Safai Karamcharis as Covid Warriors in a Casteised Society

-Lotika Singha [i]

Covid warrior is the term chosen by the Indian government for a raft of essential service-providers when the most draconian lockdown – just four hours’ notice for a country of over a billion – came into force on 25 March 2020. These Covid warriors include not only baton-wielding police personnel but also health workers, the media and safai karamcharis as illustrated in posters created by members of the public to showcase the country’s positive, community-orientated  (‘I’ to ‘We’) response on the MyGov Self4Society website specially dedicated to the pandemic.

Safai karamchari is the Hindi term for manual scavengers, but is also used for sanitation workers more widely as often the same people also do other sanitation work. Most safai karamcharis are Dalits (Safai Karamchari Andolan, n.d.), which is a political collective term for certain caste groups historically considered  ‘untouchable’, but let us be mindful that we are living history at all time.

Caste as Babasaheb Ambedkar (1916/1979/2004) said ‘is enclosed class’. How different is that from class per se? When you are born into a class, you can possibly leave it. You can possibly consider an occupation different from your parents. But when you are born into a caste, you cannot leave it. Contrary to the placement of Covid warriors in a horizontal row in a cheerfully bright poster on the Self4Society website, castes exist in a vertical order. If you think of this order as a building, the most caste-oppressed groups, including safai karamcharis are in the basement, below ground zero, outside the caste society. The three hegemonic caste groups, the savarnas, who form about a fifth of the population (Desai et al, 2010; Piketty, 2020) but include most mainstream media personnel, many doctors and senior police officers, will be found in the top floors and penthouses. In Perumal Murugan’s (2021) words, ‘The space that each caste can inhabit and traverse is clearly demarcated’.

For cleaning the shared spaces in the top floors, or reception areas, or streets, shopping malls, parks and our public sewer systems, and so on, the barriers are lifted – for not everyone may clean. But when we lift the barriers to let the sanitation workforce in to clean, we do it with a sense of anxiety, which we deal with by un-seeing it. Image 8/18 of the Vadapalani Bus Stand Depot, Chennai in the photostory ‘Out of Breath’ (Palani Kumar and Utkarsh, 2020) foregrounds a safai karamchari emerging from a (man)hole covered in sewage, He is very visible to the viewer of the image. But the public crossing this point are largely oblivious of him or purposefully turning away from the sight and smells.

The question then arises, can using the Covid warrior label for a range of service providers make for only positive stories as desired (or instructed?) by Self4Society in a deeply hierarchal society? Did it in the lockdown? Does it now as the pandemic continues? Will it in the post-pandemic ‘normal? Because pre the pandemic, the ‘warriors’ were a select caste group: the Kshatriyas, who form about 5 per cent of the Indian population (Piketty, 2020). And alongside the positive stories posted on the government’s Self4Society website shown above, the wider internet is swamped with reports that tell other stories, starting from the titles:

From these stories, we gather that Covid warriors have lives beyond the workplace. But as we announced the lockdown, we did not ensure that essential items would be available for those warriors who cannot afford larders and or do not have store cupboards. We did not ensure that protective gear was available for everyone from day 1. Supplies rolled in slowly, some items even after the lockdown was over, some of poor quality. We refused many safai karamcharis leave as we needed more sanitation. In some areas we needed less cleaning because we were all safe in our homes. There we let them go without compunction, to walk back to a home that might have even been a few hundred miles away (Mander, 2020), as they are mostly contract workers. We did cheer those who continued to work by clapping, banging plates and showering them with flowers and garlands. Our casteised anxieties of sharing space were not affected because while the pandemic appears to be about physical distancing, mostly it just reaffirms our preference for social distancing. And of course those we are keeping our distance from know that very well too. As Sheela from Mumbai, whose safai karamchari husband Ashok was consistently denied leave and who died after contracting the virus said “Nothing happens just by chanting ‘safai karamcharis are Covid warriors’” (quoted in  Shinoli [2020]). Another worker in Chennai mused: “People of course say they are grateful now, that we are keeping the streets clean and saving them from infections. We have had television channels interview us.  But that is what we have always done.” (quoted in Palani Kumar [2020]).

The Indian government also put out an appeal to us to become citizen volunteer Covid warriors. It put out some information about what we can do to help: professional work if you have the relevant qualifications to social service of various kinds, including distributing personal protective equipment (PPE) to sanitation workers. And what about sanitation work itself? The training matrix on the website does not include this work. The jobs are listed alphabetically and Rural ASHAs at number 44 are followed by State AYUSH Staff at number 45.

The role of caste in these contradictions has mostly been analysed by focusing on the caste of the worker. But the contradictions persist . Our anxiety in public spaces persists. Hence as I have argued previously taking the example of domestic cleaning (Singha, 2020), we need to shift the focus of analysis from them as caste-oppressed beings to the caste-of-the-mind (Guru 2012a; see also Khatarker, 2019) of hegemonic-caste people. The people whom I have been referring to as ‘we’. We dominate public policy-making spaces (Barik, 2004; Dhingra, 2019; Mitra, 2020; Varma, 2012; Yadav, 2016) as well as all the good jobs going around (Harad, 2020; Ilaiah Shepherd 2018; Sagar, interview with Ilaiah Shepherd, 2017). How did we become hegemonic and why the anxiety around manual labour and sharing spaces?

