Sanitation Workers – The Fight for Dignity and Liberation

[This is an abridged version of a booklet on Sanitation Workers being brought out by AICCTU]

The Covid pandemic has brought to the fore the social realities of sanitation workers, while exposing the casteist, classist, opportunistic lip-service paid to them by the ruling dispensations. As the sanitation workers toil through the pandemic without any safety equipment and under inhuman working conditions, with hundreds succumbing to Covid, all the ruling dispensation had to offer was the tag of “corona warriors” and “frontline workers”. Faced with this situation, the municipal sanitation workers, across the country, are waging a heroic struggle, not just for wages, regularisation and safe working conditions, but, more importantly, for dignity and liberation.

Sanitation workforce is predominantly Dalit, pre-ordained by the caste system to perform these jobs generationally, structurally oppressed and deprived of social dignity, education, proper housing and the fundamental choice of opting for other occupations. This caste-based, hereditary, oppressive work that secures the health of residents of the country, is tasked to the oppressed Dalit communities, who are invariably denied proper wages, job security and social security benefits. Notably, a section of workers also belongs to minority communities as well.

Sanitation work is institutionalised caste:

Every morning, in every village, town and city around the country, even before the sun rises, this workforce, leave their homes to begin their daily compulsory sanitation work. Garbage, and dirt cannot be allowed to collect on the streets and pavements, septic tanks have to be emptied, manholes cleaned, toilets cleansed, since that would lead to health epidemics and thus, a serious crisis. Even the lockdowns did not bring any respite and workers were compelled to work every single day, without masks, gloves or PPE kits, and without even transportation to their work areas.

Babasaheb Ambedkar stated that: “Caste is not just a division of labour, but it is a division of labourers.” Sanitation workers are not merely individual members of this work force out of pure choice; but members, by birth, with inerasable identity and inter-generational continuity, forced into this work by the inexorable evil power of the Indian caste system.

Waste is identified with the people who handle them. Caste prejudices ensure widespread discrimination of workers employed in these jobs. The conditions of these workers best reveal the interplay of relations among genders, class and caste. Urbanisation and capitalism has not undermined caste-based occupations and discriminations but has intensified and varied its manifestations. The sweeper or manual scavenger from the Dalit community has now become a part of the workforce for “housekeeping” still cleaning toilets in factories, offices, malls and even airports.

It becomes pertinent here to understand that the caste system and the concept of untouchability has manifested itself alongside neoliberalism and urbanisation through various forms of sanitation work. Given this reality, one of the most essential and radical steps in the struggle for justice for workers is the struggle against caste system – the annihilation of caste – as part of the practice of class struggle.

Forms of Sanitation Work

Sanitation work exists today in various forms. Manual scavenging, in its most primitive form, is the removal of human excrement from public streets and dry latrines, cleaning sceptic tanks, gutters and sewers, and is widely prevalent across India. Some of the worst offenders in perpetuating manual scavenging are, in fact, public agencies, like Indian Railways.

Most households that have toilets do not have connections to the sewerage lines since proper sewerage systems are not in place (According to the 2011 census, only 32.7% households were connected to sewers). This results in excreta being dumped into the open drains or use septic tanks (38.20 % of urban households) or open defecation, again giving rise to manual scavenging.

There are safai karamcharis working in sewerage systems, which has only increased with increase in urbanisation and the underground drainage (UGD) system. A wide range of objects clogs sewers on an everyday basis and the maintenance of the sewerage system involves the physical entry of safai karamcharis into the network of drains through manholes and cleaning human excreta with their bare hands, nothing but another form of manual scavenging.

Then, there are lakhs of Safai karamcharis employed for solid waste management by urban and rural local bodies to sweep the streets, clean the drains, door to door collection of garbage, etc. Deprived of minimum wages and security of tenure, they are forced to constantly bend and push heavy pushcarts laden with rotten and smelling garbage.

In addition, sanitation workers are employed to clean toilets in individual households. They are also engaged in cleaning community dry latrines, industrial establishments, offices and various other public places. In these places, they are euphemistically called “housekeeping staff”.

In all its forms, the inescapable fact is that it is predominantly Dalit workers, under extremely precarious, undignified conditions, in violation of various protective labour statutes.

Fundamental Issues

Social Dignity of Sanitation Workers:

Sanitation workers continue to live under conditions of social isolation owing to their caste and caste-based occupation. Since this caste-based hereditary profession is seen as dirty, unclean and unhygienic, the workers and their families continue to face ostracisation and social immobility. Further, this affects their morale leading to inferiority complex and further segregation.

Owing to the insecure livelihood of sanitation workers and low wages, their social and economic conditions are extremely vulnerable. They do not have proper housing, are unable to provide proper education for their children, and are unable to access proper health services, caught in a vicious circle of poverty and social/economic disempowerment. In towns and cities, the Safai Karamcharis predominately live in slums having minimal or no access to basic services such as toilets, water, roads and electricity.

This form of caste-based occupation further results in perpetuating caste inequalities and discrimination, and becomes a social practice rather than an occupation, trapping the community into this practice.

Eradication of Manual Scavenging

Eradication of manual scavenging has to start from delinking the profession of sanitation from the caste, i.e., the lowest strata of Dalits. Manual scavenging exists in the yawning gap between the amount of excreta produced by India’s enormous population and the country’s existing capacity for processing it sanitarily. If that gap is not closed, especially as the government strives to get more than half a billion people who did not previously use latrines to start using them, it will perpetuate the same old practices.

