How can we expect a better Pakistan if our caste system is the reason why our sanitation workers die?

Published: July 31, 2017

Sanitary worker taking garbage out of the gutter with no safety equipment. PHOTO: WORLDWATCHMONITOR

There may be no better parameter to judge the character, values and structure of a society than by the manner in which it performs some of the most humble and menial tasks. Sweeping, handling garbage or working on clogged gutters and sewage lines fall into the category of menial tasks.

Who are the people who perform these tasks? What methods, implements and protective equipment are used to remove, handle and dispose the filth, trash, sludge and raw sewage? Are these processes well regulated and controlled? Are these jobs open to all or restricted to some? What is the social status, respect and dignity accorded to those who deliver these unpleasant but important and essential services?

The methods, tools and conditions of performing the most dangerous, unpleasant and menial jobs receive no attention or respect. The tools and methods of sweeping our roads or unclogging the gutters have not changed over the last hundred years. The designs of the brooms continue to remain unchanged since the time they were first used by the people of Mohenjo Daro some 4000 years ago (LINK).

A broom can only scatter in the air, push to one side or temporarily dislocate dust, trash or litter.

It almost seems as if humiliation and hazard were purposely inserted into the job description of sweepers and sanitary workers. They wear bathroom slippers instead of safety shoes. They are not provided with face masks to prevent inhalation of dust and bacteria. They do not use hand gloves to avoid contact with filth nor do they have caps or hats to lessen the misery of the sun. Rotten and stinking garbage is a source of several infectious diseases and most of the sweepers suffer from respiratory and skin problems.

It is inexcusable for the state to have completely overlooked the health, safety and dignity for sanitary workers.

The manner and the conditions under which the sanitary staff is made to work are inhuman and demeaning.

It is not abnormal to see cow dung and horse manure being scrubbed and picked up from the road with bare hands.

Surely a nuclear state could also devise implements to handle and carry the filth in a more civilised manner.

Umerkot, a sleepy little town in Sindh, famous for being the birthplace of Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, suddenly came into the limelight on June 1, 2017 when three sanitary workers were brought to a hospital, gasping for breath and in need of critical respiratory support.

The medical staff on duty, taking refuge behind their fast, refused to touch the sludge covered sanitary workers. The delay and negligence led to the death of Irfan Masih, one of the three workers who had descended into the manhole to retrieve the other two. While the media was critical of the unethical doctor, it failed to sufficiently address the conditions under which Masih and his two colleagues were sent into a death trap of poisonous gases, raw excreta and filthy sludge.

‘To enter or not to enter’. He must go back as many times as needed till the gutter gets unclogged and the effluent begins to move.

The misguided doctor and lack of facilities in the hospital may have been the immediate causes for Masih’s death. However the inhumanity, insensitivity and unspoken caste system adopted by the state and citizens of Pakistan are the true reasons for the deaths and miserable working conditions of sanitation workers.

Billions of Rupees of tax payers’ money are wasted on the decoration of offices, constructing fancy buildings, buying luxury vehicles, pointless foreign junkets and newspaper advertisements for the personal publicity of the rulers. There is however, no sympathy, budget, understanding or compassion for the people who risk their lives every day entering deep, confined and highly contaminated spaces loaded with indescribable filth.

Zero protective gear, a sheared spade and the compulsion to feed his children are the only dredging equipment that he knows of.

The inhumane and murderous practice of making sanitary workers enter gutters and sewage lines must be immediately banned by an act of Parliament. The first option must be to use heavy duty rodding machines and electric drain snakes to clear and unclog sewage lines. Any entry into a gutter or sewage line must take place only after the concerned departments are able to guarantee a number of essential conditions.

These conditions are as follows.

1.A written procedure.

2.Permission To Work (PTW) obtained before each entry.

3.Training and availability of operators, attendants and supervisors.

4.Air testing for oxygen deficiency and presence of  hydrogen sulphide or other poisonous gases.

5.Presence of lifting equipment, first aid and ambulance.

6.Full body impervious suits.

7.Rubber boots that are taped at the ankle.

8.Inner and outer gloves that are taped at the wrist.

9.Safety goggles.

10.Hard hats.

11.Safety harnesses with life-lines.

12.Respiratory protection, including full-face Supplied Air Respirators with a five minute escape bottle or a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus.

Trapped in the gutter, with the disgusting and offensive fecal sludge splashing on his face, he pushes the overflowing bucket as fast and as away from his body as possible.

