Global Pressure and Untargeted Efforts: The Struggle for Recognition of Caste-Based Discrimination on the International Stage

Sanitation workers represent 0.094 to 1.3% of the workforce, with India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka having higher numbers.
A sanitation worker
A sanitation workerCourtesy- Sajjad Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

New Delhi - According to a report titled ‘Challenges and Policies to Address the Persisting Problems of Sanitation Workers in South Asia’ by the International Labour Organization, sanitation work in South Asian countries is intricately woven into a distinct social fabric, marked by a characteristic feature that distinguishes it from other regions.

Primarily observed in countries like India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, the sanitation labor force is predominantly composed of individuals belonging to Hindu scheduled caste (SC) backgrounds or those who have ancestral ties to formerly labeled "untouchable" communities, even if they have converted to Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, or Buddhism.

This prevalence lends a distinctive character to the sanitation profession in these regions, with clear connections between caste dynamics and the stigma associated with sanitation work.

The stigma surrounding this occupation finds its roots in the caste system, a social institution deeply ingrained in these societies.

“The caste system categorizes individuals into five hierarchical social groups, with occupations and social status predetermined and inherited by birth. Those at the lowest rung of this hierarchy are deemed "impure and polluting," as are the occupations they typically undertake. In adherence to traditional caste norms, this group is often labeled as untouchable,” the report adds.

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The proportion of sanitation workers relative to the total workforce ranges from 0.094 to 1.3 percent, with higher absolute numbers in India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Rural areas in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan, as well as urban regions in India and Nepal, show a relatively high prevalence of sanitation workers.

These workers primarily come from the dominant religious communities in their respective countries, including a significant presence of Hindu ex-untouchables and former untouchables who converted to other religions across South Asia.

While both genders participate in sanitation work, women hold a higher proportion of roles in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. The typical age range of sanitation workers is between 15 and 59, with individuals aged 60 and above also engaging in such labor, particularly observed in Nepal and Afghanistan.

Many sanitation workers lack formal education, leading to significant economic insecurity due to the informal nature of their employment. Despite efforts to promote safer sanitation practices, manual handling of excreta persists, especially among low-caste individuals and those who converted to other faiths in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

Since 2014, approximately 156 individuals have lost their lives in septic tanks solely in Bangladesh. The deep-rooted association of pollution and discrimination with manual scavenging presents challenges for affected individuals in finding alternative sources of income, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty and marginalization.

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Unfortunately, despite the availability of public data, there is no international treaty directly addressing the issue of manual scavenging or the plight of affected communities. International treaties are often relied upon by countries to tackle issues transcending their borders, such as environmental concerns, human rights violations, humanitarian crises, maritime affairs, security issues, and trade matters.

N Paul Divakar, the convenor of the Global Forum of Communities Discriminated on Work and Descent (GFoD), emphasized the importance of elevating such issues to an international level. He highlighted that when an issue becomes "internationalized," it prompts global bodies to establish treaties, facilitating efforts to address human rights violations on a uniform or comparable scale.

Manual scavenging and sanitation work are intricately linked to caste identity. However, in India, the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Presidential Order of 1950 contradicts the constitutional right to freedom of religion (Article 25) by using religion as a criterion to determine the Scheduled Caste status of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims.

Despite government-commissioned commissions recommending the delinkage of caste status from religion and advocating for a religion-neutral approach, the Indian Constitution does not recognize the caste status of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims.

Both the governments of Bangladesh and India interpret 'descent' solely in terms of race, ethnicity, or national origin, rather than caste, despite continued reaffirmations by the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Consequently, Bangladesh and India fail to provide information to relevant monitoring bodies regarding the situation of Dalits.

While Sri Lanka's Constitution guarantees non-discrimination based on caste, it does not recognize caste as a social group requiring special measures for the advancement of individuals affected by caste-based discrimination.

According to Divakar, international treaties also exert added pressure on governments to address the needs of communities that might be marginalized or overlooked. This leads to more focused efforts in addressing issues related to discrimination and inequality.

The scholar further discussed the time when manual scavenging was brought to the forefront at a global conference. “In 2001, the World Conference against Racism took place in Durban, South Africa. At that time, the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights conducted programs on Manual Scavenging and the complexities faced by sanitation workers too. It did lead to conversations on Dalit rights, but Manual Scavenging was left untargeted,” he added.

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