Out of Breath

The lives of manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu

Mari’s daughter, Dhanushri, looks at her father’s dead body inside the freezer box during the final rituals for his death, at their home. On 23 July 2019, Mari, 33 years old, died after entering a sewage canal where two people had died in separate incidents, in Villupuram, Tamil Nadu.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY null Text by Utkarsh
01 June, 2020

IN OCTOBER 2015, two Dalit manual scavengers named G Muniyandi and D Viswanathan died while cleaning an underground lift station—where sewage from nearby localities is collected before it is transferred to a pumping station—in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The days that followed saw protests demanding compensation for the families of the deceased as well as the arrest of the contractors involved. The activist and filmmaker Divya Bharathi, who was present at the protests, began working on a documentary titled Kakkoos—the Tamil word for “toilet.” M Palani Kumar, who worked as a cinematographer on the film, told me that at least eighteen more manual scavengers died by the time it was completed, in 2017. “This troubled me a lot,” he said. “I felt responsible to carry forward my work, so I continued to work on this subject even after the film.” Since then, Kumar has travelled across various districts in Tamil Nadu, documenting the atrocious conditions in which manual scavengers continue to live, work and die.

Over the last two decades, Tamil Nadu has experienced the highest number of deaths of manual scavengers in the country. According to a 2019 government survey, as many as 144 workers have died in the state over the last five years. Kakkoos explores the lives of Dalit and Adivasi communities, including the Arunthathiyar, Paraiyar, Kuravar and the Kattu Naicker communities, involved in manual scavenging, which is banned across the country but still widely prevalent. While there are workers from Adivasi and most-backward-classes communities, the majority of workers belong to the Dalit community. Kumar’s photographs make visible the hazardous working conditions of these workers, revealing how they are often assigned to work amid noxious gases, with hardly any protective gear. One image from the series depicts workers standing in an open drain, with plastic bags wrapped around their hands and feet—a lack of personal protective equipment that assumes particularly grave proportions under the current COVID-19 pandemic, as workers continue to put their lives on the line.

“A week after Kakkoos was released, the death of three manual scavengers was reported in the Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu,” Kumar said. “There was never a month without witnessing the deaths of manual scavengers—every month, on average, had at least two to four deaths.” He added that he had documented 13 deaths. “Many of the victims are in the age group of twenty to thirty, leaving behind their wives and very young kids.”