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Caste played major role in Ahmedabad’s controversial struggle to procure sewers

Ranchchodlal Chhotalal
Excerpts from “Coprology and Caste: The Status of Sewerage in Ahmedabad, India”, by Stephanie Tam, published as Working Paper No. 12-002 February 2012, published by the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies, Northwestern University:
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Ahmedabad’s struggle to procure sewers was highly controversial, as debates raged over the public’s state of enlightenment and the impact it would have upon caste structures. Unlike Bombay and Delhi, Ahmedabad remained relatively independent of British rule, and had its own municipal government consisting primarily of Western-educated professionals. Its first municipal president was a successful millowner who applied his industrial ingenuity to reducing the city’s alarming mortality rates, proposing underground sewers after reading the British Army Sanitary Commission’s attribution of disease to lack of drainage.
Ranchhodlal Chhotalal’s 1886 sewerage proposal promoted a sewerage scheme written five years earlier by public works engineer Colonel Walter Ducat, and quickly came under fire from both foreigners and locals. British civil servant Theodore C. Hope found sewers impractical for Ahmedabad, given, “on the part of the people, an absence of intelligence and hearty co-operation, and a poverty which can ill bear the risks of a costly experiment”. Ahmedabadis were deemed too ignorant and too poor to handle sophisticated new technology, especially since their more esteemed countrymen in “great and rich presidency towns” had failed to do so. Sewers denoted the hierarchy of Indian cities, and Ahmedabad’s ambitions exceeded the city’s stature, threatening to destabilize the ladder of enlightenment and advancement that grounded British power structures in India.
As an emerging Western technology, Hope thought underground sewerage “too far advanced for the present stage of average intelligence and civilization” in Ahmedabad, invoking notions of progress and refinement to establish Western superiority over backward “natives”. While he could not deny that Ahmedabad’s sanitary ambitions evinced an elevated “civic sense”, Hope was unwilling to concede that sewers were appropriate for the city, distinguishing between sanitary consciousness and sanitary capacity to keep the city in its designated place on the social ladder.
Sewerage’s aura of progress drove Chhotalal’s campaign to sanitize Ahmedabad. In an 1886 letter, Chhotalal described Ducat’s scheme as a “modern under-ground sewage system”, portraying the project as state-of-the-art in contrast to the city’s extant open-air sewers that needed to be manually cleaned. Indeed, Chhotalal’s biographer depicted him as a modern man who promoted the “rules of sanitary science” and believed in empirical knowledge. His attitude was un-Indian in the way he “besought his colleagues to set their faces sternly against the fatalism, so prevalent among the people of India”, and fought on the side of science against native custom.
Chhotalal’s Western qualities were deemed righteous in attempting “to ameliorate the material conditions and circumstances of life”, linking Western science to social justice. Hope made the moral implications of sanitation clear in his description of Chhotalal’s “humane efforts” as “just and proper”, imbuing sewerage technology with ethical impetus. Ethics echoed from Chhotalal’s repeated assertions that sewerage was a civic responsibility, and alongside the construction of Ahmedabad’s sewerage, Ahmedabad’s moral public was formed. In the hands of social reformers, “civic sense” possessed a moral dimension that exceeded good breeding.
“Civic sense” came to be understood as “that sense of humanity, - the knowledge that mankind is one and must henceforth be dealt with from that standpoint”. It signified equality and mutual respect, a moral consciousness that indicated one was part of humanity. Chhotalal made a moral argument for sewerage premised upon residents’s right to live, focusing on mortality reduction and establishing that Ahmedabadis are as deserving of a sanitary environment as any other population. Although he asked for Ahmedabadis to be considered as equals to other sewered populations, Chhotalal omitted mention of the sanitary inequalities internal to Ahmedabad’s populace. Ahmedabadis’s “civic sense” pertained to a select public’s well-being – the public that did not have to jeopardize its health every day cleaning up the city’s excrement.