In November 2007, the Times of India carried a brief report titled “‘Karmayogi’ swears by caste order.”, which reviewed the yet unreleased book, ‘Karmayog’ by the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in which he is quoted to have said: “At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their (Valmikis’) duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries.”

These perverse ideas that continue to allow manual scavenging to take place, derive their ideological basis from Manu Smriti that is the guide book of Varna system and the inhuman discrimination based on caste. This can only be countered by working towards the annihilation of caste itself.

Conditions of service:

While manual scavengers, including those who clean dry latrines, septic tanks, soak pits, are “self-employed” and receive piece-rate for the work that they perform, most other sanitation workers, including those employed by the Panchayats and urban local bodies to carry out the job of sweeping, cleaning manholes and UGD, etc. are primarily employed through outsourcing or contractors and are denied even minimum wages and have no job, wage or social security. This is the case of the “housekeeping staff” employed in hospitals, MNCs, Malls, all offices, etc. There are permanent workers who work alongside them, but direct recruitment to vacant posts has been stopped since the 1990s when liberalisation was introduced in the country particularly banning recruitment into Group IV jobs as one of the conditionalities of the bail out loans extended by the IMF. Thus, contract and daily wage systems were introduced to this day.

The informalisation of the workforce and dilution, initially, of implementation of labour laws, and subsequent dilution of laws itself, meant that workers employed for sanitation work even in private sector. Thus, most “housekeeping” staff are employed on contract basis. Wage is one major issue for sanitation workers in the country employed under contractor or on daily wage basis.

One of the persistent demands of this workforce is their regularisation by the abolition of the contract/daily-wage system and their absorption into the regular workforce. Another essential aspect to this work is the use of retrograde standards to determine the ratio of sanitation workers to the population, and it is necessary to ensure that there are adequate number of workers for the population.

Farce of Swacch Bharat:

Inescapably in our country, how we think of waste, garbage, excreta, sewage, etc. is grounded in social relations of caste and the attitudes about ritual purity. Ideas and practice of caste is a dominant aspect in understanding the State’s approach to waste management and society’s attitude towards the workers employed for this work. The most recent example of this is the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan which exposes the deeply entrenched – deeply casteist – approach to waste/garbage/sewage management and manual scavenging. It focusses on construction of new toilets without any strategy about how they are to be cleared. The construction of these toilets is seldom linked to sewage, drainage and water facilities and solid waste management practices. There has been little or no investment on procuring mechanized sludge and pump machines for physical removal of excreta. Manual scavenging is being institutionalised.

Swachcha Bharat is only a glamour which does not address basic issues. Constructing toilets is not just linked with changing the behaviour of the people but it is linked more and more with the caste based discrimination and economic inequality in the society. Without addressing these two basic issues, there cannot be any Bharat that is Swachch.

No sanitation campaign in India can be successful unless it addressed the issue of caste and untouchability. Any mission that wishes to make an impact in terms of cleanliness and sanitation should fight against the most retrograde idea of pollution and purity, which is the hallmark of the Hindu caste structure.


Howsoever vicious the oppression of these workers is, and historically has been, there have also been battles for rights. In fact, these struggles reflect consistency in some of the demands of workers. Looking back, one recalls the valiant struggles of sanitation workers of Calcutta Corporation in 1920s, when they organised themselves under the banner of the All Bengal Scavengers Union and the Workers’ and Peasants Party demanding union recognition, increased wages, housing and latrines, free medicine and treatment, end to corruption of the mafia that controlled their jobs, 15 days of annual casual leave, and paid leave for a month per year. Around the same time the scavengers of Madras Corporation struck work in 1924 demanding increase of wages and supply of 4 measures of rice.

These struggles still continue in newer conditions. AICCTU has waged successful struggles on the issue, notably of abolition of contract system in Karnataka and on the issues of better wages, dignity of labour and better and humane conditions of work across dozens of urban local bodies in Bihar, in Pune Municipal Corporation, apart from other states. AICCTU led unions have been able to involve sanitation and municipal workers in other socio-political and cultural activities too.

However, in today’s context these struggles have to be taken up on all levels, especially on the question of dignity and right to other occupations. Unless Dalits and other oppressed communities have access to other jobs, the grip of caste on these sectors will not lessen, the grip of caste related indignities on their lives will not go away.

As a revolutionary organisation, we seek to build a powerful political movement of sanitation workers against Manuvadi Fascism aimed at eradication of manual scavenging and at assertion of their political identity in addition to its nature of a vibrant trade union movement. We Demand:

Eradicate Manual Scavenging!

Emancipation of Dalits and Eradication of Caste-Based Discrimination!

Employ New Generation of Dalit community in Employment other than Sanitation!

Abolition of contract system and regularisation of all contract workers

Ensuring regular payment of wages, issuance of wage slips, declaration of weekly off and national/festival holidays, provision of ESI/PF benefits, provision of toilets and drinking water facilities, etc. to workers.

Increasing minimum wages to Rs. 28,000/-.

Provision of protective and safety gear. Implements utilized in the cleaning of streets and garbage removal must be upgraded. Push trolleys shall be motorised and the mechanized methods of sweeping be introduced.

Ensuring complete mechanical cleaning of sewer tanks, soak pits, manholes, sewer systems, etc. π