"They want us to clean their shit, but won't respect us."
"The drain is no one's first choice."
"We have to risk our lives almost every day.”
"If I were to open a tea stall, no one would drink from that.”
"For the people of our caste, it is not easy to find a job.”
"There is an aspect of disgust that society feels for us.”

#WhoCleansYourShit

A day with a manual scavenger who wades through a cesspit of human excreta & decomposed garbage.

⇓ Scroll ⇓

DILAVAR, 65

DILAVAR IS A MANUAL SCAVENGER who cleans human excreta for a living. He lives in one of the many shops that were collectively intended to serve as a market within a gated MCD complex in Delhi, and has been cleaning sewers for over 20 years now.

It was some years ago that he decided to start working for the improvement of sewage workers in Delhi, many of whom are Dalit migrant labourers with no rights or even records. A few days ago, he appeared on air for a popular radio channel to talk about the exploitation of manual scavengers. But nothing has changed in his life.

According to his wife Soma, it's a tough job. On most days, Soma remains unsure if the sole breadwinner of her family will make it back home. This is because when her husband and those of the other women in the alley go down to clean the city’s sewage, they do it in just their underwear and sometimes a pair of worn slippers. No masks, no protective gloves, no harnesses, no goggles. They tie themselves with jute ropes When they have to enter manholes that are deeper than 5 feet.

“I can’t even stop him. He is doing this work for us, for the children. If he doesn’t shovel shit, we will have no food,” a resigned looking Soma said while fixing her grand-daughter’s hair. She has four children, two daughters who have been married off and two sons, one of whom is married.

Dilavar’s children do not understand why their father goes out to clean sewers every day. They say that they have studied so that they can get out of this life. Dilawar agrees. “That’s why I had to do it. So that they don’t have to,” he says.

Despite the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, manual scavenging continues to be a foul, inhuman and deeply casteist practice prevalent in several Indian states.

The Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 counted over 1.82 lakh families that had at least one member employed in manual scavenging.

News18 spent a day with Dilavar to chronicle the hardships and social discrimination manual scavengers face in India.

5:45 am

Dilavar wakes up while the morning is still grey. Even though he has no place in particular to be, Dilavar believes in getting an early start.

6:30 am

He sits on a charpai outside the narrow, blue façade of his home and sips his tea, and checks his phone for messages and missed calls.

7:30 am

The children wake up. The neighbourhood becomes alive with the sound of their calls, cries, and laughter.

8:45 am

The last of the school-going children are packed in faded yet neat uniforms and ragged bags. Dilavar watches them leave for school.

9:30 am

It's time for Dilavar to step out of the alley and find work. His breakfast consists of roti and some left over sabzi from the previous night.

10:30 am

Dilavar joins the unemployed men playing cards near a peepal tree outside his home. Naresh and Rahul are already there.

11:00 am

The wait begins.

12:00 am

A man donning sunglasses pulls his car in front of the tree and asks Dilavar to accompany him to his colony for a 'small' job.

1:10 pm

Dilavar finds a boy to help him with the job. A nearby drain is clogged and needs fixing. They pick up a khapachchi and a wire-string and walk to the site.

1:20 pm

He reaches the spot and opens the manhole's lid. It stinks with fumes and feces. He inspects it and then decides to go in.

1:30 pm

The owner of the house insists that the job can be done in Rs 1200. Dilavar says the job is at least worth 1,800, RS 900 for each man.

1:45 pm

The sewer isn’t deep, the rope won’t be required. Recently, while a sewage cleaner was descending down a septic tank, the rope had snapped.

2:00 pm

The boy brings Dilavar a bottle of local liquor as he strips to his langot. He takes a swig and reaches out to the manhole.

2:10 pm

It's the years of work that make Dilavar's not too difficult at this point.

2:20 pm

He feels the blockage with his bare hands and tries to clear it. The sewer water is now over his waist.

2:25 pm

He wades into the black water full of garbage and fecal matter. The alcohol helps him to bear the pungent smell coming out from the sewer.

2:30 pm

Dilavar eyes burn and his breathing is labored, yet he continues to wade through the sewage.

3:00 pm

After thirty minutes, he has finally been able to get his hands on the main sludge that was blocking the drain. There were some plastics obstructing the flow. He raises his head and asks for a bucket.

3:15 pm

Taking the excreta out is always strenuous. Dilavar keeps diving into the manhole, bringing out more buckets full of sludge.

3:30 pm

It's finally over. He comes out from the manhole. All the sludge Dilavar scrapped from the sewer is kept in the bucket.

3:45 pm

The buckets then are emptied into a cart that Dilavar’s cohort has brought.

4:00 pm

The woman who had hired Dilavar sprays him with a water hose. She throws a used bar of detergent for him to wash himself.

4:10 pm

Once Dilavar has cleaned himself, the woman throws a bundle of notes – Rs 1,500 – to be divided among both men. Dilavar will get a bigger share as he was the one who entered the sewer.

4:50 pm

Dilavar and his partner take the cart full of sludge to a nearby field where they dispose off the waste. It will be cleaned by other manual scavengers.

6:00 pm

Dilavar returns to his home and undresses. His wife brings him a cup of tea and a biscuit. He leaves it untouched till the tea gets cold.

6:15 pm

Dilavar goes out to meet the other sewage workers in the neighbourhood. As the night draws nearer, he rolls his cheaply procured marijuana. A round of alcohol has already been consumed with the last of the workers returning from their jobs.

7:30 pm

He waters down his dinner, two chapatis and a side of vegetable stew. From outside, noise of the revellers spike the otherwise quiet of the night.

8:50 pm

Dilavar then puts his grandchildren to sleep and the women close the doors and the windows.

9:00 pm

Finally, Dilavar passes into a slumber, not knowing what the next day has to offer.

Credits

Reported by: Rakhi Bose

Illustrations by: Mir Suhail

Produced by: Sheikh Saaliq