People’s struggles on Urban and Energy related issues

The Untouchables: Dalit Workers’ Struggles

, by Intercultural Resources , GEORGE PT

A municipality worker in the city of Ahmedabad removes human excreta from roadside.

An estimated 1.3 million Dalits (the lowest group in the Hindu caste hierarchy) in India eke out a living through the most degrading practice of manual scavenging, an occupation which involves cleaning open toilets and dry latrines and carrying human excreta with bare hands. In cities and towns, Dalit workers are often employed in the maintenance of sewer systems, sweeping of roads and collection of garbage. Apart from being employed to clean toilets in individual households, they are also engaged in cleaning community dry latrines, roadside open toilets, railway stations, government hospitals and other public places.

In spite of a strong provision like the "The Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993", which prohibits manual scavenging, the practice is widespread in India and the task of eradicating it has not been easy. This article specifically looks at some of the problems faced by the Dalit manhole and sanitation workers in Ahmedabad, one of the oldest cities in India.

Ahmedabad City

The city of Ahmedabad is located in the state of Gujarat in the western part of India. The largest city in Gujarat, Ahmedabad was founded in 1411 by Sultan Ahmed Shah. The census of India 2011 shows that Ahmedabad has a teeming population of 7.2 million people, and the city is spread out over an area of 8086 square kilometers.

Although ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ (the name given to a biennial investors’ summit organized by the state government) boasts of high industrial development, economic growth and progressive ideologies, the state lags behind in removing manual scavenging and other menial practices to protect the dignity of Dalits.

The city of Ahmedabad was a pioneer in establishing its sewer system. As early as 1890, under the progressive leadership of Rae Bahadur Ranchhodlal Chhotalal, underground sewer pipes were laid in some parts of the city and gradually a large sewer network was created throughout city of Ahmedabad. By 1906, most parts of the city of Ahmedabad were covered under the sewage system. Although Ahmedabad was one of the first Indian cities to install a sewer system that matched modern ideas of a sophisticated urban lifestyle, the people employed to maintain this system did not experience major changes in their life, since the entrenched caste hierarchies limited their social relations, interactions and communication.

The Balmikis

The Balmikis (a sub-caste from the Dalit community), labeled as Bhangis (a derogatory term for manual scavengers) have been one of the most excluded, exploited and marginalized group in Gujarat. They are victimized both by the higher castes and the state agencies. For centuries, the Balmikis have been assigned the menial task of cleaning dry latrines. With the arrival of the sewer system, the manual scavengers were employed as sewerage workers and municipality cleaners. Instead of cleaning the dry latrines, now they have to go down to clean blocked sewers filled with human excreta and other hazardous wastes. They work with bare hands, and expose themselves to all kinds of dirt, pollution and dangerous bacteria. People still call them Bhangis and prohibit them from participating in social functions and religious rituals.

Balmikis in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC)

In the city of Ahmedabad there are two types of sewerage workers: manhole workers and municipality road sweepers. While maintenance of the manhole is usually managed by men alone, both men and women from the Balmiki community are engaged as municipal sweepers and cleaners of public toilets and roadside open latrines.

Nanjibhai Makhwana, a senior trade union leader of Ahmedabad manhole workers and a long-time employee of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC, the local government body) says that on the basis of employment, the Balmikis working under the AMC could be divided into four categories: 1) permanent workers registered with the AMC, 2) temporary workers, 3) daily wage workers, and 4) contract workers and ragpickers.

Workers who have completed 5 years or 900 working days with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation are supposed to be registered as permanent workers. Those who have not fulfilled this criteria, but are registered with the corporation are known as temporary workers. Nanjibhai explains that their unions are confronting the problem that the AMC often hires daily wage laborers and unregistered workers instead of the permanent workers. Because of the haphazard manner in which the sewer workers are employed, in the event of accidents or serious injuries inside the sewer, they are not entitled to claim any compensation from the AMC.

