ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Historicizing occupational mobility of sanitation work in Bangladesh: The politics of representation and self-representation


Mishra Pratik - Lancaster University, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster, United Kingdom
Cawood Sally


14 – Servitude and Mobility in Pre-Colonial and Colonial South Asia


 Research on manual scavenging in South Asia presents a difficult to resolve question on scholarly accountability. Writings that trace the caste-to-occupation consolidation to colonial logics of governance bring out histories of occupational mobility and reveal the contingent formations of so-called ‘scavenger castes’ through the clumping together of groups. However, scholarship continues to be written through loaded identities such as chuhra in Pakistan, sweepers in India and Harijan in Bangladesh, naming that overlooks composite group histories, and reproduces colonial ignorance and class bias. It is difficult to evade responsibility when the frame of research and conclusions fix historical links of communities to sanitation work and end up entrenching Brahminical claims naturalizing caste-based labour. We ask what concepts as historical occupational mobility do, and how those involved in sanitary work actively use or resist these conceptualisations?

Our research is based in Bangladesh, where little is known about how manual scavenging was historically constituted. Drawing on archival and participatory action research, we focus on the politics of self-representation for workers  documenting the histories of their own community, involved in sanitary work since British colonial rule. We highlight how sanitation workers of established caste groups are invested in proving their historical role in making urban life possible at a time when new groups are joining sanitation work.