Caste Controversy

Ahmedabad’s sanitation workers were Bhangis, a caste of Untouchables that was privately employed by neighborhoods to manually remove faeces from dry latrines, empty out cesspools, and sweep gutters. Since they were the only people who were willing to handle excrement, the entire city was dependent upon them, and higher castes became resentful of the Bhangis’s power over the city’s hygiene. Moreover, Bhangis profited from collecting residents’s night-soil by selling it as manure to farmers.
Sewerage threatened their employment and their source of additional income, while it simultaneously seemed to liberate them from demeaning labour. The socioeconomic structures that both bound and empowered Bhangis were endangered, and local opposition to Chhotalal’s proposal grew as sewerage’s implications upon caste divisions became clearer. Chhotalal strategically made no mention of sewerage’s impact upon the Bhangis, discussing sweepers only in the context of their failure to clean sufficiently. He pointed out that “[t]he Municipal Bhungees will only clean the cess-pool once a day and some portion of the foul water will always remain in the cess-pool”, while sewerage would eliminate every trace of excrement from residential areas in a timely manner.
By evaluating Bhangis only in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, Chhotalal represented them as sanitation instruments, and glossed over the larger social framework that defined their occupation. Occupation and caste had become synonymous by the 1880s, as Ahmedabad’s population grew and the need for a sanitation workforce increased. All Bhangis who migrated into cities were absorbed into the sanitation industry, and soon it became unthinkable for them to perform any other kind of work.16 The caste system itself became known as “but another name for division of labour”, albeit a confining division that restricted Bhangis to menial activities and freed upper castes from repulsive tasks.
Chhotalal’s sewerage proposal did not simply replace manual sanitation with mechanized sanitation, but challenged the correspondence between caste and occupation. Freed from sanitation work, Bhangis could take over occupations allotted to other castes, thereby blurring caste divisions and threatening hereditary occupational privileges. It was Hope who bluntly pointed out that the sewerage scheme implied “the abandonment of the existing system of removing the foecal matter, or night-soil, by hand” from dry latrines, as well as eliminating “the collection of all the night-soil and sullage water” from cesspools.
Moreover, Hope made clear that sewerage would entail sanitary equality, stating that, “it should be distinctly realized that under a system of underground drainage, every house in the city ought to be connected with the sewer”. Sharing piped drinking water with lower castes was so objectionable to upper castes that for the first while they would not use it, and sharing a sanitation system met with a similar reaction. Ahmedabadis were not ready to embrace a “civic sense” that contested caste divisions and caste-based occupations. Exposing the social structures that sewerage would upset, Hope’s letter became a powerful weapon in the hands of Chhotalal’s opposition.
Despite its condescending portrayal of Ahmedabadis as uncivilized and unintelligent, the letter was circulated widely throughout Ahmedabad and published in the Bombay Gazette. The general public, the local press, and even Chhotalal’s colleagues were so incensed by the sewerage proposal that they held daily mass meetings to protest against it. Chhotalal often attended these meetings to defend his proposal, but it was to no avail, and during one meeting he was pelted with garbage and stones. Although he was escorted back to his home unharmed, the pelting’s intent was to signify punishment rather than inflict physical injury.
Pelting was an aggregated assault that allowed every member of the community to participate – a communal act that spoke to the aggressors’s perception of Chhotalal as a threat to communal identity. His sewerage proposal shook the very core of Ahmedabad society, and instigated a collective response that resembled the stoning that would take place during the city’s caste riots decades later. The body is central to both caste and sewerage, and corporeal punishment reflected the public’s desire for the body to adhere to an accustomed order.

