Facing hell(holes): Who’ll save Ludhiana’s sewermen?

Dirty picture Low pay, debt cycle and fear of losing their jobs are the stark realities faced by men who keep city’s sewers, streets filth-free by risking their lives.

punjab Updated: Mar 17, 2018 11:02 IST
Amit R Joshi
Amit R Joshi
Hindustan Times, Ludhiana
sewermen,manual scavenging,Ludhiana MC
A sewerman emerges from a manhole after clearing it of sludge at Giaspura. (Amit Joshi/HT )

For 30-year-old Amit Kumar, every morning starts with him helping his sons Laksh, 10, and Daksh, 9, get ready for school. Having lost his wife Mamta to kidney disease on December 31 last year, Kumar ensures that he helps his 72-year-old mother with household chores before he leaves for his work. It’s a job that requires him to clear choked manholes in Zone C of the municipal corporation (MC).

Amit takes off his clothes, ritualistically touches the brim of a manhole and then enters it with the help of his colleagues. He reaches the floor of the 10-ft-deep pit and stands in four-feet deep sewage, ready for a battle against filth that lasts for 30 minutes to two hours.

Amit is not alone. His story is similar to that of over 900 contractual sewermen of the municipal corporation who enter the manholes, also known as hellholes, without any safety equipment over five times a month to open choked sewers. With the threat of death due to poisonous gases hanging above their heads, the sewermen have to risk their life to earn a measly Rs 7,346 per month.

Safety gear hardly there

The Ludhiana municipal corporation (MC) has a workforce of 1,768 sewermen (856 regular and 912 contractual). These men are responsible for keeping the sewerage system of the industrial capital functioning, ensuring that choked sewers get cleaned up and do not cause water logging.

However, the sewermen have to do all the cleaning without any safety equipment.

“Many times we suffer from skin rashes and severe itching because of the acid mixed in sewage. Industrial units throw chemicals, acid and hot water into the sewer system, creating a deadly combination,” said Amit, adding that with no support from the MC, they themselves have to arrange the bucket and hoe required for cleaning.

Law ignored, lives lost
  • As per the Supreme Court’s directive to states, and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, no one can make anyone enter a manhole. However, men continue to clean sewers manually, risking their lives.
  • Balram, a daily wager died of asphyxiation after he entered a manhole in the Daba area to open a choked sewerline.
  • Five sewermen of the civic body have lost their lives and nearly a dozen have had close encounters with death since 2012 while cleaning choked sewers in the city

Sharing a similar concern, another contractual sewerman Sonu said, “Skin cuts and bruises have become routine for us.” “Pieces of glass and other sharp objects lead to injuries when we enter manholes. Life is not easy for us, but we have no other option,” said Kamal, another sewerman.

On a lighter note, one of the men said, “Only the sewerline is ‘sarkari’, rest all is private, including us.”

Meanwhile, a junior engineer with the operation and maintenance department of the MC, Kamal Kumar, said, “We have some safety equipment for deep diving as sewermen sometimes enter more than 12-ft-deep pits inundated during the rainy season. There is a need for proper training and safety gloves, caps and gum boots for men who enter manholes.”

Pangs of poverty

Amit had spent over Rs 2 lakh on the treatment of his ailing wife. He took a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh from a private financer at an interest rate of 5%, for which he submitted his ATM card, bank pass book and other documents as security.

However, even the monthly interest on the loan comes out to be Rs 7,500, more than his monthly salary, which gets completely withdrawn by the financer every month, leaving Amit to struggle to make ends meet by doing menial jobs and his mother to work as a domestic help. To make matters worse, his salary, just like that of other sewermen, is credited to his account after much delay.

Sewerman, Manvir says they have not received their salaries for even the month of February.

A sanitation worker with a sewage cleaning machine at Sarabha Nagar in Ludhiana. (Amir Joshi/HT)

“I have to spend at least Rs 150 on undergarments every month as we do not reuse them once we come out of a manhole. Another Rs 30 is spent on soaps for a taking bath after coming out,” said Amit, adding that sometimes a few kind people offer them soap, bathing water and tea, while sometimes a few even refuse to offer them drinking water.

In the dark

The sewermen claimed the officials tell them that some amount is deducted from their salaries, but they are not aware of where the deducted money goes. No one has an Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) card or any other health insurance.

They said most of them suffer from chest infection, especially during rainy season, and have to foot medical bills from their meagre salary. Some of them say they do not even know whether they can avail the facilities of the ESIC hospital or not.

‘Politicians failed us’

A collective feeling among the sewermen is that politicians have used them as a vote bank. They said no contractual sewerman was regularised by the government after 1992.

“We simply can’t understand when the city is growing day by day, leading to more and more filth, why does the government not regularise our services and provide us a chance to live a life of dignity?” questioned Manvir.

Hope for better future

All the sewermen send their children to private schools as they believe that it will provide a chance to their wards for a better life. When asked why they don’t send their children to government schools, the sewermen said they don’t want their children to end up like them.

Sarkari pakki naukri tan private school vich padh ke mildi hai saabji (One can get a regular government job only by studying in a private school, Sir,” the men said.

First Published: Mar 16, 2018 13:36 IST