American scholar narrates how Ahmedabad’s sweeper caste was “morphed” into sewer caste over the decades

AMC workersIn a recent study, “Coprology and Caste: The Status of Sewerage in Ahmedabad, India”, an American scholar, Stephanie Tam of the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies, Northwestern University, has said that  Ahmedabad may be one of the earliest pioneers of sewerage system in the 19th century. But it has not only failed to solve manual scavenging; in fact, manual scavenging has been given a new form. Excerpts:

Sewerage in Ahmedabad was deeply intertwined with status, legitimacy and identity, and as much as it altered the city, it was itself transformed over time to conform to social structures. One of civilization’s earliest sewer systems is found in Lothal, an ancient Harappan settlement located in what is today’s Gujarat, India. Fifty miles away lies the state’s financial capital of Ahmedabad, a burgeoning center of textile industry in the 19th century that gained the moniker “Manchester of India”.

Ahmedabad’s commercial progress and prosperity were beset by heaps of industrial and human waste, as the population grew and living conditions densified beyond the city’s infrastructural capacity. Lothal’s sewers stood as reminders of Ahmedabad’s tidy and technologically advanced predecessors, its open trenches carving out a gridded masterplan that was in stark contrast to Ahmedabad’s chaotic encroachments. Sewerage seemed to be the answer to urban decay, promising order, administrative control, and improved public health.  It was being deployed in cities across Europe and North America, and Ahmedabad strove to keep pace with its industrial colleagues.

Unlike Bombay and Delhi, Ahmedabad remained relatively independent of British rule, and had its own municipal government consisting primarily of Western-educated professionals. Its first municipal president was a successful millowner who applied his industrial ingenuity to reducing the city’s alarming mortality rates, proposing underground sewers after reading the British Army Sanitary Commission’s attribution of disease to lack of drainage. Ranchhodlal Chhotalal’s 1886 sewerage proposal promoted a sewerage scheme written five years earlier by public works engineer Colonel Walter Ducat.

Sewerage’s aura of progress drove Chhotalal’s campaign to sanitize Ahmedabad. In an 1886 letter, Chhotalal described Ducat’s scheme as a “modern under-ground sewage system”, portraying the project as state-of-the-art in contrast to the city’s extant open-air sewers that needed to be manually cleaned. Indeed, Chhotalal’s biographer depicted him as a modern man who promoted the “rules of sanitary science” and believed in empirical knowledge. His attitude was un-Indian in the way he “besought his colleagues to set their faces sternly against the fatalism, so prevalent among the people of India”, and fought on the side of science against native custom.

Chhotalal’s Western qualities were deemed righteous in attempting “to ameliorate the material conditions and circumstances of life”, linking Western science to social justice. Ethics echoed from Chhotalal’s repeated assertions that sewerage was a civic responsibility, and alongside the construction of Ahmedabad’s sewerage, Ahmedabad’s moral public was formed. In the hands of social reformers, “civic sense” possessed a moral dimension that exceeded good breeding. “Civic sense” came to be understood as “that sense of humanity – the knowledge that mankind is one and must henceforth be dealt with from that standpoint”. It signified equality and mutual respect, a moral consciousness that indicated one was part of humanity.

Chhotalal strategically made no mention of sewerage’s impact upon the Bhangis, discussing sweepers only in the context of their failure to clean sufficiently. He pointed out that the “Municipal Bhungees will only clean the cess-pool once a day and some portion of the foul water will always remain in the cess-pool”, while sewerage would eliminate every trace of excrement from residential areas in a timely manner. By evaluating Bhangis only in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, Chhotalal represented them as sanitation instruments, and glossed over the larger social framework that defined their occupation.

Ahmedabadis’ ‘civic sense’

Ahmedabadis were not ready to embrace a “civic sense” that contested caste divisions and caste-based occupations. Exposing the social structures that sewerage would upset, the general public, the local press, and even Chhotalal’s colleagues were so incensed by the sewerage proposal that they held daily mass meetings to protest against it. Chhotalal often attended these meetings to defend his proposal, but it was to no avail, and during one meeting he was pelted with garbage and stones.

Opponents to Chhotalal’s proposal described sewerage as “unpractical, doctrinaire, still in the experimental stage elsewhere […] and dangerous to health”, with one writer claiming that streets would be poisoned by sewer gas. Sewers made excreta invisible and dynamic, doing away with the security of tangible and locatable faeces that was handled by humans. Even though it was contained within pipes, excreta became immanent in Ahmedabad’s environment, making defilement difficult to assess. Despite significant resistance to it, Ahmedabad’s first sewer was laid in 1893 in the Khadia ward.

