Inability to ‘say no’ claimed life of sewer worker who died in Dabri
Anil, the sanitation worker who died while cleaning a west Delhi sewer last week, would drink alcohol only once a month. It would be on the only day he had a “fixed job”. But he drank not to celebrate but to suppress his body pain at the end of a tiring day.
The “fixed job” involved cleaning a 250-metre long sewer line in his neighbourhood and Anil would single-handedly clean the sewer. The work would take hours but it would fetch him Rs 1,500. The daily jobs would fetch him only between Rs 150 and Rs 600.
“Unlike most sanitation workers who intoxicate themselves to bear the sewer stench, Anil didn’t need alcohol or marijuana. He would only carry a beedi bundle and gutkha sachets. But the days he cleaned an entire sewer line, he would shyly tell me he would drink later in the evening,” said Virender, another sewer worker. He said Anil was like a “younger brother” to him.
Anil’s inability to bear body pain had made him quit his previous job of rickshaw-pulling. “Five years ago, he came to me and said he didn’t care about his dignity and was willing to touch human waste if it could save him from pedalling a rickshaw. Physically, this was easier,” Virender said.
Soon, Anil went on to become one of the 50-odd sanitation workers in Dabri — responding to calls by residents and commercial establishments for unclogging pipes to cleaning sewers. He would even help lay drains.
Occasionally, municipalities would offer them work — something they would look forward to eagerly.
“We are more skilled in unclogging sewers. So, when people working for municipal corporations fail to clear a sewer, they call us. We prefer that because they shell out Rs 500, no matter how easy the work is,” said Sonu, another sanitation worker. Sonu took to sanitation work two years ago after his father died of a fall while painting a building. “I, too, was a painter but I realised the risks and took up sanitation work. But I refuse a work if I find it risky,” he said.
Virender and Sonu were among the very few who attended Anil’s cremation on Friday afternoon. “Anil was a good friend who spoke little and never turned down a request,” Sonu said.
Anil’s inability to say a ‘no’ cost him his life, they said. “That sewer was 20-foot deep. We generally refuse to enter such sewers. Such tasks require the use of machines as are unsafe. But Anil may not have been able to say no to the request,” Sonu said.
Yet, the right safety apparatus — instead of the ‘weak’ rope that was tied around Anil’s waist on the fateful day — could have prevented his death. In terms of tools, Anil only had a long bamboo he would vigorously poke into a sewer to unclog it. But as a group, the sanitation workers had access to belts for safety and tools needed for cleaning.
“I had purchased the equipment with my own money years ago right after I quit a catering job to take up sanitation work. Other workers borrow it from me for a percentage of their earnings,” said Virender, who also leads the group of workers. “I began as a sewer cleaner but tended to vomit because of the stench. So, I now assign work to others,” said Virender.
Virender would be aware of every assignment undertaken by Anil — but not on Friday. Anil had left for the work directly from a school he had got his son admitted to. He hadn’t informed Virender or taken the safety tools. Virender got to know of his death only when he saw Anil’s wife wailing in the street.
At their workplace, workers say they hardly ever receive any help or safety gear such as masks, belts or an oxygen cylinder in case of an emergency. “We request our hirers for exhaust fans but hardly ever anyone arranges it. Sometimes, they refuse to let us wash ourselves after work and we have to walk back home all dirty,” said Sonu.
“People feel that we overcharge, but I challenge them to find someone else to do the dirty job,” said Radhe Shyam, another sanitation worker.
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