Cleaning your s***: The story and tragedy of people who clean sewers

In Delhi, ten sanitation workers have died in little over a month.

india Updated: Sep 20, 2017 13:13 IST
Sanitation workers,Sewers,Deaths in sewers
Sanitation workers in India very often do not have access to protective gear, exposing them to danger and death. (Ravi Choudhary/HT Photo)

Ten sewer workers have in Delhi have died in little over a month owing to exposure to toxic gases in sewers they were cleaning.

On August 7 this year, three men died of asphyxiation, one after the another, while cleaning a sewer manhole in Lajpat Nagar. The workers suffocated to death after being exposed to poisonous gases. On August 21, Delhi recorded its tenth death of a sanitation workers in a little over a month, after he entered a clogged sewer at Lok Nayak Hospital in Delhi without protective gear.

Death of workers in sewers is not new. Mumbai and Bangalore have also reported such cases. A look at the daily dangers that sanitation workers negotiate

workers & their work
25-year-old Vikas, strips down and lowers himself into a sewer full of silt. Soon he is up to his chest in black muck. He fills a pail with the silt, which his co-workers pull out with the help of the rope attached to it, and empty it, before sending it back to him. The stench is overpowering, even for someone standing near.
Such injuries are not uncommon. "Often there are snakes inside if the manhole cover has been left open. The authorities don’t even pay for treatment, unless it is something major that requires hospitalisation," says Ratendra Singh, Vikas’s supervisor.
The Supreme Court has criminalised entering sewers without safety gear, even in emergency situations, and said that the work should be mechanised as far as possible.
But sewer workers say the order remains only on paper. "Many of us become alcoholics. It is difficult to do this in your senses. The stench stays even after we come out," says Mahendra, a worker in Faridabad.
50,000 TO ONE LAKH
is the approximate number of safai karamcharis in Delhi alone, says Manhar Valjibhai Zala, chairman of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK). "We don’t know how many of these are sewer workers," he says, adding that the Commission is in the process of compiling a state-wise list of their number to get an all-India figure.
their family
Pooja didn’t know that her husband Brajesh was a sewer worker when she got married. Her own father had been a sanitation worker, but as far as she knows he didn’t clean sewers. He was also a permanent government employee, unlike Brajesh, who is a contract worker.
Ajay, whose brother Joginder is one of the 10 sewer workers who died in Delhi last month, says his children found out that he and his brothers had been sewer workers only after his brother died.
"I have a different reputation in society and I felt bad admitting that I do this work," says Ajay in a low voice. "You might call it sewer...for the kids it is a gutter, their father worked in the gutter." He and his three other siblings have stopped this work after Joginder’s death.
Pooja says she is worried about her husband’s safety when he enters the sewers, especially when she hears of workers dying inside manholes. But she is equally, if not more, worried about how their father’s profession will affect the children’s future.
According to a 2010 report of the Hazards Centre, Delhi had a sewage system involving a large network of branch sewers, intercepting sewers, peripheral and trunk sewers. The report said that according to the Delhi Jal Board, the city had 28 main trunk sewers of 700mm to 2,400mm in diameter.
the earnings
Workers are divided into three main categories – permanent employees of a government agency, contractual or casual workers attached to a government agency or private workers working for a contractor or thekedar.
Rs 6,000 - Rs 7,000
a month is the average earning of contract/private sewer workers HT spoke to in Delhi NCR. They get no health or retirement benefits either, they say. The gap between the earnings of contract/private workers and private safai karamcharis is huge. Workers interviewed by HT said their counterparts with permanent government jobs earned as much as .20,000 or even more and also enjoyed health and retirement benefits.
"Often state or central government instructions regarding minimum wages and benefits of safai karamcharis are not followed by private contractors," says Zala.
According to the 2015-16 Annual Report of the NCSK even states are often reluctant to pay the minimum wage approved by the labour ministry. They set a minimum wage on their own, which varies from state to state. Workers say they depend on private odd jobs to get by.
Most sewer workers are from the Valmiki or dalit community. Zala says at some places safai karamcharis with permanent government jobs are from the upper castes, but they don’t do sewer work.
their health
sewer deaths have been reported between 1993 and now, according to the Safai Karmachari Andolan data. The SC has awarded a compensation of ..10 lakh for families of victims, but many are yet to get it.
Skin diseases, poor eyesight and breathing trouble are the most common health problems faced by sewer workers.
In extreme cases, gas inhalation can lead to death. "The most dangerous gases that are commonly present in the sewers are methane, carbon monoxide, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide" says Dunu Roy of Hazards Centre.
There’s a tell-tale odour at times, or a cool draft. Workers say they leave the manhole cover open for a while then, or sometimes light a matchstick to check for methane presence, but it doesn’t always help.
"Mechanised cleaning costs Rs 2,000 an hour, workers Rs 300 a day. So authorities don’t use machines. Often lanes are too narrow for machines to enter" says Parveen, a worker.
Most developed countries have redesigned their sewage system to allow mechanised cleaning of sewers, says Dunu Roy of Hazards Centre. They also have probing machines and extractors for the work, he says. But in India workers mostly do the work manually, by repeatedly pushing a "khapchhi" or a kind of bamboo stick through silt to clear it. Buckets on ropes are also used. Workers say they are often dependent on their sense of touch, since it’s dark. Helmets with lamps are usually not available to them.
BEZWADA WILSON of the Safai Karmachari Andolan also says that sewer workers should not enter sewers. "Sewer workers are also manual scavengers, since much of what they clean is human excreta. There is a ban on human scavenging. So for us it’s not about safety gear or proper payment. We just don’t want them to go down and clean sewers manually," he says.
FAULTY PLANNING is one of the reasons why workers have to continue to manually clean sewers, says Roy. Sewer lines are becoming longer with centralised Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs). Smaller sewer lines with decentralised STPs will reduce risk of clogging. The slope of the lines have to be accurate and concrete sewers need to be lined with something smooth inside to aid the flow of sewage. Sewers need to be broadened for easy operation of machines.
Text: Poulomi Banerjee, Photos: Ravi Choudhary, Design: Puneet Verma, Graphics: Hitesh Mathur

First Published: Sep 19, 2017 19:01 IST