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Life Below: India’s Sewers Can be Deadly for the Men Who Clean them by Hand

Although banned by the government, manual scavenging continues in India, presenting health hazards and stigma for the workers who clean the sewers.

GHAZIABAD, India – It is 5:00 in the morning as 21-year-old Jhonny Ghelot waits for his supervisor with a bucket, a crowbar, and rope-made safety belt near a manhole at Rajnagar sector 10 in Ghaziabad city, about 19 kilometers (12 miles) east of New Delhi.

Mr. Ghelot is a sanitary worker employed with the Ghaziabad Municipality, an urban local body in Uttar Pradesh. He dropped out of school when he was in the 9th year, joining sanitation work at the age of 18 to support his family of six.

When his supervisor, 40-year old Ratendra Singh, arrives on his motorbike with two other workers, it’s time for Mr. Ghelot to take off his clothes. A strap is tied across his chest, and with a bucket in his hand he descends into a manhole leading to a sewer.

Inside the neck-deep sewer water containing sludge, human excreta, plastic and few used condoms, he collects muck in the bucket as Dheeraj Kumar, 25, pulls out the rope attached to the bucket and dumps it alongside a nearby road.

It took Mr. Ghelot almost an hour to clean the accumulated sludge from the sewer. After passing on the last bucket, Mr. Ghelot signaled to Mr. Kumar to pull him up.

“I am done with my duty. Tomorrow Dheeraj will go inside and I will handle the rope,” Mr. Ghelot told The Globe Post. When asked when he was smiling he said, “I came out alive.”

Deaths inside the sewers

In the last three months more than 13 sanitary workers in India have died after inhaling toxic gases inside the sewers. On August 20, two sanitary workers died after inhaling positions gases inside a sewer at Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital in Delhi.

On August 12, two brothers died while cleaning a sewer at a shopping mall in Delhi’s Anand Vihar. Three other workers died a week earlier in a similar way while cleaning a Department of Delhi Jal Board drain in the Lajpat Nagar area.

Sanitation workers in India prepare a to clean a sewer.
Brijesh Kumar (left) handles the rope attached to the bucket, whereas Dheeraj Kumar (right) handles the rope linked to the safety belt tied across Johnny’s chest. Photo: Raqib Hameed Naik/The Globe Post

Manual scavenging in India is a century old practice that has continued despite a government ban.

In 1993, the Indian government enacted the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, which outlawed the employment of a person to manually carry human waste or the construction or maintenance of a dry latrine. Violating the law carries a punishment of up to one year in prison, or a fine.

In 2013, this was followed by the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, which is wider in scope and importance, acknowledging the urgency of rehabilitating manual scavengers. The law requires district magistrates to ensure that no person within their jurisdiction is employed as a manual scavenger, and that people already engaged in the practice are rehabilitated.

Despite the ban, manual scavenging continues unabated across India.

According to the Socio-Economic Caste Census in 2011, a total of 180,657 households are engaged in manual scavenging as a livelihood. Maharashtra tops the list with the largest number of manual scavenger households – 63,713 – followed by Madhya Pradesh (23,093), Uttar Pradesh (17,619), Tripura (17,332) and Karnataka (15,375).

Castes and discrimination

Manual scavengers in India usually come from groups which lie at bottom of the caste hierarchy called as Dalits and are expected to do menial work considered deplorable by upper castes. They are seen as “untouchable” and subjected to oppression. Among Dalits there is a sub-caste; Valmiki who are often hired by local bodies in urban areas or through private contractors.

According to the International Dalit Solidarity network, which has created an extensive database on caste-based discrimination, scavengers are rarely able to take up another occupation due to discrimination related to their caste and occupational status and are thus forced to remain scavengers.

Brijesh Kumar, 30, has been working for the Ghaziabad municipality since 2007, cleaning sewage lines, drains and septic tanks by hand. He says he is doing it to feed his wife and three kids. “Our work is dictated by our caste. People put a hand or cloth on their nose when they come near us,” he told The Globe Post.

Mr. Kumar said his 7-year-old daughter, who studies in a private school, sits in the last row of her classroom due to the stigma attached to his work.

“Teachers usually ask students about their parents’ profession, and I haven’t told my little girl about my job because she is too little to understand, but teachers there know about it,” Mr. Kumar said.

The discrimination against manual scavengers has become institutional. In 2014, Human Rights Watch interviewed 135 people, including 100 currently or previously working as manual scavengers in the Indian states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh for a report on discrimination against manual scavengers.

The report documented cases in which government village councils and municipalities recruit people based on caste to clean open-defecation areas.

“Those who do this work also suffer discrimination in other facets of their lives, including access to education, to community water sources, and to government housing and employment benefits. Human Rights Watch found that the police and other authorities fail to act on complaints by manual scavengers who have been threatened with violence, eviction, and other offenses,” the report said.

A woman in India shows a photo of her husband who died while working as a manual sewage cleaner.
Neelam showing a picture of her husband Raju who died due to asphyxiation inside a sewer in 2010. Photo: Raqib Hameed Naik/The Globe Post

In 2010, Mr. Kumar witnessed the death of one of his co-workers, Raju, who died inside a sewer after inhaling toxic gases.

