Sewer Rats

Imagine a man plunging into a 20-feet-deep sewer through its narrow mouth, holding his breath for over 30 seconds, scooping the filth inside with his bare hands or a shovel, and emerging from it, covered in muck. The only precaution he takes is to light a match over the hole sometimes, to detect the presence of toxic gases such as hydrogen sulphide or methane. Often he has simply no clue as to what lies deep inside the hole.

sewer cleaner

I have seen sanitation workers belonging to civic agencies in Chennai clean clogged sewers bare-bodied, with just a strip of cloth covering their loins. Their only lifeline is a belt, secured around the waist and attached to a rope held by someone outside the hole. Quite often the rope comes in handy to pull out the dead body, in case the diver dies of asphyxiation.

Official records of the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (Chennai Metrowater) confirm 17 worker deaths since 2003. But if the statistics of earlier years are taken into account, as also the number of sanitation workers from private agencies who have died, the figure would be much higher. And it would run into several thousands if you consider the country as a whole.

Workers who manage to stay alive aren’t in a much better position. They are vulnerable to respiratory ailments and skin infections. Contract sewer cleaner Munusamy draws attention to the raw open wounds on his limbs. He often finds broken pieces of glass and used syringes floating about in the sewer he cleans. He says they sometimes have to pick at used sanitary napkins and condoms with their bare hands. This exposes them to a range of diseases, hepatitis being just one.

Social activist A Narayanan, in a petition filed in the Madras High Court in 2008, sought a ban on manual sewer cleaning. He argued that it was akin to manual scavenging which was banned through legislation in 1993. In November 2008, the Madras High Court gave a landmark judgment instructing civic authorities not to let humans enter sewer holes.

Despite the court ruling, however, in January 2009, Ettaiyappan, a sanitation worker at Chennai Metrowater, died whilst cleaning a sewer. The 50-year-old worker did not use any safety equipment and died of asphyxiation. According to eyewitnesses, fire and rescue service personnel had a difficult time retrieving his body as the manhole was “very deep”.

Ettaiyappan’s death exposed the negligent attitude of the civic agency towards worker safety. As a punitive measure, Chennai Metrowater suspended the assistant engineer who was supposed to have supervised the cleaning operation.

S Purushothaman, a trade unionist organising sanitation workers, says field staff at Metrowater continue to justify the use of humans to clean sewers as machines cannot clear blocks properly. “After the court ruling, the civic engineers started making sewer cleaners work clandestinely in the evenings so that no one would notice them.” Indeed, Ettaiyappan died after sundown.

All sanitation workers who do this kind of work are dalits. Scheduled caste/scheduled tribe workers account for most, if not all, jobs involving contact with human refuse — sewer cleaning, clearing of municipal solid waste, and scavenging. In his affidavit, Narayanan mentions how these workers often drink alcohol before entering a manhole in order to cope with the stench of human waste.

Narayanan cited the Adi Dravidar and tribal welfare department as one of the respondents in his affidavit. “But the court neither summoned the department for a response, nor issued any specific orders to them calling for rehabilitation of sewerage workers,” he says.

Occupational health and safety is afforded the least priority by both civic authorities and workers, say lawyers N John Selvaraj and Beulah Selvaraj who regularly fight cases on behalf of sanitation workers and also head the Conservancy Workers Union. They say many of the city corporation’s scavengers suffer from leptospirosis (rat fever) because garbage bins are infested with rodents and they do not wear gloves.

According to them, civic agencies began contracting out sanitation and sewerage work after they were forced to cut administrative costs in order to repay the World Bank for infrastructure projects funded by it since 1996. “Once the civic agencies gave away work on contract, they did not bother to look into the working conditions,” John Selvaraj says. The death of a female worker due to poor safety arrangements, at the site of the Pallavaram sewerage scheme implemented by Chennai Metrowater, is well documented. The scheme was part of the World Bank-funded Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project.

Occupational health and safety has rarely been the subject of litigation concerning sanitation workers. Most deal with appointments, reinstatement of expelled workers, etc.

Lawyers say dalit workers are largely unaware of their rights in this regard, and being poor they readily agree to take up any job they are offered regardless of the risks involved.

Under the Workmen’s Compensation Act, there is a provision that allows workers to claim compensation for occupational hazards. But, according to advocate D Nagasaila of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the onus of proof in this case is on the worker. “Do the poor dalit workers have medical records to prove that their disease is due to the nature of their occupation? No. So they stand to get nothing in compensation,” she says.

Civic agencies anywhere in the state do not conduct regular medical camps or health check-ups for their workers. Sources at the Chennai Corporation say they conduct regular eye check-ups for some employees. Recently, the corporation introduced a health insurance scheme for its employees, but even this money can be used only for surgeries at major hospitals, a corporation employee said. Also, as contract workers they are not entitled to any of the medical benefits that permanent workers enjoy.

