Sewers and Sewerage Workers in India

Lalit Batraby Lalit Batra, University of Minnesota

In her much-publicized address to the joint session of the parliament the President of India, Pratibha Patil, recently declared her government’s intention to introduce a legislation in the monsoon session of the parliament banning manual cleaning of dry latrines, soak pits and sewers. The President’s announcement comes in the wake of a flurry of court orders directing local governments in India to provide safe working conditions for sanitation workers, particularly sewage workers.

The announcement has been widely welcomed by activists and reformers as a much-needed (and long-delayed) ‘social justice’ measure to ameliorate the abysmal living and working conditions of dalit sanitation workers who occupy the bottom of the complex class and caste hierarchy in India. Activists in turn have called for greater mechanization, modernization and extension of sanitation infrastructure in order to ensure that the very condition of possibility of the deployment of manual labor in such ‘degrading’ and ‘inhuman’ activities is eradicated.



The recent juridical and political activity on the plight of manual scavengers and sewerage workers is refreshing given the fact that any conversation on labor has generally been considered an anathema by the ruling establishment in the post-liberalization era. It is significant also because by taking up the issue of sewerage workers’ occupational health the government and the courts have at least recognized that sewerage systems do not function on their own and that those who maintain them pay for it with their health and, in many cases, their lives. Otherwise, the sewerage system until now has been discussed mostly in financial, regulatory, and techno-scientific registers in India.

Man in filled sewer

However, I am not convinced that merely banning these occupations or increased mechanization are solutions to the problem. The problem of the deployment of formerly untouchable caste into menial jobs is, after all  a longstanding problem rooted in a history of social and economic discrimination. A juridical or technical fix is hardly going to make it go away. In fact the ban might sweep these activities under the cover and thus make the workers more vulnerable. Similarly, an exclusive focus on techno-managerial aspects of infrastructure modernization without paying attention to social, cultural and epidemiological dimensions of the production and maintenance of sewage networks is bound to reproduce the conditions under which a sewage worker’s body becomes disposable in the first place.

The problem I submit lies with the way the sewerage system is viewed in the first place. Common to the positions of the government as well as a large number of activists is the idea that while the degradation of those who work as sewage workers and manual scavengers is a social and political issue the sewage infrastructure by itself is apolitical and as such a domain of intervention reserved for engineers, technocrats and planners. In other words, once the degrading working conditions and unjust labor practices are taken out of equation the technical neutrality of the sewerage system will be restored and it will be able to fulfill its promise of being a technology of economic modernization and social emancipation.

The notion of the neutrality of infrastructure has been under attack for several decades in India given the undeniably severe human and ecological costs associated with infrastructural improvement projects. Activists and scholars have tirelessly documented and resisted the way these projects reinforce and magnify exclusionary developmental processes, favoring elites while claiming to modernize infrastructure. However, curiously, the subterranean world of the sewerage system has largely escaped their critical scrutiny and therefore continues to be invested with the charge of augmenting universal social wellbeing and public health. How justified is the unexamined belief in the emancipatory potential of the modern sewerage system?

A brief survey of literature on the modernization of European cities reveals that the emergence of the underground sewerage system as a quintessential technical artifact of the modern city is marked from the beginning by multifaceted corporeal, material and discursive contestations that accompanied the consolidation of the bourgeois social order in Europe (Stallybrass and White 1986). Reid (1990) and Chavalier (1973) point out that modern technologies of urban improvement and public health were conceived and produced as material-ideological instruments through which the emergent bourgeois order sought to define and defend itself against ‘laboring classes and dangerous classes’ in Europe. The sewerage system in particular became a key site where the technical was conceived and consolidated as a response to social, aesthetic and symbolic battles (Corbin 1986; Barnes 2006).

In Indian cities, the underground sewerage system was introduced by the British in the late 19th century ostensibly as a public health and sanitation measure. The overarching purpose, however, was to inscribe in space the civilizing mission of colonial modernity (Prashad 2000). Nationalist planners in independent India pushed technological modernization of urban space as a vehicle of social modernization, a vision that entailed dismantling caste hierarchies that tied lower caste status to socially marginal and stigmatized occupations. Thus, the underground sewerage system was seen as a form of infrastructural improvement that would liberate dalits, the formerly untouchable castes traditionally dealing with the manual handling of human excreta, from the indignity and dangers of manual scavenging (Ramaswamy 2009; Chaplin 2011). However, from the beginning, the negation of the promise of improvement was lodged right at the heart of the modernization project as city municipalities simply swelled the newly created labor process of sewage cleaning with dalit workers thereby reproducing the historical relationship between marginalized people and marginalized occupations within the ‘modern’ sewerage system. It is not surprising because the technical and spatial layout of the sewerage system was not so much a product of rational design but was dictated by a complex interplay of the impulse to modernize and the calculative rationality of financial prudence (Prashad 2000). The sewerage system in its very design therefore presupposed the availability of cheap and devalued labor of lower-caste bodies. In fact it can be claimed that even on its own terms, i.e. improving public health, the sewerage system has significantly worsened the physical vulnerability and ill-health of lower caste sewage workers. The precariousness of sewage work is evident in the deaths of thousands of dalit sewage cleaners every year from accidents or debilitating ailments such as leptospirosis, viral hepatitis and typhoid due to sudden or sustained exposure to noxious gases like methane, hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide while manually unclogging and cleaning sewers in Indian cities (Anand 2007).

It would be naive to believe that further modernization of sewerage system would relieve sewage workers from the curse of ill-health and death or make a dent into deep-rooted caste hierarchies. If, as I have argued, the sewerage system is embedded in broader social and political battles then the struggle for safe and dignified working conditions for dalit sewage workers can only be waged by lodging politics right at the heart of how we think about infrastructure. The political approach to the question of sewerage infrastructure in India would reveal that contemporary caste hierarchies and caste-based forms of vulnerability and marginalization do not stand in a relationship of lack, contrast or opposition to the modernity of the Indian city. Rather, the technical and material assemblage of Indian modernity, as exemplified in the modern sewerage system, presupposes, embodies and reproduces caste hierarchies and violence at the same time as it extends the promise to dislodge them.


Anand S (2007) Life inside a black hole. Tehelka 4:47

Barnes D S (2006) The Great Stink of Paris and the Nineteenth-Century Struggle against Filth and Germs. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press

Chaplin S E (2011) The Politics of Sanitation in India: Cities, Services and the State. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan

Chevalier L (1973) Labouring Classes and Dangerous Classes. New York: Howard Fertig

Corbin A (1986) The Foul and the Fragment: Odor and the French Social Imagination. New York: Berg

Prashad V (2000) Untouchable Freedom: A Social History of a Dalit Community. New Delhi: Oxford University Press

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Stallybrass P and White A (1986) The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca: Cornell University Press