Scavengers: Mumbai's Neglected Workers

P S Vivek
EPW Commentary
October 14-20, 2000

Sweepers and scavengers, though they perform essential tasks for city dwellers, remain an utterly neglected section of the metropolis. That they rank the lowest in the hierarchical structure of Indian society is well known. Their work is traditionally regarded as ‘degrading’ and ‘defiled’. Society has always kept them at a distance.1

The census reports do not provide information about the number and/or type of people doing this work. Apart from what may exist in the municipal corporation by way of rules that are applicable to its conservancy department, there is no separate legislation dealing with this category of workers. Again, not all of them are employed by the municipal corporation of Greater Mumbai. Many are in private employment without any rules and regulations.

The work of scavengers entails the clearing of waste material, including human excreta and garbage. It is they who maintain the complicated sewage disposal system of Mumbai as in other cities, which at times involves serious risks and calls for much courage. Theirs is thus a distinct and identifiable occupation/profession very essential to the city. The socio-religious and cultural situation in which they operate is such that the occupation/profession and the individuals who pursue it bear a stigma; since the work is ‘dirty’ those doing it are ‘unclean’.2 Though innovations and improved equipment like the flush system, long-handle brooms and protective clothing tend to diminish direct contact of the workers with the waste matter, the stigma persists.

We prefer the term ‘safai kamgar’ to ‘scavenger’ because it is a neutral term whereas scavenger meaning ‘bhangi’, ‘mehtar’, ‘jamadar’, ‘zaduwala’, is a value-laden and often abusive term. In Mumbai there are safai kamgars originating from various parts of India. There are Maharashtrians, Gujaratis, Haryanvis, Upiites, Punjabis, Tamilians among others. Their colonies are to be found in all parts of Mumbai city.3 The safai kamgars mostly live in separate congregations on the outskirts of the main slum areas in Mumbai. Some live in separate slum colonies such as ‘Bhangi Pada’, ‘Bhangi Chawl’, ‘Anna Basti’ and ‘Balmiki Basti’, located at Mulund, Andheri, Malad and Sion respectively. The areas of major concentration of the safai kamgars in Mumbai are in Colaba, Matunga, Bandra, Andheri, Malad, Borivali and Bhandup.

A little more than two-thirds of the total of one lakh safai kamgars in Mumbai do not have a regular or regulated employment. Around 20,000 are employed permanently by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai in its conservancy section, and about 10,000 personnel were with the corporation irregularly on a ‘daily’ basis. A small number are employed in organisations like the railways, airports, state government establishments, big companies and private offices. The rest of the safai kamgar working population, which forms the majority, fall in the informal sector, they work in private co-operative housing societies, private individual bungalows or industrial estates. But this work being only of part-time nature, they have, of necessity, to take employment in a number of societies or factories.

What is common to all these informal sectors is that neither the jobs nor the terms and conditions of employment of safai kamgars are defined. Their wages and increments are not fixed. They do not have security of employment, nor any help at times of illness, incapacity due to accident or retirement.4 In other words, this means that two-thirds of the safai kamgars of Mumbai are outside the pale of any kind of legislative rights or protection.

A majority of safai kamgars have been working for 10 hours or more a day. Quite early in the morning, they have to start cleaning the public utility places, buildings, housing institutions, households, etc, before the general populace start their work. For a large number of them work continues for the whole day.5

Most safai kamgars do not benefit from the general laws governing employment – for example, the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947; the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 – as these are not applicable to this category of workers in the city and where they do apply as in the municipal corporation of existing legislation is hardly implemented.

There is a general dearth of official records on safai kamgars. Studies which deal with this class of workers treat them either as part of a larger social group, for example, as untouchable, scheduled castes and slum-dwellers, or deal with a particular aspect of their life, like the conditions of female scavengers. There are also problems about the kind of social category in which to place them. The term ‘class’ is best used when referring to workers directly involved in the process of production. The two concepts essentially associated with it are those of ‘surplus value’ and ‘exploitation’. Safai kamgars are not directly involved in the process of production and it would appear that they do not create any ‘surplus value’, and economic exploitation is not the sole problem they face.