Sewerage did not challenge caste divisions as the people had feared, but became a new means of enforcing them. Sewerage shifted financial control of the Bhangis away from private citizens onto the Municipality, but the plight of the Bhangis changed little and in certain ways, for the worse. The Municipality had been moving towards financial control of the Bhangis even before the sewers were built. In 1884, Bhangis were expected to depose the night-soil they collected into municipal tramway carts at the Jamalpur and Shahpur gates for transportation to a manure processing depot two and a half miles away.

Centralizing faecal collection under the guise of making sanitation more efficient and less laborious enabled the government to impinge upon the Bhangis’s prerogative over night-soil sales. Sewerage completed the Municipality’s takeover. Chhotalal planned for the faeces collected by sewers to “yield a handsome revenue to the Municipality”, leaving Bhangis no source of alternative income. Although sewers reduced the number of dry latrines, cesspools and open gutters in Ahmedabad, they also generated a new task: clearing out blocked pipes.

Ranchhodlal Chhotalal

While private employment gave Bhangis the power to negotiate wages and work conditions with individual households, public employment wrapped those who were responsible for work conditions in layers of inaccessible bureaucracy. On September 14, 1911, the Bhangis went on strike, letting Ahmedabad’s streets and sewers overflow and fester. They had not received their salary in two months. Bhangi leaders Kashiya Deva, Mafatiya Mana and Dhana Balu were arrested and sentenced to one month of imprisonment with hard labour, but the strike did not end until the Muncipality brought in sanitation workers from other municipalities.

‘Expanding’ Ahmedabad

As Ahmedabad grew, so did its sewerage. In 1939, the system expanded beyond the old walled city, and in 1955 it expanded to new settlements on the west side of the Sabarmati River. By 1958, most of the area within the city limits had been sewered, and municipal assistant engineer PR Shah proudly declared Ahmedabad the first Indian municipality to “have gutter lines in the whole city”. However, the quality of sanitation was far from ideal: old drainage lines, which were hardly sufficient to take their own discharge, were further loaded with the increased discharge of the extended areas. This resulted in frequent breakdowns due to choking and backing.

Such a disregard for the basic principle of sanitation had its toll in the form of polluting the river water. There were frequent incidences of breakdowns of old mains due to the heavy back pressure; over flowing of sewers during peak hours occurred at increasing rate; silting of sewer-sections due to stagnancy became common. Ahmedabadis treated sewers the same way that they used to treat the streets, depositing all that was dirty into them to maintain the separation between clean interior living spaces, and dirty exterior ones. Rather than blurring interior and exterior domains, sewerage remained an external element under the responsibility of the Municipality.

Rather than producing new habits in the population, sewers were co-opted into existing habits. In much the same way, the new role of the sewer worker did not upset Ahmedabad’s caste structure, but became a new way for manifesting it. Ahmedabad’s sewers had turned into garbage dumps, and blockages could not be removed by a “small sudden flush of water”. Consequently, sewer workers were not mere supervisors as Latham had intended, but had to perform physical labour to clear the drains. Armed with a bucket and their bare hands, sewermen entered overflowing manholes wearing nothing but a loincloth. A rope wrapped around their chest raised and lowered them from the manhole as they filled bucket after bucket with hardened sewage debris.

The sweeper caste had morphed into the sewer caste, and all the social biases against sweepers were transferred to the sewer workers. Bhangis had always been considered filthy and backwards, these characteristics being deemed innate to them and the cause of their oppression. In such a way, their plight was considered inevitable and their own fault. Other castes were thought to be intelligent enough to refuse to handle faeces, and the Bhangis’s willingness to perform such acts was taken to be indicative of their stupor. Their backwardness was understood not only as the cause of social dysfunction, but also as the incapacity to handle technology.

Primitive maintenance technology

Sewerage maintenance technology remained primitive because it reinforced the Bhangi stereotype. To give them new tools would have entailed recognition of Bhangis as intelligent, sentient humans who experienced the same revulsion towards faeces as everyone else did. Consequently, Ahmedabad’s sewerage technology developed asymmetrically, with sewage treatment plants and pumping stations being repeatedly updated and replaced by newer technologies while maintenance tools remained the same. Between 2002 and 2004, the city received a grant from the Government of India to mitigate sewage entering the Sabarmati River.

Between 2004 and 2008, the number of sewage treatment plants doubled even though the number of sewer lines hardly increased. In 2009, pumping stations were equipped with eight-channel temperature measuring devices, ultrasonic transmitters and electromagnetic flow meters. Their processes were fully automated via programmable logic controllers that decided whether the pumps should stop or start, and which pumps should be in use.68 Biased sewerage development has resulted in sewage treatment plants and pumping stations whose current sophistication rivals those in most Western cities, while maintenance technology has not progressed beyond buckets and human hands.