Occupational Health Hazards

The sewer contains many toxic gases and poisonous substances. The sewer gas is a complex mixture of toxic gases that contain methane, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxides. Besides, the sewer also contains chlorine bleaches, household waste, human excreta, and industrial wastes. The sewerage workers or manhole workers are at high risk when they are exposed to dangerous gases for a prolonged time. In the city of Ahmedabad, the manhole workers are not provided with any safety equipment to protect them from dangerous gases and other toxic wastes.

Several manhole workers have died as soon as they went down into the sewer, and their dead bodies had to be pulled out. Over the last three decades, in the city of Ahmedabad alone, several hundred manhole workers have died due to gas poisoning. They often fall prey to occupational hazards like exposure to harmful gases, drowning, muscular-skeletal disorders, serious skin infections, respiratory disorders and cardiovascular ailments. During the last ten years, the official number of manhole workers who died in Ahmedabad is reported to be about 106.
In Ahmedabad, many trade unions and organizations have been spearheading movements for the rights and dignity of the manual scavengers and manhole and sanitation workers.

Kamdar Swasthya Suraksha Mandal (KSSM)

Kamdar Swasthya Suraksha Mandal (KSSM, “Workers’ Organization for Health and Safety”), an Ahmedabad-based organisation, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of sewerage and manhole workers, better wages and the protection of workers from exploitation. In its effort to spread the movement, it supports several trade unions of manhole workers, sanitation workers and manual scavengers (mostly known as kamdar unions). Along with several trade unions and human rights activists, KSSM has filed petitions in the Gujarat High Court against the deplorable conditions of the manhole workers, the low wages, and the lack of protection from occupational hazards.

Interactions and conversations with trade union leaders, activists, volunteers, manhole workers and municipality cleaners reveal the plight of the manhole workers, the dark side of higher-caste groups, and the apathy and negligence with which the Balmikis are treated. Interactions revealed that a large chunk of sanitary workers’ earnings is spent on medical treatment. On average, about 25% of their income is spent on medical bills. The sanitation workers are also exposed to infections and become victims of tuberculosis, asthma, chronic backache, and respiratory disorders. Several sanitation workers and manhole workers revealed that they continue to be in this profession not out of choice but due to sheer lack of opportunities.

H.P. Mishra

H.P. Mishra, who heads the KSSM, pointed out that the battle for the rights of the Dalit manhole workers and manual scavengers has been a long one and involves constant confrontation with the state agencies and the judiciary. It took more than a decade for the court to intervene and take notice of the conditions in which the manhole workers and manual scavengers worked.

Mr. Mishra further commented that only a small fraction of the Balmikis are actually employed in the organised sector. A vast majority of them work under contractors outsourced by the AMC. There are around 8000 Balmiki families in the city of Ahmedabad, out of which only about 2500 are employed in the organised sector. The rest are contract workers employed by various contractors outsourced by the AMC. The contractors thoroughly exploit the workers and pay only a meager amount. Some Dalit workers earn only 50 to 100 rupees per day (less than two dollars a day) for cleaning the sewer, sweeping roads or collecting garbage.

After several years of confrontations with the AMC, petitions to the court, and negotiations with the government, finally, their struggle bore fruit when the Gujarat High Court gave the landmark judgment in 2006 in favour of the rights of manhole and sanitation workers. The judgment ordered the civic agencies to take steps to mechanize the sewer maintenance, give due dignity to manhole and sanitation workers and protect them from occupational hazards.

Mr. Mishra added that after the Gujarat High Court verdict, the AMC actually stopped deploying men to manually clean the sewer. But the problem didn’t end there. Now, the outsourced contractors clandestinely deploy men, usually in the middle of the night, when most people are asleep. But the trade union workers who are aware of this often alert the leaders and reach the spot to catch the erring contractors.

Ratilal Jivabhai Parmal

Ratilal Jivabhai Parmal, a 45-year-old sanitation worker who earns just 4000 rupees a month, finds it extremely difficult to meet his financial needs. He feels that there is a lot of psychological trauma associated with his work and the society is indifferent towards the Balmikis.
Ratilal further narrated the nauseating experience associated with Hak, his community’s customary practice of begging for food in the locality where Balmikis are employed. While begging, people treat them apathetically and drop all kinds of food into their plate, including stale and rotten food. Since they do not have any other choice they eat whatever is gathered. As a result, many times they fall ill due to bacterial infections, and have to spend a lot of money buying medicines and paying doctors’ fees.