Craving for water and gasping for air – he must exit as soon as possible

A moment when he wants to walk away not just from the foul gutter but also from a loathsome society that forces him to perform this sickening and revolting duty

A quick analysis of people performing sanitary functions reveals a dark and depressing facet of Pakistani society. As the name suggests, Masih who lost his life in Umerkot, was a Christian. More than 70% of the sanitary staff in Punjab is Christian.

Data collected by World Watch Monitor states that 824 out of 935 sanitation workers in the Peshawar Municipal Corporation are Christians, about 6,000 out of 7,894 sanitation workers in the Lahore Waste Management Company are Christians; 768 out of 978 workers in the Quetta Municipal Corporation are Christians.

Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority (CDA) has 1,500 sanitation workers and majority of them are Christians. Of the 173 sanitary workers designated as ‘gutter men’ in the Cantonment Board Clifton, are all Christians.

Scores of newspaper advertisements clearly specify that only non-Muslims are eligible for jobs of sweepers.

Do non-Muslims take up these assignments for the love of descending into gutters loaded with faecal sludge or are they circumstantially compelled to adopt this profession? Job advertisements often state ‘non-Muslim’ as eligibility or a preferred criterion for the post of sanitary workers.

Instead of applying the affirmative action quota for minorities in higher cadres that is, doctors, engineers, judges, ministers and bureaucrats, the state prefers to designate this quota for its most menial and least paid jobs. This may well be considered the unspoken, well-structured and state promoted caste system of Pakistan.

Perched on cement barriers, sad, gloomy, discriminated and isolated sanitary workers take a rest break. Two make-shift pieces of card board and an old-timer broom are all they have to perform their job.

Too old, worn-out and nothing to look forward to. His job does not offer a pension plan, and falling sick means losing the day’s salary.

The deeply entrenched hierarchical caste system in Hinduism has the sanction of Hindu Holy Scriptures such as the Shastras and Vedas. It is intriguing how it was happily and voluntarily adopted in a country that was created to protect the interests of minorities.

An utterly dirty, dangerous, lowly paid and totally contemptuous profession has been carefully moulded for the consumption of the non-Muslims. They are thus marginalised, ghettoised and turned into social outcasts. Even without formally calling them Dalits (untouchables) or Harijans, we have succeeded in assigning the same concept of occupational segregation to our minorities.

Will these two under-age boys performing the most detestable and demeaning tasks for the society ever dream of a bright future for themselves or for their country?

Article 27(1) of the Constitution of Pakistan says,

“No citizen otherwise qualified for appointment in the service of Pakistan shall be discriminated against in respect of any such appointment on the ground only of race, religion, caste, sex, residence or place of birth.”

We as the state and the citizens have colluded in violating this important article. A new law must be enacted to forbid mentioning the condition of religion or sect in any job advertisement for any post.

Lastly, if there are hundreds of government officials who get paid in the tune of Rs500,000 per month and chief executives of private firms who take home Rs5,000,000 per month, why can’t sanitation workers’ salaries be raised to at least  Rs50,000 per month?

All photos: Naeem Sadiq


Naeem Sadiq

Works in the area of occupational health, environment and safety. He tweets @saynotoweapons

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • lawrence

    The way the poor Christians are treated in Pakistan is most disgraceful .The Muslims won’t like similar treatment in the Western Christian countries .SHAME ON ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF PAKISTAN!!!Recommend

  • Uknaas

    I agree 100%. Lahore Cantt does not have sewerage pipes so septic tanks in every house have to be emptied every year. As described, it is an inhuman task but there is no alternate yet. The methods mentioned above are possible to adopt here. The local government, Cantt Boards can take up this project but unless there is Government regulation, they will not do so. Yes, it is sad that non muslims end up doing this for generations. Even the advertisement for vacancies requires so. What a pity.Recommend

  • MrRollsRoyce

    Dear Mr Sadiq,

    Thank you so much for highlighting a completely ignored issue. Looking at the photographs of these unfortunate souls makes me shiver with a mixture of disgust at the scene and pity for them. I can but only put myself in their shoes, and wonder how it would be like to be born, live, and die with no way of pulling myself up from the fate of being a “gutter kuli”.

