In 1988, an extensive survey on the working procedure of sewer workers carried out by the Occupational Health and Safety Centre, Bombay, revealed their outdated methods such as the candle test to check for any poisonous gases inside manholes.
Almost 26 years and many technological advancements later, when Raju Shirke (name changed) enters an 18-feet deep manhole, a lit candle placed in a metal frame tied to a rope still remains his only tool to gauge whether he will come in contact with toxic gases. “But if methane is present in large quantities, the candle burns brighter,” said 51-year-old Dinesh Kadam (name changed), who is part of Shirke’s team.
Cockroaches in a manhole, Shirke’s colleagues specify, is another indicator of the presence of oxygen. As Shirke descends a 12-feet deep into the manhole holding onto the harness rope, his colleagues speak about how many of the new chambers do not have in-built steps for workers to climb down.
The team of nine labourers attending the manhole have only one pair of gloves and gumboots. No masks. No disinfectant balm. No headlamps. No breathing apparatus. A 1996 Bombay high court order to use gas detectors and monitors in place of the candle has also gone unheeded.
Wearing knee-length shorts and gumboots, Shirke scrapes the manhole surface using his bare hands, pickaxing occasionally. A glass shard cuts his finger, but he continues to work.
“At manholes near hospitals, we also find syringe needles in the sludge. Sometimes, sewage falls on our heads from the adjoining pipe. There are nights when I don’t get sleep with the thought of waking up to do this work,” said Kadam, adding many of them contract tuberculosis. The 1996 court order also asks the BMC to conduct yearly medical checkups of the labourers. But after a gap of five years, the check-up was conducted a month ago, said Kadam.
Every three minutes, Shirke sends up a bucket filled with muck. Two more labourers lift it up and two others empty it. This goes on for three hours. After the job, Shirke travels in the BMC van to a tap at a chowkie 15 minutes away to wash himself. The next day will be another team member's turn to work inside the manhole.