Chennai Metrowater, for its part, has introduced an accident insurance scheme for its contract workers. This, after two workers died of asphyxiation at the Kodungaiyur sewage pumping station in Chennai, in 2007. Several clauses relating to worker safety and provision of equipment are mentioned in the contract but these remain largely on paper, lawyers say.

Occupational health and safety has mostly been in the realm of industry and the organised workforce in India. This perhaps explains why there is no data available on the occupational health and safety of sanitation workers, most of whom are in the informal sector and employed on contract.

Earlier Supreme Court judgments have laid down that the right to health and medical assistance to protect workers whilst in service or after their retirement is a fundamental right, under Article 21. This, when read with Articles 39 (e), 41, 43, 48A and related articles are intended to make the life of the workman meaningful and purposeful.

A tale of two towns

“When labour is available cheap, there is little value attached to the worker’s life,” Selvaraj notes wryly. But, he adds, this discrimination must be viewed in the context of history.

During British rule, erstwhile Madras attracted a lot of dalit labourers. The city was divided into a distinct ‘white town’ and ‘black town’. ‘White town’ was developed to cater to the needs of the British and their Indian servants. Civic agencies were set up to create amenities for them, and the Brahmins and other educated classes, being upwardly mobile, took up white-collar jobs in the British regime.

‘Black town’ consisted of labourers, mainly dalits and indigenous people who set up amenities for the wealthy people. For the residents of ‘black town’, the jobs provided by the British brought in some income security. They saw these jobs as empowering rather than as a caste scourge.

Even today a large number of people belonging to the Adi-Andhra community (a scheduled caste) can be found employed in the Chennai Corporation. Their ancestors migrated to Chennai to work under the British.

Thus, the practice of dalits and tribals seeking employment in civic agencies in the city became the norm. It fell in line with the already existing caste system which reserved ‘dirty’ jobs for dalits.

Mechanisation as liberation

Today, the civic authorities have taken up mechanisation of sanitation work. But the process will take time, as dredging machines and other cleaning equipment are expensive and workers have to be trained to operate them. As previous Metrowater Managing Director Sunil Paliwal points out, the entire work culture of the agency will have to change. Supervisors, engineers and civic contractors will not alter their attitude in just a couple of days, he says.

Civil society intervention

Janodayam, a non-governmental organisation started in 1983 by G Israel, is one example of a successful civil society intervention to ensure the wellbeing of dalit workers. Hailing from a family of Adi-Andhra scavengers, Israel realised at a young age that sanitation workers had “appointments but no retirement”. This was because most of them died well before the age of retirement. He is now campaigning to dissuade members of his community from taking up sanitation work. “Today, many Adi-Andhra people are studying and doing teaching or clerical jobs. I have also managed to lobby for 50 seats for Adi-Andhra students in Loyola College where I studied,” he says.

Israel organised the scavenger community to fight for their employment rights. He was also instrumental in securing a 3% sub-quota, within the existing quota for scheduled castes, for the Arunthathiyars — the group name for less dominant dalit communities such as Chakkiliyar, Madhari, Thoti, Pagadai, Arunthathiyar and Adi-Andhra.

Challenges remain

For those who continue to do scavenging work, Israel says, the health challenges remain as very few sanitation workers use protective equipment such as face masks, gloves and gumboots while they work. He says even when workers are provided these things they tend not to use them as they are used to working with their bare hands. It is evident that there has been no effort at all to sensitise workers about safeguarding their health and wellbeing.

The challenges in rural areas are bigger as municipalities and panchayats are ill-equipped to improve infrastructure or invest in cleaning equipment, as in cities. Also, here the caste system is even more rigid and the progress of dalits suppressed by other caste Hindus.

Revathy, a member of the Arunthathiyars Human Rights Forum, conducted a health camp last year for sanitation workers in Sathyamangalam. She found that most manual scavengers suffered diseases like tuberculosis, and many women had gynaecological problems. Respiratory diseases were also common as was alcoholism both amongst men and women. Health camps are not enough to address these issues; work conditions must improve, she says.

Revathy says banning manual scavenging work only threatens the livelihood of workers. That is why workers are afraid to speak up against the unhealthy practice. “I have seen women sweepers who would like to change to a more dignified profession but hold on to their jobs as they often have no other source of income,” she says.

Political parties that claim to represent the cause of oppressed dalits have a long way to go. D Ravikumar, MLA of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, says candidly: “Parties like mine are not in a position to mobilise dalits on rights-based issues like health. It is easier to mobilise people on atrocities, for instance, but areas like health or education need a lot of ground work. Unfortunately, nobody, not even we, have the necessary data. The dalits who are taking up ‘dirty’ jobs today are completely marginalised.”

(Vidya Venkat is a Chennai-based journalist with The Hindu. Her series of stories on the plight of manual sewer cleaners in the city was admitted as evidence in the Madras High Court, among others, when a PIL sought a ban on men entering sewer holes. Taking cognisance of human rights violations, the court banned manual sewer cleaning in November 2008)

(Originally published in Agenda, a development journal brought out by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies, Pune in April, 2009. See link)

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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