Sanitation work and caste in Sri Lanka

Aftab Lall, Research Assistant at the Centre for Poverty Analysis, Sri Lanka. Aftab holds a Masters from the Institute of Development Studies in the UK. He has worked on slum rehabilitation in New Delhi and corporate social responsibility initiatives in Ho Chi Minh City. At CEPA, under the SLRC programme, he works on caste identity and how it shapes access and delivery of basic services in the war affected Northern Province. He is also involved in an ESRC funded study on Borderlands and Brokerage in Sri Lanka.
In northern Sri Lanka, caste is more explicit in social relations in the Tamil community than in the rest of the country. Groups that find themselves at the bottom of the caste hierarchy find it difficult to lift themselves out of marginalisation and poverty. In Jaffna, people born into the Parayar caste are expected to perform work considered ‘impure’ in Tamil society.

British colonial rule

Traditionally, Parayars’ livelihoods were based on collecting and skinning carcasses, collecting solid waste and drumming at the funerals of higher castes. The exclusion and segregation of Parayars was strictly maintained by higher castes, who would provide minimal pay or other remuneration to the Parayars for their services.

Under the British colonial rule, this changed: Parayars were given official titles and employed as sanitation workers, carrying out the same tasks, in the local municipality. Becoming ‘sanitation workers’ gave the Parayars a new identity in addition to their historical one as ‘untouchables’ – they became low-status government servants.

Institutionalising caste

This state-sponsored identity both perpetuates and obscures the caste discrimination experienced by Parayars in the following ways.

Firstly, despite government employment being highly sought after – conferring as it does financial security, land tenure, a pension and a salaried wage – working in sanitation carries a strong caste association. Additionally, sanitation work also wears the label of a low status government job and situates the workers at the bottom of the class hierarchy.

Secondly, the mechanisation and professionalisation of garbage collection with the use of tractors and JMC branded uniforms attempts to coalesce this group of workers into the state machinery. In other words, during garbage collection, JMC sanitation workers can be seen as part of the state. They are not to be seen as Parayars carrying out their ‘inherited’ vocation, or as Parayars who have historically been prevented by higher caste groups (and the institutions under their control) from moving out of this line of work.

Many of the sanitation workers from the community do not wear uniforms or boots. Some use their bare hands to pick up the garbage. Seeing this on multiple occasions, it was hard to ignore the stark symbolism of the Parayar identity, unbending against the state’s attempt to render them invisible through the state’s mechanisation and professionalization of their work.

This is also evident in the hiring practices for sanitation workers. In theory, workers are selected on the basis of their education and prior experience in sanitation work; in practice, however, workers are chosen on a hereditary basis, as those with experience in sanitation work are likely to be from the Parayar caste.

This begs the question(s) – What allows for the subversion of the formal procedures and processes. That is, Why are uniforms not strictly enforced? Why does the selection of sanitation workers continue to take place on a hereditary basis?

Building a hybrid state and implications for caste identity

One of the main reasons for sanitation workers to subvert norms – such as throughnot wearing uniforms or for JMC officials to not adhere to merit based selection and provide jobs on a hereditary basis – is because sanitation in Jaffna exists within a hybrid state. By hybrid I mean where, ‘modern’ technocractic and bureaucratic structures are interwoven with ‘older’ patronage and clientalistic networks. In this instance patron -client networks between the community and the locally influential Eelam People’s Democratic Party provided leeway for the community to assert their caste identity at the JMC and work outside formal processes.

A central aspect of state building in post war Jaffna was fusing the state apparatus with various patronage and clientalist networks that had been working parallel to the state during the war. Such configurations are a double edged sword: on the one hand, the persistence (and inclusion) of informal mechanisms by the state provide the community members with opportunities to constantly negotiate their position in the JMC. At the same time, the persistence of informal institutions means that embedded caste relations continue to shape access to jobs for the Parayar community and veil the resistance, exclusion and discrimination they face in their aspiration for social mobility.