The ‘right’ women’s behavioural codes require them to be modest, quiet, decent, and chaste, else they would bring dishonour to their families and communities. One of her participants shares her experience of regularly receiving disapproving comments on every Facebook post—even if just a photo of a sunset—saying things like, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” Eventually, she blocked most of her friends and family members to avoid the harassment, although that resulted in her self-ostracism.

Online tactics of manufacturing honour

While social status can appear as frozen and immovable, collective ingenuity and socio-technical change can open pathways to game the system in ways that can help women workers manufacture and acquire honour for themselves and their group of belonging.

In Nepal, many rural women have moved to the city to work and send money home. Kabita, a first-generation wage earner is a case in point. She works as a tourist guide and is aware of the thin line she treads as she interacts with “open” lifestyles of the city in terms of social freedoms, perceived as dishonourable to her community. While she enjoys the pleasure of being independent, she crafts her identity online to show to her family back home that she is still a “good girl” through her modest choice of clothing. Further, she leverages on the digital remittance economy, a conventional pathway for earning honour by sons who send money back home and make their families proud. The “assumption is that a daughter engaged in a ‘dishonorable’ profession would be too ashamed to send any of her earnings to her parents,” argues Barbara Grossman-Thompson, International Studies scholar at California State University Long Beach.

Other strategies by women workers to manage their “honour”  has been to obscure their identities by using stock photos for their profiles, self-censorship, posting only about “serious things” and business related matters, and holding often multiple accounts, handles and profiles. Collective self-presentation is also important as women work together to manufacture the reputation of their industry, their work and thereby themselves through tactical tagging and sharing with the right social networks to reinforce certain impressions of their work to those back home.

While these tactical collectives are impressive, what we should really aim for is to dismantle the notion of honour, as historically and culturally constructed as individual virtue/vice dependent on the work we do. No human being should be valued based on what work they engage in, rather it should be on the level of integrity they bring to that job, whether as a sweeper in Bangalore or a Wall street executive in New York. Do we need this added layer of self and group degradation in the face of precarity and misfortune? Given that human beings can’t help but imbibe meaning from their toil, can we move away from a template that devalues us by what we do and instead fuel an alternative paradigm that centres on the dignity of labour? 

As long as honour holds a place in the world of labour, it will always serve as a cancer that eats into the fabric of human dignity.

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The street sweeper and her missing gloves

[By Usha Raman]

The two women walk down my street at around 7 a.m. every morning, noticeable in the navy-blue knee-length coats they wear over their sarees, and the colourful bandannas that cover their heads. Bhagya (name changed to maintain anonymity) has large kaajal-rimmed eyes and she flashes a bright smile if she happens to see me on the terrace. There’s a man with them, and the three form the team that sweeps and gathers the street rubbish every day in my part of Hyderabad city. Their blue coveralls are printed with the letters signifying the municipal authority that employs them.

Well…if the relationship they have with that authority can be termed “employment.” Bhagya and her companions are contracted by the municipality through a third party. They are perhaps somewhat more fortunate than many others who are hired on and off on daily wages, but less so than the 37 % or so that are estimated to be on the permanent rolls of any urban municipal corporation in India. They are part of the crew that is responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of the city—an activity that was elevated to mission mode under the Central Government’s highly publicized “Swacch Bharath” (Clean India) scheme launched in 2014. While the building of toilets and eliminating open defecation were seen as top priorities under the scheme, the cleanliness of public spaces and ensuring safe and efficient waste disposal were also important goals. The scheme was dismissed by many as populist, and failing to tackle the real issues of caste-based inequity and deep-rooted social stigma faced by sanitation workers, but it did open up the discursive space around these issues.

Image credit: Pikist

The mission also succeeded in bringing more attention to the condition of workers like Bhagya—women and men working under precarious conditions of employment, subject to often unfair and nebulous contractual terms, and no safety net in case of health or other emergencies. An in-depth qualitative study by Dahlberg Advisors in 2017 categorized sanitation work into nine different types, ranging from cleaning latrines and drains to sweeping streets, each with its own challenges and vulnerabilities. More recently, a study by the NGO PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) Network points to four “predispositions” that are the reasons for the persistent marginalization of sanitation workers—gender, caste, geography and education.

One does not need to look deep into the fine print of such studies to perceive the challenges that women in sanitation work face, being doubly marginalized by caste and gender. The PRIA study also pointed to the lack of empathetic supervision and little consideration given to the specific issues of safety and protection that women workers might require. These issues have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, with all categories of sanitation workers becoming part of an invisible frontline in the fight against the pandemic. A phone-based survey of 214 sanitation workers in three north Indian cities during this pandemic, of whom 30 % were women, revealed that they had received no instructions or training related to safety during the pandemic, nor had any special arrangements been made for them at work. Bhagya, for instance, told me that she was issued one set of gloves when she started working for the municipality three years ago, which have since torn and have not been replaced. When I asked her about face masks and hand sanitizer, she shook her head: “We have to get them ourselves if we want.” A simple cloth scarf was wound around her face in lieu of a mask.

The lack of information and the failure to provide basic protections results in a high level of anxiety, often leading to desperate measures. A 60-year-old sweeper in Telangana was reported to have taken her own life by consuming pesticides, fearing that she had been infected by the SARS-CoV 2 virus after having swept the streets in what was later declared a containment zone. In this and other reports, women sanitation workers are often referred to as “Covid warriors” but this terminology belies the very real vulnerabilities they embody. A majority do not have any form of health insurance despite the fact that much lip-service is paid to the fact that they are on the front lines of the pandemic.

Worker protections exist—in theory, and to varying extent—across all sectors; however, there are gaps at the level of making these protections, and knowledge about them, available to workers. When I ask Bhagya whether her contractor is supposed to give her protective gear, she shrugs, and says “Who knows?” While one might see this as apathy or complacence, it’s more likely to be a simple lack of awareness of what one is due and how to demand it. Of course, there is also the possibility that the exercise of voice might just put her job at risk.

When we talk of communication rights, it is often limited to access to means of communication and the freedom of expression. But within a human rights framework, communication becomes the means by which we access a whole range of other rights—including the right to fair work.

Some days, as I look down from the terrace, I see Bhagya walking a few feet behind her companions, talking on her phone. What if this phone became a means—not only of domestic communication, but also, to access a checklist of protections, a means to report on lapses, and a way to connect with others in her cohort? What if it were not an instrument of surveillance (as has been used to monitor activity under Swacch Bharat in some regions) but an instrument of security, care and supportive connection?

I guess that’s a question for another day.