Consider this country – a nuclear power, aerospace power, owner of a formidable military, and the world’s fifth-largest economy, yet with a more-or-less hereditary group of people, nigh-obligated to clean the excrement of others to sustain a livelihood, because they are unfamiliar with or not permitted to ply any other trade than to clean up human waste with their bare hands. Sounds bleakly dystopian, doesn’t it? Well, it’s as close to the Indian reality as it gets. As we step into a decade when the risk of artificial intelligence supplanting human workers seems within arm’s reach, there is a particular act where manual human intervention is indispensable: sanitation.

The same penchant for cost-effectiveness and jugaad (frugal innovation) mentality that enabled India to launch its Mars mission at a cost only two-thirds that of producing the movie The Martian is also responsible for its anachronistic behavior as pertains to sanitation.

An almost-unclad young boy (forget safety equipment, protective gear, gloves or handy direct-contact-avoiding tools, he is bare-chested) steps down into a manhole reeking of the stench of human excreta in a posh Indian society in an upscale urban locale, when there exist collectively affordable tank-cleaning machines and even state-of-the-art miniature robots to accomplish the same. This act, outlawed by a seldom-enforced constitutional ruling passed three decades ago (and by a latter one in 2013, just as ineffectual), is unfortunately a common sight throughout India, across villages, towns, cities, and bustling metropolises. It’s a cultural, traditional inertia of sorts – one that never gets off the society’s collective subconscious – the lowermost castes have forever been manual scavengers and menial laborers of other sorts.

What is most outrageous is that despite the fact that a manual scavenger dies daily, it is often government agencies at local levels that are party to such gross legal and fundamental humanitarian violations. Beyond being mute spectators, those in charge of these government agencies, though they avail funding for advanced top-grade cleaning equipment, sophisticated machinery or extensive safety gear for sanitation workers, they rarely spend the funds on the promised products, pocketing them instead, and instead delegate the work to corrupt rogue contractors that they very well know to engage in indentured, bonded or obligatory labor. These contractors force manual scavengers into performing the menial act for scarce, informal payment and no security. All this happens in full, open view of the public and the city’s administrative and police authorities.

During the Kumbh Mela (the largest periodic human gathering in the world) last February, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, clad in ideologically resonant saffron and anointed with visible Hindu markers, in full view of the cameras and reporters, washed the feet of five sanitation workers. The widely televised event garnered much applause, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s formidable PR machinery churned out laudatory content for days after the event.

Less than four months later, seven died of asphyxiation cleaning a septic tank in a hotel in Modi’s former constituency Vadodara in Gujarat state. Previously, five other night-soil removers died of suffocation after entering either manholes or septic tanks, in separate incidents in Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat.

Interestingly, Pakistan and Bangladesh also have sizable manual scavenging, partly due to the socially ingrained caste system, which was not a part of Islamic culture previously. What is the most shocking of all is that even when manual scavengers train themselves with other skills or even get alternative employment, they can’t secure them as their sources of livelihood and ultimately succumb to social molds, typecasts and the pressure of condescension and misappropriation. The inheritance of obligation ensues and the burden of night soil is handed down generation after generation.

NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s apex planning body, constituted a task force in November 2017 to survey manual scavengers “on mission mode”. Apart from the various organs and institutions of the central administration and its bureaucracy, it enlisted, for carrying out field-level work, the Safai Karmchari Andolan (founded by the Magsaysay awardee activist Bezwada Wilson) and the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, both cooperative, grassroots movements aimed at spreading awareness and furthering welfare of the sanitation workers of the country. It discounted septic-tank and sewer cleaners, arguing that they used protective gear (which supposedly rendered them safe).

Noted Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan activist Ashif Shaikh told the Indian Express that “the rules list 43 kinds of protective gear and 11 machines that should be made available for cleaning. However, he said, none of it is ever provided.” This fact can be corroborated by arbitrary, everyday observation in India, as well as frequent media reports. The report also excluded the largest employer of manual scavengers – Indian Railways – and covered only 12 of India’s 29 states.

The majority of state governments deny even the presence of manual scavenging in their state. Even the central government is accused of selective statistics, bypassing hotbeds and circumventing red flags, and severely playing down the numbers.

The Annual 2015-16 Report on Sanitation Workers quotes the government of National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi, Office of the Chief Engineer, as saying, “No person died in sewerage work since 1993,” and reports the “Govt of NCT of Delhi, Department for the Welfare of SC/ST/OBC/Min” (Disadvantaged Caste and Minority categories) stating: “They informed that no sewer death has been reported by the local bodies ie EDMC, SDMC, NDMC [various municipal corporations], New Delhi Municipal Council and Delhi Jal Board.” This claim is strongly contended by a number of media reports.

The Safai Karmchari Andolan documented roughly 45 deaths annually while admitting that some within the domain itself would have gone unaccounted for. Moreover, it covered only 21 states. Alarmingly, this diminished toll itself exceeds the fatal casualties in conflict-prone Kashmir.

Embarrassingly, notwithstanding all this, the government’s annual report unabashedly delineates categories such as “Nil Information,” “Under Process,” “Nil,” “Information as Nil” and “Not Known” for its survey statistics. Most of the Indian states are listed as having “No Information” or, even more outrageously, as having “no recorded death,” an evident falsehood.

The pages of the voluminous yet statistically negligent document are replete with evasiveness, and it is outmatched by the much more concise and primitive 1994-95 edition of the report in terms of statistical rigor. The inaccuracy, incompleteness and the outright unavailability of annual government data, year after year, raises serious questions regarding the intent and concern of the government toward this already apathy-ridden, marginalized and ultra-backward-caste socioeconomic group. The only thing consistent in government reports on manual scavenging is their inconsistency.

Six sanitation workers perished in the National Capital Region of Delhi in just a single week in September 2018. The concerned officials concede that there are “no numbers available on those employed in sewer and septic-tank cleaning” and that their reported data severely soft-pedals the actual predicament. Those entering toxic sewage chambers go undocumented and unacknowledged. Hundreds of thousands of manual scavengers are formally documented performing the chore on a regular basis, notwithstanding a much greater number who are misreported by state governments in order to preserve their statistic sanctity (given that manual scavenging is legally prohibited). The government data multi-facetedly contradicts itself. According to data quoted by the Supreme Court there seem to be around a million people in the country engaged in manual scavenging.

India is the land of contrast, diversity, and tantalizingly lingering paradoxes, a land where the First World and the Third World co-exist within kilometers of each other. A colossal US$430 million statue was sanctioned in the same state where seven people recently perished cleaning a septic tank. The statue could have funded more than a hundred thousand truck-mountable sewage-cleaning machines.

It falls upon the state to ensure the dignity of the individual and uphold the dignity of labor. The prevalence of manual scavenging in India deprives thousands of individuals of their right to life, and is most unbecoming of an ambitious regime that relentlessly craves the status of a “superpower” while constantly postponing its achievement.