Not all safai kamgars come within ‘organised employment’. True, a section of them is employed by bodies like Mumbai Municipal Corporation, railways, airport authorities, hospitals, universities, industrial concerns, etc. However, there is a sizeable number working simultaneously with a number of employers and at a number of places. For instance, a safai kamgar may at the same time be employed by a co-operative housing society, and an individual landlord and an industrial estate. They do face exploitation; they are united by the nature of the work they do; not the manner in which it is done. It would, therefore, seem that while it is insufficient to categorise them as a ‘class’ in its strict sense it would be useful to do so and may, in fact, be necessary.

‘Caste’ is a category which is generally, and largely uncritically, used when referring to scavengers. It is often taken for granted that because these people deal with waste and perform ‘unclean’ tasks, they must necessarily be ‘untouchables’, and/or belong to ‘scheduled castes’. This view overlooks the fact that today scavenging is an economic activity, a financially remunerative occupation especially in the large cities; it, therefore, attracts people of varied caste background.

Thus, the ‘caste’ category too seems to be inadequate in the case of safai kamgars in Mumbai. A sizeable section of the safai kamgars in Mumbai are balmikis. They are not recognised as scheduled castes by the government of Maharashtra. Besides Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Sikhs are found to pursue the occupation of scavenging in Mumbai, transcending caste boundaries. Interviews with many safai kamgars have shown that they would like to convey the impression that they belong/belonged to a caste superior to that traditionally associated with the work of sweeping and scavenging in their place of origin. And many of them do not disclose their true occupation in Mumbai to their relatives, neighbours and friends at their native place. Many of them come from an agricultural labour background.

The ‘caste’ category may be useful. A significant number of people under study belong to castes traditionally associated with sweeping and scavenging, for example, bhangis, mehtars, mahars. Many Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs demand that they be recognised as scheduled castes despite the fact that their own religion and the traditional scheduled castes may frown on them. They want this mainly to get certain benefits given to scheduled castes.

Irrespective of how these workers look at themselves, society at large looks upon them as ‘untouchables’. Thus for all practical purposes, there are some ‘caste’ factors at work.

According to Vidyarthy (1977: 211) the present notion of scheduled castes (traced directly to the earlier ‘exterior’ castes and still earlier ‘depressed’ castes) was objected to, because it meant the same as ‘outcaste’. It was in fact Herbert Risley who attempted, for the first time in 1901 (as census commissioner for British India), to classify the Hindu castes according to their social standing and apparently uncritically accepted the brahmanical view of society. From this it would appear that the single most important factor in defining the ‘scheduled’ castes and the perpetuation of the same is political in nature. Then again, sections of safai kamgars who do not belong to the traditional caste system, nevertheless seek to be recognised as scheduled castes because of the attendant material benefits.

It is a widely held belief that the caste system originated in the divine law and is not man-made. One’s present caste status, according to this view, is the result of one’s actions in an earlier life – one’s karma. This tends to create a certain passivity regarding social change in those who adhere to this view. Even today, some religious heads openly advocate this view despite the changing social-legal environment. This makes the ignorant and illiterate vulnerable to established authority.

There are certain cultural concepts associated with caste, for example, ‘pure’, ‘impure’, ‘clean’, ‘unclean’, ‘profane’, ‘degraded’. And those who rank the lowest have no choice but to discharge most of the degraded tasks left undone by persons of the so-called ‘clean’ castes. The menial tasks they perform for the rest of the community are so impure, profane, degraded and disgraceful in the eyes of the twice-born as to condemn them as ‘achhut’. Together with the religious idea of divinely predetermined caste status, this cultural factor has significant implications.

Another factor that operates is the psychological pressure on these workers. If a member of this section wants to obtain any of the benefits granted by the existing law, he/she has to produce a caste certificate. Thus, at every step, such a person is being reminded of his/ her ‘inferior’ status. In case of children applying for certain facilities within the education system, it is not enough for the parents to produce a certificate testifying that they belong to the scheduled caste but the children themselves have to produce a separate certificate bearing their names and stating specifically that they belong to a specified scheduled caste, issued by a competent authority.

