Meeting Dr Raees Muhammed on a cold winter morning at a friend’s office in Coonoor, I am struck by his open, smiling face as he ushers in Tamil Chelvan, a young lad of 20, his teammate at Clean Nilgiris.
Originally called the Kotagiri Septic Tank Cleaning Service, Clean Nilgiris was launched in 2022 by Dr Muhammed to gain recognition and respect for caste-marginalised Dalit sanitation workers. Dr Muhammed owns and runs the business, engaging young people in his community, with a view to helping them understand the model and run similar businesses themselves.
Dr Muhammed has a team of around six people, of whom only Chelvan is a full-time employee; the others are called upon as required. When he receives an order, he drives the truck with the septic tank cleaning motor, along with two of his team members. They spend one to two hours on the job, and Dr Muhammed receives the payment, paying his team Rs1,000 each. He hopes that he will soon be able to induct some women into his team.
Active in anti-caste agitations in his student days, Dr Muhammed, earlier known as Ravichandran Bathran, converted to Islam in January 2021, ‘to annihilate my caste identity’, he says. During his college days, he started Dalit Camera, a YouTube channel that has reached 90,000 plus subscribers. Dalit Camera reports and critically engages with issues around caste from the perspective of Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis, Muslims and other minorities living in India.
An Arunthathiyar (a scheduled caste community mostly found in Tamil Nadu), Dr Muhammed is from Kotagiri. He is a post-doctorate from the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, who sought to become an academician. However, he realised that in India, the system offered neither respect nor sufficient financial benefit to academicians like him, in spite of excellent credentials.
He decided to return to his community instead and work to help his people uplift themselves. In 2020, he resigned as assistant professor of English at the University of Madras and returned to Kotagiri to start the ‘Self-Respect’ Trade Union.
Through RTI applications Dr Muhammed discovered that sanitation workers do not fall under the Minimum Wages Act and are paid only around Rs250 per day, with the rate being fixed by the local authority. They are not considered on par with other labourers and work 10–14 hours a day, with no overtime; most spend at least a quarter of their salary on commuting expenses and are not protected by labour laws, despite being government staff.
Dr Muhammed began to mobilise the local labourers to form a registered union and then asked them to consider entrepreneurship as an alternative or supplemental source of income. Surprisingly, no one took him up on this. He suggested options like running a grocery store or a home delivery service, but they didn’t find any takers.
Dr Muhammed then suggested a business in sanitation work itself, as the labourers were already skilled in this department. However, they did not want to let go of their government jobs and be publicly associated with sanitation. They were keen to get out of this line of work but did not want to attempt a risky venture with uncertain returns.
Finally, Dr Muhammed decided to start the sanitation business himself, as a model to help the community see how this could be a viable option. He established the Kotagiri Septic Tank Cleaning Service—now renamed Clean Nilgiris—a year ago.
Money Has No Caste
Stressing the importance of respect in any job, Dr Muhammed says, ‘Sanitation workers need to be confident about their work, not ashamed. Money has no caste, and the people I pay don’t care how it is earned.’
I ask young Tamil Chelvan how he likes his job. ‘Very much,’ he responds. He likes this better than the earlier government job but cannot explain why, except to say that the salary is better.
Dr Muhammed explains why Chelvan is unable to articulate the fact that this job gives him better respect. ‘I don’t think they know what self-respect is. Self-respect is something that you need to experience to know what it means.’
His words echo the sentiment of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, among India’s most famous social reformers and anti-caste activists, who said, ‘Social discrimination [is] provided with a moral value…in India… the dominant castes look upon themselves as privileged by a divine will…to maintain the caste hierarchy.’ The only way forward is for us to stand up as a society and throw out this dehumanising system of caste.
Getting the Job Done
Dr Muhammed hopes to get more customers who can pay up to Rs10,000 for a clean-up, so that he can pay his employees more and make the business viable.
His 2,000-litre tank costs Rs8 lakh. Part of the money was contributed by friends and the rest came through a loan. This small tank can clean out only one household’s septic load at a time. It must travel 40km to the landfill in Adhikaratty or Ketti to dump the same, and then go all the way back to Kotagiri.
‘If an NGO or a private company could sponsor a lorry for us, that would be very helpful. A 6,000-litre vehicle costs Rs18 lakh. It will save a lot of time and money because at least three tanks can be cleaned and stored before making a single trip to the dump yard. It will generate better profit. We can also work in the public toilet space, where the income is a lot more. Bus stand toilets are owned by people from upper castes, but the contractors and workers are Dalits. Why shouldn’t the Dalits take over the business and earn the money from it? We can make a good profit. For me Rs20,000 per month is enough, but I can pay my staff more [if we make more money],’ he says.
There is another major issue. As this is a small motor, cleaners are forced to enter the septic tanks. Customers are unaware—or don’t care—that manual scavenging has been banned in the country. ‘We don’t have any tools, not even the most basic sewage pipes [with which] to remove blocks. Even gloves are not available in the market. Without proper equipment, we are forced to use our hands,’ he says.
Most pressing are the economics of the project, which are challenging. Dr Muhammed’s clientele is largely middle class and have limited ability to pay. He recounts how one customer, whose wife threatened to divorce him if he did not get the septic tank cleaned, could afford to pay only Rs5,000. Clean Nilgiris helped him out, though it left them out of pocket as they had to buy a special pipe; their team of three walked 1km hauling their pipe and motor, he tells me.
The enterprise faces many such daily challenges. Most customers want the job done in the evening—by the time the pick-up arrives at the dump yard, it is dark. Wild animals like bears and wild boars abound in the area, making access to the dump yard difficult. Further, in case of a breakdown, no mechanic will repair a septic tank motor. On the days Dr Mohammed’s vehicle is not in use, even if he removes the motor and offers the vehicle for hire, towards extra income, no one will touch it.
Theory of Change
Speaking of sanitation work in general, Dr Muhammed says that there is a need to create awareness. He says people throw sanitary napkins and condoms in the toilets, causing blockages. ‘Without these, the septic tank works well and does not require any intervention, because human faeces create bacteria that eat the solid sludge and convert it into liquid. These liquids are either absorbed by the land or pumped out by the motors,’ he adds.
Many workers take off their clothes before entering the sewage pits, he says—they would rather their bodies be soiled than their clothes. To avoid this, he is currently in conversation with the Kotagiri non-profit Keystone Foundation, to create a model septic tank cleaner kit. He also aspires to completely mechanise the process.
Dr Muhammed is doing critical work. His words highlight the plight of this community that silently steps into our septic tanks to clean our mess, without the equipment, without tools, but most of all without the respect and gratitude they so sorely deserve.
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