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Legacies of Service Provision

Posted by Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA)

28 Oct 2016

By Aftab Lall, Research Associate

State sponsored provision of sanitation services in Jaffna, Sri Lanka are tightly bound in caste relations. Both Tamil and Sinhalese society groups that find themselves at the bottom of caste hierarchy continue to face socio-economic barriers in attempts to move out of poverty. In my study site in Jaffna, the group is the Parayar caste, – their caste based livelihood dictating that they perform work that is considered ‘impure’ in Tamil society. This work includes cleaning public toilets and drains, labouring as ‘scavengers’ collecting and skinning carcasses, and working in morgues.  Parayars are placed at the very bottom of the caste hierarchy and belong to the untouchable castes.

My study explored the ways in which caste identity shapes access to basic services for community members. As sanitation workers, the Parayars occupied a unique space that traversed both the private and public sphere - as citizens in the case of the former and state sponsored service providers in caste of the latter. Over numerous interviews with community members and government officials it became increasingly clear that caste was central to relationships between the community and state-run service providing institutions.

I spent close to three months doing research in the Parayar community, where more than half of the 512 households had been working in sanitation at the Jaffna Municipal Corporation (JMC) for over four generations. The community lives in an underserved colony near Jaffna town that shows signs of ghettoisation. Many families were below the poverty line, lacked access to toilets, and had not completed their secondary schooling. On the other hand, a few families were relatively wealthy and had access to good quality services and their children were on their way to completing secondary schooling.

Elders in the community recounted how they had come to Jaffna from the ‘islands’ that extend out from the Jaffna peninsula into the Palk Strait. It was the lack of basic facilities on the islands, especially healthcare, that encouraged them to move to ‘modern’ Jaffna Town. This was in the 1930s. Before being absorbed into the British colonial administration, the Parayars used to collect and skin carcasses and collect solid waste for a livelihood. They also used to perform their function as funeral drummers for higher caste groups. Under the British they were given official title and employed as sanitation workers (carrying out the same tasks) in the local municipality.

The institutionalising of the Parayar caste’s ‘traditional’ occupation into the ‘modern’ British and subsequently the Sri Lankan State has significant implications for the identity of sanitation workers. The sanitation workforce has a distinct social and political identity that is in constant interaction with broader society. Historically, the relationship between Parayars and higher castes was based on a religiously sanctioned socio-cultural contract where the exclusion and segregation of Parayars was strictly maintained by higher caste groups (and imposed by Parayars themselves). In exchange for their services the Parayars would be remunerated in kind or minimal pay by higher caste groups. Entering the government service as ‘sanitation workers’ discernibly shifted that social contract from being entirely caste based to one based on a mix of caste and class relations. Part assimilation into the state technocracy gave another dimension to the Parayars identity, entry to the class discourse in Jaffna society- that of a low tier government servant.

I argue that the state sponsored identity of the sanitation worker perpetuates and simultaneously veils caste discrimination against Parayars working in sanitation. While lines of segregation and systematic discrimination had become less visible and explicit in war-time Jaffna, in post war Jaffna there is a resurgence of caste that continues to shape the lives of sanitation workers. I borrow the idea of the institutionalisation of sanitation workers from research that unpacks the tension between the State and sanitation workers in British ruled, Toronto in the late 19th century (Hurl 2015).

The introduction of the Parayar community into the state apparatus and the formalisation of their ‘caste-livelihood’ veils the institutionalisation of a discriminatory caste based practice in three ways. First, employment within the government service gave the Parayars – the status of a ‘government servant’--a status that is highly sought amongst the working and middle classes across the island. Government employment provides certain material benefits (that also conform to class characteristics) such as securing land (formal and informal) tenureship, a pension, low interest loans and salaried wage.  However, the stigma attached to both parayars and ‘sanitation work’ does not allow these government servants to shed their caste identity or the fact that they belong to the lowest tier of government employees. As a result, they do not enjoy the same privilege of respectability that is given to other categories of government servants, such as the education sector.