“Some of the sewers are not opened for years altogether leading to the formation of different poisonous gases. The gases are so toxic that you can die within few seconds,” he said.

The lives of Raju’s wife Neelam and his three children were been shattered by his death. She was ill-treated by her in-laws, who she said withheld food if she didn’t do household chores. A few months after her husband’s death, Neelam was given his job by the municipal corporation as a humanitarian gesture.

“We didn’t even had a single penny to spend after his death. He used to earn 7500 rupees ($120) a month, which was hardly enough to meet the ends,” she told The Globe Post.

Neelam now lives with her three children in a one-room dwelling owned by the government in Rajnagar sector four.

She was fortunate to get her deceased husband’s job after his co-workers pressured the local urban authorities. In most cases where sanitation workers die on the job, their families get neither work nor compensation.

Manual scavenging brings health hazards

Workers who are fortunate enough to survive the toxic gases inside the sewers are dying a slow death due to other health hazards associated with their work. Inside the sewers, workers are continually exposed to gases like hydrogen disulfide, methane, ammonia and carbon monoxide. Studies have linked exposure to these gases lead to cardiovascular degeneration; musculoskeletal disorders like osteoarthritis changes and intervertebral disc herniation; infections like hepatitis, leptospirosis, and helicobacter; skin problems; respiratory system issues; and altered pulmonary function parameters.

Malkhan Singh, a 54-year old sanitary worker who lives in the Modinagar locality of Ghaziabad, has been suffering from respiratory tract problems due to the repeated exposure to the toxic gases inside the sewers. He has a bad cough and problems breathing during the night.

“It all started ten years ago and the problem is deteriorating day by day,” he told The Globe Post. Respiratory tract problems are common among sanitary workers who have to enter a sewer or septic tank, along with a host of other health-related issues.

“Skin allergies, digestive diseases are also common among the workers,” he said.

According to Ratendra Singh, 40, who supervises 35 sanitary workers, more than 90 percent of workers who enter sewers have respiratory tract problems and don’t live more than 60 years.

“During the early years they don’t have health issues except for the skin infections, but with the passage of times their houses become a hub of diseases not affecting them only but also their family members.”

Workers are given four soaps and a bottle of oil every month by the municipality to clean themselves after entering the sewers.

“The workers are not provided any medical support by the government. When they get injured while working, the officials shed off their responsibility and the worker has to spend his own money from the meager salary of  7500 rupees for treatment at the government hospital,” Mr. Singh told The Globe Post.

He said he has written many times to local authorities, political leaders and ministers, urging them to provide sanitary workers with proper gear, but the appeals have fallen on deaf ears. “This work can’t be done with a rope and a bucket. We need to save our lives for which we immediately need tools like, gas masks, gumboots, air blower and gloves.”

Equipment provided to manual sewer cleaners in India.
The local urban body in Ghaziabad gives each sanitary worker a bucket, a crowbar, and a safety belt to clean the toxic sewers. Photo: Raqib Hameed Naik/The Globe Post

The practice of manual scavenging is happening against the backdrop of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), a project started by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October 2014. It aims to make Indian urban and rural areas clean by 2019.

According to Bezwada Wilson, a human rights activist who has worked to put an end to manual scavenging in India, the Clean India Mission has created hurdles to ending the practice of manual scavenging.

“There is no political will by the successive governments in addressing this issue. The present government is more concerned about their clean India campaign and is least concerned about the practice of manual scavenging,” Mr. Wilson told The Globe Post.

“They are projecting it as a big thing and making people believe that something is happening, but nothing is happening. The prime minister is not bothered about addressing the issue of manual scavenging. Whatever efforts happened in the country in last few decades have gone back, whereas the rehabilitation of scavengers is concerned, it has gone completely out of the focus.”

During the celebration of the 125th birth anniversary of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a politician and social reformer who campaigned against social discrimination of Dalits, Mr. Modi said manual scavenging was a “blot” on society and an intolerable situation for poor people. But despite his calling for the complete eradication of the practice, little has changed on the ground.

Dr. Ramesh C. Agarwal is a retired academic who works to raise awareness among sanitation workers about the health hazards associated with manual scavenging. He has written to various local authorities about using technology to better clean sewers.

“Clogged sewer lines must be cleaned with forced pumps or suction pumps, no sanitary worker should get down in the sewer main holes. The technology available across the world for mechanical cleaning of sewer lines must be used,” he told The Globe Post.

Last month Mr. Agarwal sent a letter about the conditions of manual sewage workers to Mr. Modi, the union health minister, J Parkash Nadda, and Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, but he hasn’t heard back from any of their offices.

In September a group of sanitary workers and their supervisor Ratendra Singh tried to meet Mr. Adityanath but were stopped by the police.

“Governments come and go, but little has changed for us. We get the minimal salary despite doing the worst and difficult work in the country,” Brijesh Kumar said.

He fears that if there isn’t an immediate intervention by the government then he may meet the fate of his colleague Raju. “I don’t want to die young, inside a sewer,” he said.

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