The crudeness of Ahmedabad’s sewerage maintenance equipment was not due to lack of funding or lack of available technology. The advanced state of the sewage treatment plants and pumping stations proves that the city had the capacity to mechanize pipe maintenance, or at the very least provide better equipment to the Bhangis. It was lack of political will that arrested the development of maintenance technology. Bhangis had nobody to speak on their behalf when it came to sewerage budgeting decisions, nor was there any public interest in improving their work conditions. What did get the public’s attention were new constructions, particularly those that were aboveground and could be visually verified.

Treatment plants were highly visible facilities that officials could point to as evidence of their civic duty. Local newspapers celebrated Ahmedabad’s latest sewage treatment plants as the largest ones in Asia, and the municipal commissioner described them as evidence of the government’s “scientific” efforts in “environment conservation”. Ahmedabad’s efforts in keeping up with new treatment plants allowed it to claim technical proficiency and civic responsibility, while masking the neglect of its maintenance staff. Although the 1993 Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act prompted sewerage engineers to make cosmetic efforts in mechanizing sewer maintenance, there was little investment in ensuring that the new maintenance provisions worked.

The act banned the legal practice of manual faecal removal, but had little effect on its actual occurrence. Rather than investing in maintenance equipment that actually worked, Municipal officials simply found administrative loopholes to continue hiring Bhangis. Bhangis were employed through a chain of contractors and subcontractors, renamed independent contract workers, and cut off from any direct legal association to the government.

As contract workers, they could not form unions, receive benefits, demand minimum wage or be guaranteed job security. The sewerage cleaning community became fragmented, stripped of legal rights and made legally culpable for its own exploitation. Under such conditions, the possibility for the kind of political action of the early 1900s faded. Not only did sewers deprive Bhangis of their last vestiges of political freedom, they imposed corporeal constraints with more rigour than sweeping did. Ahmedabad’s frugal manholes imprisoned sewermen, restricting their movement in precisely the way that Latham had deplored.

The shafts that were meant to be used fleetingly had become the sewermen’s dominant work environment. They had to contract their bodies to fit into the circular crosssection, spending an average of two hours in each manhole to clear up blockages. The ropes that were used to raise and lower them from the shaft left distinct markings on their chests, branding them as Bhangis more permanently than their sweeper brooms used to. Sewerage cleaning demanded a corporeal surrender that sweeping never did: it did much more than train the body to perform certain acts – it invaded the body. Sewage entered the body through the eyes, ears, and nose, infecting workers with leptospirosis, viral hepatitis and typhoid.

Unsanitary living

Bhangi bodies were not just in physical contact with faeces, they had become vessels for them. In becoming a part of the body, sewer workers’ contamination complicated caste reformers’ assertions that pollution was episodic and could happen to anyone who touched dirt. A 1955 summary of the Report from the Scavengers’s Living Conditions Enquiry Committee reveals that Bhangis in the region had no latrines, and lived next to dumping grounds and open drains. According to a 2006 state-wide study, 45.4 per cent of Bhangis still had no toilets and no bathrooms, their unsanitary living conditions being used to justify their polluted status.

Their small and unstable income consigned them to living in slums, beside railroad tracks, and along the river – all illegally occupied lands that had no access to sewer lines. Their exclusion from sewerage amounted to banishment from civic space, as they had no social contract with the city and their homes and jobs were illegitimate. They had always been social outcastes, and sewers simply offered another way to confirm their status. As such, Bhangis have never been acknowledged for their “civic sense” despite sacrificing their health and even their lives to perform a civic service for Ahmedabad. They have never been included in the city even though they have been and continue to be considered an urban necessity.

Sanitation technologies that were intended to replace Bhangi labour have instead contributed to the preservation of their living and working conditions, perpetuating the belief that they are irreplaceable and essential to the city. While sewerage did have a significant impact upon the way Ahmedabadis lived and Ahmedabad developed, it was itself subject to significant impact from Ahmedabadis and became complicit in the very practices and ideologies it sought to erase. Technical details were designed assuming that particular human behaviours and relationships could be cultivated, without thinking that the technology itself would be exposed to manipulation. The association between coprology and caste has persisted because of its ability to adapt to changing urban conditions, co-opting the new into the existing to always remain current.

4 thoughts on “American scholar narrates how Ahmedabad’s sweeper caste was “morphed” into sewer caste over the decades

  1. Casteism is a shame. We don’t care for our own. For a community that keeps our streets clean and our manholes unclogged. They deserve a better life and respect. We can start at home by cleaning our toilets ourselves. By ensuring that those who work in our homes and societies have proper gloves and protective gear. By holding the municipality accountable for their health and safety.


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