There is a distinction between the traditional notion of ‘caste’ as it originated in an ancient agricultural society and as it prevails in rural India today on the one hand; and as it is applied to a section of the population in a modern Indian city, on the other. Such a distinction makes a difference in the way caste factors operate among traditional sections of scavengers in Mumbai (known as bhangi, mehtar, jamadars) and among those who have taken to this work more recently (known by their regional affiliations such as Haryanvis, Tamilians, Maharashtrians, Gujaratis) and converts to other religions.

We can identify six factors which adversely affect the present condition and future prospects of safai kamgars in Mumbai: psychological (harassment); economic (exploitation); political (domination); social (oppression); religious (subjugation); and cultural (suppression). Even these six factors only help in studying smaller specific groups within the larger section of scavengers because of their varied religious, caste, language and regional background.

We need to ask what holds this desperate group together; what unites and shapes them into a distinct section of the fast-changing urban population. The answer seems to lie in the nature of their work, especially the nature of the services they provide and the manner in which the work is done.

However, this nature and manner of work cannot be treated merely as engaging in the traditional caste-determined work or occupation. Most of the safai kamgars in Mumbai no longer do the same work that they were doing in their villages. They have migrated to Mumbai primarily in search of more gainful employment and better economic prospects. And in doing so, they have also integrated themselves into the urban ‘monetary economy’.

The International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences (Vol 11, 1968, 245) defines occupation as “relatively continuous patterns of activity that provide workers a livelihood and define their social status”. It says, occupations emerge wherever a division of labour is associated with a ‘monetary economy’ and labour and commodity markets. As against this, functional specialisation within the family, tribe and other units that are mediated primarily to ascribed relationships are not generally regarded as occupations.

Certain specific features that can be observed among the safai kamgars of Mumbai suggest that it is not sufficient to categorise their work as merely an ‘occupation’. One, they have to display independence and initiative in the execution of their work. Two, for a large number of them, there is hardly any supervision of their work, and they are left to their own responsibility to ensure that the work is well performed. Finally, they have developed their own special skills and to an extent, devise their work tools or adopt existing ones to suit new work requirements. For all these reasons, it would be more appropriate to see scavengers in Mumbai as ‘professionals’.


1 Scavengers are neglected not only by officialdoms and academicians but also by creative writers expressing social concerns. G R Pradhan (1938) and Mulk Raj Anand’s novel (1970) do not deal with scavengers as such.

2 Malvika Karlekar in her study (1988) observes that scavenging and disposal of human excreta are universally regarded as the most degrading of all jobs.

3 We use term colony here to refer to locations with 15 or more households.

4 Ramkrishna is a safai kamgar residing at Bharat Nagar, Bandra (East). He had been working for 19 years in ‘Chedde Mansion’ situated at the ‘posh area’ of Pali Hill, Bandra. His job includes cleaning two staircases of a four storeyed building, collecting and disposing garbage from 13 fiats, cleaning the toilets in 13 flats and sweeping the building compound. For all this he receives Rs 35 per month. When his community organisation took up the matter with the owner of the building, the owner increased the salary to Rs 50 per month.

5 Krishnappa Kandappa, for example, resides at Kachipada, Malad, about 20 minutes walking distance from the suburban railway station. He is a ‘daily recruit’ employee of Municipal ‘D’ Ward, Grant Road, that is about one hour train journey. To ensure that he obtains work at this place, he has to report to the ‘ward office’ at 6.30 am, which necessitates him leaving home at 4.45 am. He works there till 10.30 am. He works at two more places later, in the area. He returns home by 5.30 pm.


Anand, Mulk Raj (1970): The Untouchable, Orient Paper Backs, (Reprint), New Delhi. Karlekar, Malavika (1982): Poverty and Women’s Work (A Study of Sweeper Women in Delhi), Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi. Pradhan, G R (1938): The Untouchable Workers of Bombay City, Karnataka Publishing House, Bombay. Vidyarthy, L P, et al (1977): Harijan Today: Sociological, Economic, Political, Religious and Cultural Analysis, Classical Publications, New Delhi. Vivek, P S (1998): The Scavengers: Exploited Class of City Professionals, Himalaya Publishing House, Mumbai.

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