Decasticization, Dignity, and ‘Dirty Work’ at the Intersections of Caste, Memory, and Disaster
In this qualitative study we examine the role of caste, class, and Dalit janitorial labor in the aftermath of floods in Chennai, India, in 2015. Drawing from a variety of sources including interviews, social media, and news coverage, we studied how Dalit (formerly known as ‘untouchable’) janitors were treated during the performance of janitorial labor for cleaning the city. Our study focuses on two theoretical premises: (a) caste-based social relations reproduce inequalities by devaluing Dalit labor as ‘dirty work’; and (b) Dalit subjectivities, labor, and sufferings including occupational hazards become invisible and ungrievable forcing Dalits to provide a counter narrative to preserve the memory of their trauma and dignity injuries. We find that the discursive construction of janitorial labor as dirty work forced Dalit janitors to work in appalling and unsafe working conditions. Janitors suffered several dignity injuries in terms of social exclusion and a lack of recognition for their efforts and accomplishments. Specifically, we examine various ways through which caste, dirty work, and dignity intersected in the narrative accounts of Dalit janitors. We also explore memory and how processes of remembering and forgetting affected the dignity claims of Dalit janitors.