Historically, in terms of class, middle-class status is linked to physically distance from manual labour, which continues to be seen in India (Ray and Qayum, 2009/2010). But casteism – caste-of-the-mind – takes this to another level, social distancing, which means distancing ourselves from the material reality in which we actually live. In his seminal essay, ‘Archaeology of Untouchability’, Gopal Guru writes about the need for greater social recognition as part of the human struggle to exist in meaningful ways. To reduce the competition for this recognition, the aim of the Indian ideology of purity and pollution and the attendant caste system, underpinned by the varna theory, is to produce ‘a kind of total rejection’ of some other humans, that is, to push them ‘beyond the civilizational framework, rendering the latter completely un-seeable, unapproachable, and untouchable’, and without any feeling of compunction (2012b:211–212).  That is, the caste-of-the-mind teaches us to perceive reality as an illusion, so that nurturing that reality is no longer seen as our work but of those who are still living within the reality (Sarukkai, 2012).  In this I have even heard the rules of purity and pollution that determine casteist practices around domestic work referred to as ‘refined’ norms.

In such a society, as already noted by Periyar decades earlier, when societal organisation is rooted in ‘varnadharma’, hegemony is maintained by using the simple idea of a mental-manual dichotomy in work/labour as a discursive tool, a kind of everyday violence. There is no empirical grounding of the distinction (Singha, 2019), but repeated again and again and attached to another notion, that of karma, that is said to be ‘cosmically’ ordained, generations of us have believed and continue to believe that doing so-called manual work lowers our status, it is an affront to our dignity. So the ideology lets us easily distance ourselves from manual work even while we continue to enjoy the benefits that are produced by that work, but which are denied to the manual workers themselves (Periyar, quoted in Rajadurai and Geetha (2013).

The Safai Karamchari Andolan, an NGO started by children of manual scavengers and led by Bezwada Wilson, campaigned for years before we passed legislation prohibiting employment of manual scavengers in 1993.[ii] But many of us, including the government itself ignored it. So we amended it in 2013 (Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act) and again in 2020 (Akhilesh, 2020). What will be the outcome this time, given that we still have caste-in-the-mind, and start the policy-making process from a position of denial. For example, we claim Delhi is free of this scourge when it is not. We quibble over the numbers. We do little to ensure that the families of those who die while cleaning our septic tanks and sewage systems get the monetary relief we promised them (Penkar, interview with Bezwada Wilson, 2018; also Akhilesh, 2020; Shankar and Swaroop, 2020; Thekaekera 2020; also Coffey and Spears 2018). As I wrote this, I realised how eerily this account is similar to Periyar’s observation in 1944, almost 8 decades ago, that

‘[o]ur agriculture continues to be the same as it was 200 years ago. To some extent irrigation facilities and over-head tanks were introduced to provide water for cultivating new lands. There is no other substantial improvement. The agricultural department has merely recruited a few new hands. Even that was helpful only to the Brahmins, who know not the ABCD of agriculture. There was no improvement in the production of food grains. There was no improvement in the mode of cultivation. The tillers are not able to get substantial gains form their work. Agriculturists have not been enlightened about their profession. … They are kept as mere irrational human beings.’ (Periyar 2020)

Just like Periyar observed how the exploitative conditions of work of agricultural labourers had remained unchanged over centuries because those benefiting from it did not have to suffer those conditions themselves, we can see the same issue in sewage work today – those who have the power to implement the bills do not do so because they think they will never have to do it. So, will our very public show of appreciation of the safai karamchari Covid warriors give new meanings to cleaning work? Flatten the hierarchical triangle by August 2021, the new ‘deadline’ for elimination of manual scavenging by the introduction of mechanised means of work (Thekaekera, 2020)? Reduce our casteised anxieties, our segregated lives and occupations, our close attention to some, but perfunctory attention to other occupational conditions of work?

The mainstream Indian press which is largely run and contributed to by ‘us’ writes about these things, highlights our failures, but it has largely ignored Isabel Wilkerson’s 2019 international best-seller Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, which has put caste on the global map. That is something we actively try not to do, for example by countering Dalit efforts to include caste as a particular form of oppression in international instruments of discrimination (e.g. at the World Conference Against Racism in 2001 and the United Nations Durban Review Conference in 2009 (ISDN n.d.),[iii] ESCAP conference in 2014 on gender equality in the Asia-Pacific region (Menon, 2016) and the World Conference on Youth in 2014 (Kamble, 2015). Similar pressures are seen at country level outside of India, for example against the proposal to include caste as a factor of discrimination in the UK’s Equality Act (2010) by hegemonic caste groups in the diaspora (Dhanda 2020).

Wilkerson (2019) reiterates what the Black Lives Matter movement highlights: that the responsibility to change things lies with those who create and reproduce oppression. In India too, this point has been raised time and again by scholars and activists from caste-oppressed backgrounds (e.g. Yengde, 2019) while also pointing out how casteism absolves the hegemonic castes from feeling any guilt:

‘The casteised mind doesn’t feel guilty of oppressing others. The ideology of the caste system actually encourages people to continue to exploit … you don’t have to feel guilty about it because people are where they are based on some cosmic justifications … Therefore the policies which continue to operate today are very difficult to break through …’ (Suraj Yengde, 2019) .

But why not snatch this opportunity, this revealing of our anxieties even as we tried to become invisible to the virus by hiding inside our homes to adopt more anti-casteist approaches, for example by moving the spotlight of social injustice analysis from caste of the worker to the caste-of-the-mind within us?


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Author Bio

Lotika Singha is Honorary Research Fellow, Faculty of Business, Arts and Social Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, UK.

[i] An earlier version of this paper was presented in the New (Normal) Materialist Decay: a series of conversations on the University College London Institute of Advanced Studies theme of Growth/Waste, session Key Work and the Anxiety of the Public Space, 3 February 2021 (

[ii] India’s Supreme Court has ruled that the practice of manual scavenging violates international human rights law, including protections found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). India is also a party to other international conventions that reinforce obligations to end manual scavenging.

[iii] The Durban Review Conference was organized to evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are their own. The Periyar Project cannot be held responsible for the content of their views.

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