The mechanisation and professionalisation of sanitation work is another process through which the state assimilates and depoliticises sanitation work and the identity of the caste associated to it. The sanitation workers are provided with tractors that have large metal carriers attached to them. The carrier is painted green with a JMC emblem on it and workers are provided with uniforms that include JMC branded jackets, gloves and boots. The mechanisation of garbage collection with the use of tractors and health and safety measures attempts to coalesce this group of workers into the state machinery. In other words, during garbage collection, the workers are to be seen as JMC sanitation workers who are not only employed but to 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 in-fact do not wear uniforms. They ride a-top tractors in groups of four or five wearing plain clothes and rubber slippers or barefoot, with the JMC branded carriages trailing behind them. Some use their bare hands to pick up the garbage. On sighting this on multiple occasions, it was hard to ignore the stark symbolism of the Parayar identity as visible and unbending against the state’s attempt to render them invisible through modern state technologies of mechanisation and professionalisation. It seems that the very state apparatus that claims ownership over sanitation work and workers is in this instance entirely dependent on and driven by caste based socio-cultural legacies that have shaped Parayars to work in sanitation.

Third, is the meritocracy that the JMC officially observes in the selection of sanitation workers. The selection of applicants for sanitation work is on the basis that they have passed their OLs and have prior experience in sanitation. This practice is to distance the job from its caste legacy and give it the appearance of a functionary positon that is accessible to all. However, the JMC officials were candid about the fact that these credentials were necessary tick boxes but that applicants were chosen on a hereditary basis. That is, they give preference to those filling a position vacated by their parent or blood relative. Also, the fact that within the meritocratic process, preference is given to those with experience in sanitation, which in Jaffna is likely to be from a Parayar, is an example of how the modern state’s technology of meritocracy is embedded in local socio-cultural practice.

The institutionalisation of Parayar workers in these three ways attempts to sidestep the legacy of discrimination endured by this group of people. It is an attempt to sweep the collective guilt of higher caste groups under the carpet. However, flouting JMC uniform regulation and subverting meritocratic processes with caste based selection pushes caste to the fore in both the public sphere and within state institutions. Added to this, the communities’ poor socio-economic conditions amplify their low status in Jaffna society.

This begs the question(s) - What allows for the subversion of the states technocratic norms? Why are uniforms not strictly enforced? Why does the selection of sanitation workers continue to take place on a hereditary basis? And, how does the JMC manage to ensure that sanitation services are regularly provided and that it remains accountable to the people and the Kachcheri (District Secretariat) in keeping the streets and sewers clean?

One of the main reasons for sanitation workers to subvert norms is because sanitation in Jaffna is deeply embedded within a hybrid state structure. The state is able to assimilate its technocractic and bureaucratic structures with patronage and clientalistic networks that weave in and out of each other. The strongly defined (but veiled) caste based politics in Jaffna has by default given sanitation work a distinct (but veiled) political identity. In this instance, the Eelam’s People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) carries a war time legacy of drawing membership from lower caste groups. At the time of this research, EPDP was in favour with the Rajapakse regime and was the recipient of handsome patronage. It enjoyed both political clout in local state institutions and funds to provide basic infrastructure needs to underserved settlements (where lower caste groups tend to live) that regularly fell under the radar of official funding channels. Affiliation to this political party gave gives the community room to negotiate and manoeuvre within the techno-bureaucratic norms. In fact, the political backing –played an important role in their ability to monopolise jobs at the JMC – to capture the state institutions to meet their interests.

The institutionalisation of sanitation work has also provided impetus for sanitation workers to enter a class based platform. Some members of the community have been able to connect with employees from different sectors belonging to both higher and lower castes working at lower rungs of government. For example, the Divisional Secretariat and the local parish are spaces where, over the years, senior sanitation workers have built relationships with ground level staff in the electricity board, road development, healthcare and so on. These relationships have a specific class aspect - a relationship based on being government workers. The class based camaraderie has allowed upwards mobility for a few individuals in the community. These individuals have been able to gain access to better quality services through personal contacts in other government departments and schools.  The majority of community members, however, continue to be defined by their caste identity and experience barriers that are discriminatory in nature, and make it difficult for those that want to move out of sanitation work.

One of the central aspects of state building in post war Jaffna was to fuse the state apparatus with various patronage and clientalist networks that had been working parallel to the state during the war. The impact of such configurations is double sided. 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.


Hurl, C. (2015) ‘From Scavengers to Sanitation Workers: Practices of Purification and the Making of Civic Employees’ in Toronto’, 1890-1920, Paper presented at the RC21 International Conference on The ideal City: between myth and reality. Representations, policies, contradictions and challenges for tomorrow's urban life. Urbino (Italy) 27--‐29 August 2015. http://www.rc21.org/en/conferences/urbino2015/


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