Disciplining the Sanitary Body

In his 1850 writings about British sanitation, Herbert Spencer “had sensed that the issue in sanitary reform was not the disposal of wastes. Fundamentally the issue was the desire of someone […] to force him to perform in a manner officially prescribed, and not freely chosen”. Sewering Ahmedabad was not a topographic project, but a new regime of corporeal governance. To sanitize the city, its residents had to conform to new ways of living and relating to their bodies. The existing sanitation system consisted of individual cesspools or khalkuvas for each house, which received household sullage and liquid human waste. Solid human waste remained in the latrines, and was cleaned up by the Bhangis every day.
Wastewater in khalkuvas was expected to seep into the subsoil, but because of Ahmedabad’s high water table, it ended up in the groundwater that was used for drinking and kept the ground damp and foul-smelling.24 Homeowners with khalkuvas consumed as little water as possible and could not use their cesspools during the rainy season for fear of overflow. Whenever they had an opportunity, they would depose some of the sewage onto the street. However, 80% of homes did not have khalkuvas and were supposed to place their wastewater in large iron pans in the streets or courtyards for daily collection.
Frequently, these households simply threw sewage onto the streets at night when Sanitary Inspectors were not around.26 Water consumption, defecation and bathing were carefully and consciously performed. Dry latrines were prevalent, with excreta being left on a stone, plate, or bucket to be collected by Bhangis. Given that Bhangis cleaned only once a day, faecal matter and the smell of human waste were a constant presence, and residents were desensitized to them.
Sewerage proposed to change the relationship of residents to excreta, whisking away human waste once it was produced so that it was no longer an accepted presence. Residents would acquire a heightened sense of disgust towards it, and become distant and detached from it. The act of defecation itself would change with the advent of manually flushed squat latrines that accompanied sewers. While dry latrines permitted some latitude for where defecation occurred, squat latrines were fixed locations with a narrow pit that faeces had to be deposited in.
Defecation would become a much more constrained act, and a much more private one. One’s faeces would be seen only by oneself, and would no longer need to be touched by others in order to be removed. Tam 9 In diminishing the corporeal intimacy between Bhangis and faeces, sewerage proposed to diminish the relationship between caste pollution and touch. Some late 19th-century Hindu reformers considered the untouchability of Bhangis an occupational pollution, justifying their low social status through their daily contact with excreta. Moreover, contamination through touch is central to the way that untouchability is practiced: not only are Bhangis to be kept away from upper caste bodies, all objects and spaces that come into contact with Bhangis are defiled and not to be touched by upper castes. If pollution is transmitted through touch and Bhangis no longer had to be in physical contact with excreta, the source and nature of Bhangi contamination became questionable.
While upper castes that accidentally touched Bhangis could purify themselves through ablutions, Bhangis could not cleanse themselves of their contamination. Theirs was an ontological pollution that was conflated with occupational pollution, a permanent state of defilement that overlapped with polluting events. Their contact with excreta both justified and was justified by their polluted status. Sewerage threatened to break the circular logic of Bhangi contamination by eliminating their contact with faeces, leaving their contamination a myth realized through performative acts rather than a microbiological reality. Sanitary science prized empirical evidence, and challenged the validity of untouchability’s mythic premises.
Sewerage also proposed to eliminate the punishing labours that positioned Bhangis on the lowest rungs of Ahmedabad society. Prior to flush toilets, Bhangis went from door to door, accessing dry latrines through a cleaning entrance so as not to pollute the house and its occupants. They half-crawled into pits to retrieve faeces, loaded them onto leaky baskets atop their heads, emptied them onto carts and trekked to the Sabarmati River or outside of Ahmedabad’s walls to dispose of them. Physical exertion characterized their occupation as much as contact with faeces. Despite their toils, they were stereotyped as “feeble of mind and body”, undercutting the athletic power that their work entailed.
Their labour was not perceived as physical training but as physical punishment: rather than gaining prowess from their exertions, Tam 10 they suffered from them. Labour was a means of disciplining their bodies into submission, instilling a corporeal order that threatened to be overturned by sewerage’s redefinition of Bhangi labour. Caste hierarchy was about to undergo tumultuous changes with the construction of underground sewers. Sanitation was civically desirable but socially undesirable, as it changed community relationships into human-machine relationships.
Relative standings among castes were part of how community status was constructed, and the replacement of sweepers with sewers rocked the lowest regions of the caste structure. Although residents would become increasingly sensitive to excreta, they would no longer be able to displace their disgust onto Bhangis as easily as they used to. Moreover, pollution would no longer be spatially controlled and contained through the body of the Bhangi. While Bhangis could be relegated to the back door, sewers were ubiquitous and transgressed public/private boundaries, running underneath streets and into homes.
The public realm of the street that once received illegal sewage deposits bled into the clean, domestic haven. Opponents to Chhotalal’s proposal described sewerage as “unpractical, doctrinaire, still in the experimental stage elsewhere […] and dangerous to health”, with one writer claiming that streets would be poisoned by sewer gas. Sewers made excreta invisible and dynamic, doing away with the security of tangible and locatable faeces that was handled by humans. Even though it was contained within pipes, excreta became immanent in Ahmedabad’s environment, making defilement difficult to assess.

