On a meager Rs. 140 (about USD$2.00) per day, G. Narayanan, 47, R. Meganathan, 31 and K. Satyamurthy, 38 venture into sewage holes as deep as 20 feet and, amongst human excreta and other waste, physically clean and repair Chennai’s sewers. These men have been working as contract manual scavengers with the Chennai Municipality for close to 15 years. A decade and a half ago, they earned Rs. 80 (about USD$1.17) per day, but otherwise not much has changed. Manual scavengers are not employed as permanent workers, meaning they cannot claim the benefits received by government employees like medical insurance, yearly bonus, weekends, compensation after death, reserved jobs for their children, and pensions. Historically, this work has been exclusively reserved to the lowest castes of Indian society and remains so today.

In my conversation with Narayanan, Meganathan, and Satyamurthy they spoke of the danger and stress involved in this stigmatized profession. They have seen hundreds of fellow workers die by inhaling poisonous gases and trying to rescue their colleagues in the sewers. Currently, about 250 people work as manual scavengers for the city of Chennai, but only 200 of them are on the government’s payroll. The remaining 50 have been brought on by the government’s workers, who share their small salaries in order to ease the burden of their intense workloads.

G. Narayanan, R. Meganathan, and K. Satyamurthy photographed on 18 January, 2016
Left to right: G. Narayanan, R. Meganathan, and K. Satyamurthy photographed on 18 January, 2016. Photograph: Karen Dias

All of this occurs in a country that officially has banned the practice of manual scavenging. In 2013, the Indian Parliament passed a Bill that made the employment of manual scavengers illegal and included measures for the rehabilitation for past and current workers. Three years later, manual scavengers continue to work across the country, with the Indian Railways being one of the biggest employers. Protests have called for reforms with regards to abolishing the practice and ensuring fair rehabilitation, but without proper enforcement of the law, and institutionalized casteism in the public and private sectors, this will continue.