    Ours is a sad nation with too many people and too little thought and introspection and common human decency.Recommend

  • Kamath

    Take heart. These horrible conditions are equally badin India.Recommend

  • Zubia Mumtaz

    Thank you very much for shining light on the caste system in Pakistan. It never fails to amaze me why we don’t want to talk about THE key social structure that underlies a huge proportion of the ills of our society. We are happy to talk about shia-sunni issues, ethnicity (Punjabi, Sindhi, Pathan) issues, but now the real force that creates and sustains the inequities in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Lecturer” in Faculty of Engine

    you are educated u will get a good job ,,, if u are not u will have to work at lower levels…educated minorities are doing good jobs like rana bhagwan da in supreme court … even i education sector the educated personals reached the top positions …. religion actually doesn’t have to do anything hereRecommend

  • Saqib

    All people should be treated equally. However to the other side of the picture, if they do not prefer Christians or Hindus for these jobs then probably Muslims will be hired and these poor people will not get even these jobs. As there is no alternate method of cleaning sewerage, whoever does this job has to do it like this. We need to modernise things in Pakistan to make all odd jobs acceptable. One way is to increase their wages significantly to compensate them.Recommend

  • Ravi Blr

    What is the caste nonsense being talked here? This is out and out religious discrimination, non-muslims being forced to do the filthy tasks as they are not allowed to take up other jobs, which are resrved for muslims. Muslim countries are the pits!Recommend

  • Ahmar

    Look at those privileged men..oppressing women in our society. I am appalled.

    But seriously, good write up Sir. I wholeheartedly agree with the use of safety equipment and machinery for these jobs. Also the religious quota for the sewage cleaner jobs needs to go.Recommend

  • Donald-T-rump

    Pakistanis, Millions of them are treated as slaves
    Pakistanis working for more than half of their life in
    Countries NEVER get citizenship or any social security there …

  • Swaadhin

    This can’t be true. Caste system is prevalent only amongst Hindus. It is time to abuse the Hindus.Recommend

  • john frazer

    Saqib the question here is not on the employability of minorities rather the inhuman ways they are forced to carry out those, safety gear and medical aid are a prerequisite, or else you know they may die inhaling toxins.Recommend

  • john frazer

    Shining roads and bridges won’t tell the real story. There are better alternatives called sewage pumps that sucks and ditches the feaces intoa truck and for that a committed govt is required.Recommend

  • Asif Hayat Khan

    In my humble view, countries like Pakistan have basically
    two casts: , HAVES and HAVE NOTs …. A
    simple litmus test is that if you put all these workers with good clothing in a
    business class everyone would treat them with respect and dignity ….

    Some professions are albeit treated as caste (driver, chowkidar(guard), maali (gardener), mochi(cobbler), etc…. and this has origins from our shared Indian history)

    So taking a minority rights route would take few more hundred years to modernize and give dignity to these jobs.
    [minority twist arouse emotions/TRPs … as you see in the comment section even English speaking class like us start bashing Pakistan etc. and the discussion does not lead towards solution.]

    The case would weigh more and may bring faster change if the
    premise of the argument is based around “right to life and safe working conditions
    and attractive compensation for hazardous working conditions ” e.g. in Canada “garbage collection is one of the highly paid jobs (to the extent that Whiteman does not even allow a colored or immigrant to take that job ” – needless to say it is done with the best equipment to access dangerous / poisonous areas.
    …. We see some islands of excellence within Pakistan where technology is added
    to “waste management jobs” is some cities / colonies …. But we have a long way to go..

    May be in next article we can share solutions … how these
    jobs can be done better.Recommend

  • Asif Hayat Khan

    To add further;
    Sanitation work is by default as hazardous occupation worldwide, the safety and wellbeing of workers is to be ensured by using right equipment / technology,
    training to use them and effective compensation.
    See the latest news from US

    RICHMOND, Ind. — A sanitation worker for the City of
    Richmond died on Wednesday after falling into a wastewater tank.

    According to the city of Richmond, Danny Caldwell was
    performing regular maintenance on a wastewater clarifier tank when personnel
    lost contact with him.

    Emergency personnel found Caldwell submerged in the
    tank and first responders recovered his body late Wednesday evening.

    Caldwell’s cause and manner of death remain under

  • numbersnumbers

    Note that Asif Khan neglected to mention that sanitation workers in America are not chosen by caste or religion!

  • Asad Hasan Kizilbash

    It is a shame that the Hindu caste system continues to operate in the supposedly Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
    Rightly asked by a Western reader here as to how Muslims will react if similar dehumanizing discrimination is done in the West against their Muslim populace.Recommend