Ashish Mishra

Ashish Mishra, a long-time volunteer with KSSM, observed that education among the Balmikis is very low. Due to the social stigma attached with the kind of work they do, teachers and other students from other higher castes avoid and alienate them. Due to such social pressure, most the Dalit students drop out at the primary level.
Ashish further pointed out that the Balmiki community is steeped in religious practices that involve huge amounts of money. Besides, addiction to alcohol and tobacco also takes a toll on their health and finance. At times, they end up borrowing huge amount of money from private money lenders who charge high interest rates.

Harishbhai Guria

35-year-old Harishbhai Guri has been a sanitation worker with the AMC for the last 5 years. Every morning, armed with just a long hard broom, he painstakingly cleans the human excreta and other solid wastes from the roadside open toilet in a congested slum area of Ahmedabad. Harishbhai complained that the municipal corporation doesn’t provide him with any protective gear, rubber boots or gloves. Unprotected and ill-equipped, exposed to all kinds of infections, he has been falling ill routinely. The AMC doesn’t care about the state of his health. He regularly visits the doctor and spends a substantial amount of money on medicines.

Kokilaben Waljibhai

Kokilaben Waljibhai, a 40-year-old widow, commutes 16 kilometers everyday to her work place. For the last 5 years she has been working in the same locality, sweeping the dirty open toilets filled with human excreta and other solid wastes. Being the sole breadwinner, Kokilaben continues to work to feed her three children. Her husband, a sanitation worker employed with the AMC, died of tuberculosis five years ago.

Nanjibhai Makhwana

Nanjibhai Makhwana, a senior trade union leader from the Balmiki community, has been working as a manhole worker since 1977. As a strong leader of a trade union, he has been at the forefront of various struggles for the rights of the manhole workers. He stated that in the city of Ahmedabad, the status of the manhole workers has undergone a sea change since KSSM came into the scene. His trade union, the Manhole Kamdar Union, Ahmedabad benefited immensely from the activities of KSSM, and he says that his union has been very successful in gaining rights, including benefits and compensations, for many manhole workers. In order to spread awareness about the manhole workers rights, his union has set up branches in several parts of Gujarat.


Modernity and urbanization have brought many changes in Gujarat and around the world. But in a country like India, the complexities of the caste system often prevent the lowest in the social hierarchy from enjoying a dignified life. Despite strong constitutional provisions and judicial interventions, the government agencies have been terribly negligent in uplifting the downtrodden in society.

The installation of a sewer system has not brought much change in the social status and the cultural engagements of the Balmiki community. Marginalization and exclusion have kept them on the periphery of the society. Lack of opportunities to develop other skills compels them to continue the traditional profession, and children when grow up often join their parents’ profession to lend support to the family.

The manhole workers and manual scavengers have benefited immensely from their organised struggle for better wages, better working conditions, dignity and status in a society that is steeped in caste hierarchy. But the outsourced contractors who exploit the manhole and sanitation workers should be brought within the ambit of labour laws. The contracted manhole workers also should be paid equal wages and other benefits at par with workers in the organised sector. Trade unions and organizations should work towards these goals. Until then, the Dalit workers’ struggle for equal rights, equal opportunity and a dignified life will continue for a long time to come.


Sources of information:

 Interaction with HP Mishra, chief functionary of Kamdar Swasthya Suraksha Mandal (KSSM) Ahmedabad.

 Interaction with Ashish Mishra, a full time volunteer with KSSM.

 Interaction with Nanjibhai Makhwana, a community leader and chief functionary of Manhole Kamdar Union, Ahmedabad.

 Interaction with Kokilaben Waljibhai, a sanitation worker with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation

 Interaction with Harishbhai Guria, a sanitation worker with AMC

 Interaction with Ratilal Jivabhai Parmal, employee of AMC

 Interaction with community members and other Dalit workers in several parts of Ahmedabad

 Ahmadabad (Ahmedabad) District: Census 2011 Data,