Ahmedabad’s First Sewer

Despite significant resistance to it, Ahmedabad’s first sewer was laid in 1893 in the Khadia ward. The political strife that led up to its installment played out primarily between Ahmedabad’s municipal government and the larger Bombay Presidency that governed the region. Although Ahmedabad’s drainage sub-committee approved Chhotalal’s proposal in November 1886, the Municipality vetoed sewerage and favoured improving existing manual methods of faecal removal instead. The Municipality’s decision was contested by the North Division Commissioner and the Sanitary Commissioner of the Bombay Presidency, who were convinced that improving manual methods was a makeshift solution to the city’s sanitation problem.
In spite of the Commissioners’s opinion, the Municipality confirmed its intentions to improve manual removal in 1888, and Chhotalal himself was won over by his opposition to recommend the Municipality’s decision against sewerage to the Bombay Presidency. Bombay flatly refused to permit the Municipality’s scheme, and the Municipality finally agreed to install an experimental sewer on May 14th, 1888. The Bombay Commissioners had a very different view of sewerage than Hope did. While Hope thought that sewerage’s success was dependent upon a civilized populace, the Commissioners believed that sewerage would create a civilized populace. 
Chhotalal and the Bombay Commissioners mistrusted a sanitation system that gave sanitary independence to the people. Ahmedabadis had shown that they could not be controlled through legal regulations, illegally depositing sewage in the streets so commonly that prosecuting every instance was far beyond the Municipality’s resources. Hope had supported improving manual removal because it was “in principle indigenous and national to India”, but Chhotalal and the Commissioners were not interested in relying upon indigenous habits that had proven to be unsanitary and incorrigible. Their solution was to reform behaviour forcibly through mechanical means that would wrest sanitary decision-making from the people, and centralize sanitary control in the government.
The Municipality allocated funds for sewerage, renowned British engineer Baldwin Latham prepared plans and estimates, and construction was completed in 1893. Although the sewers were laid in the part of Ahmedabad that had objected to it the most, they won over the public once they were installed and soon inhabitants were demanding house connections to it. In 1897, the system was extended in response to public demand, and by 1930 the entire area within the old city walls was sewered. Chhotalal’s biographer attributed the public’s radical change in attitude to its encounter with empirical proof of sewerage’s effectiveness.
Ahmedabadis accepted sewerage not just because it was effective and successful sanitation-wise, but because it proved to be effective and successful in preserving social and political structures. Sewerage did not challenge caste divisions as the people had feared, but became a new means of enforcing them. Municipal Collusion Sewerage shifted financial control of the Bhangis away from private citizens onto the Municipality, but the plight of the Bhangis changed little and in certain ways, for the worse.
The Municipality had been moving towards financial control of the Bhangis even before the sewers were built. In 1884, Bhangis were expected to depose the night-soil they collected into municipal tramway carts at the Jamalpur and Shahpur gates for transportation to a manure processing depot two and a half miles away.38 Centralizing faecal collection under the guise of making sanitation more efficient and less laborious enabled the government to impinge upon the Bhangis’s prerogative over night-soil sales. Sewerage completed the Municipality’s takeover.
Chhotalal planned for the faeces collected by sewers to “yield a handsome revenue to the Municipality”, leaving Bhangis no source of alternative income. Although sewers reduced the number of dry latrines, cesspools and open gutters in Ahmedabad, they also generated a new task: clearing out blocked pipes. When it came to hiring sewermen, the Municipality colluded with the caste assumption that Bhangis “deal in the refuse of other humans and that they are all culturally dysfunctional”. It recruited only Bhangis into the sanitation department, refused to hire them in any other department, and left them with few Tam 13 other options for livelihood.
With the decline of private employers, Bhangis had no choice but to become Municipal employees and to submit to Municipal work conditions. While private employment gave Bhangis the power to negotiate wages and work conditions with individual households, public employment wrapped those who were responsible for work conditions in layers of inaccessible bureaucracy. An official noted a similar situation in Delhi, where “the question regarding ‘prospects’ is not understood” since Bhangis became perpetual menial labourers once they joined the Municipality. They no longer had the independence to select where and for whom they worked, nor could they draw upon night-soil sales to buy them time to be selective about employment opportunities. The Bhangis had become completely financially dependent upon the Municipality, and the Municipality used it to its advantage.

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