Lalit Batra, Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellow from the Department of Geography, Environment and Society
Abstract: The universalization of modern sewerage system, consisting of technologies such as ‘flush-and-forget’ toilets, piped gravity-fed drainage, enclosed sewers, sewage pumping stations and biological treatment plants, has been a key component of urban infrastructure planning and public health policy in post-Independence India. Faced with the ethical and political challenge posed by the political articulation of manual scavenging as the paradigmatic case of caste-based exploitation, the postcolonial Indian state has promoted this particular configuration of wastewater technologies as a form of infrastructural intervention that would liberate dalits (formerly untouchable castes who dealt with the manual handling of human excreta) from the indignity and occupational hazards of manual scavenging. However, the modernization of sanitation infrastructure has produced a perverse outcome: far from liberating dalits, it has exacerbated their physical vulnerability and social marginalization by predominantly employing them as sewage workers in city municipalities. Traditional manual scavenging has arguably declined; however, manual handling of excreta-filled sewage has proliferated - only this time in the form of a far more dangerous work process, involving manual cleaning of deadly gas producing enclosed sewers. Drawing on my ongoing dissertation research into the relationship between sewerage system and sanitation workers in Delhi, I discuss how and with what consequences the connection between dalits and sanitation is reproduced in postcolonial Delhi.