The birdwatcher

bar headed geese
Bar-headed geese. Picture credit: Flickr

One winter morning in 1968, on one of his weekend ‘birding’ trips, an unsuspecting Theodore Baskaran was crouching by the bund of the Devarayan Lake near Tiruchirapalli, when a skein of bar-headed geese emerged from the skies. Dropping their wings, they landed on the placid waters of the lake, a few meters from where he was.

A fledgling birdwatcher since his college days, Baskaran could recognise them immediately. They were rare visitors to South India, coming in search of food from snow-bound Ladakh. Today, at 66, after more than four decades of bird watching, the retired civil servant recalls this encounter with a feeling close to awe. “Looking at those lovely geese while I was all by myself was a spiritual experience,” he says.

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Every refugee longs to return home

The Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfeRR) has completed 25 years of work among Sri Lankan refugees in the State who narrowly escaped from the ethnic war in the island nation.

Its founder, S.C. Chandrahasan spoke to Vidya Venkat about the hopes of the refugees and the future he envisions for the Tamils, now that the military operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has concluded.

SC Chandrahasan
S.C. Chandrahasan. Picture credit: The Hindu

The memory of his father, Thanthai Chelvanayagam, sitting on the verandah of their ancestral home in Tellipalai in northern Sri Lanka, is still vivid in the memory of Mr. Chandrahasan. Living as a refugee in Tamil Nadu since August 1983, he says,

“I am told that place where my house once stood is a jungle now. Branches of trees have invaded our rooms through its open windows…”

Running OfeRR out of the terrace of a building in Egmore, he says he retained the makeshift roof here to remind himself that he is a refugee after all and one day he must move.

Being on the wrong side of the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE forced this lawyer and social activist to flee the island nation.

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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)

Face of the third gender

priya babu
Priya Babu

Five years ago, transgender rights activist Priya Babu had filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court demanding voting rights for her community. Ahead of the next general elections, a majority of transgender persons in Tamil Nadu possess voter ID cards that designates them a gender of their choice.

“That our community persons have received voter’s identity and ration cards is a very encouraging development. It is a sign that society is accepting us the way we are, at last,” Priya Babu says.

From a life of invisibility and marginalisation, Ms. Babu has come a long way. For someone who was once the pet son of her mother, the realisation that she was not a man, changed the course of her life. She was trafficked from her hometown Tiruchi to a red-light area in Mumbai, where she lived as a sex worker for many years. Rescued by the then municipal commissioner of Mumbai, G.R. Khairnar, she took to social activism later.

Today, she participates in political meetings and conducts awareness programmes on issues concerning transgender persons for college students and police personnel.

With an estimated population of nearly two lakh in the State, transgender persons are an important vote bank, though dispersed across towns. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi has an ‘Aravani Ani’, Bharatiya Janata Party has started admitting them as members and Vijayakant’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam has given them memberships.

“Political empowerment is necessary for transgender persons. It is one way of making our presence felt,” she asserts.

Ms. Babu is also petitioning the Centre for a nominated seat in the Lok Sabha. “Only if we have representation in the Central and State governments, can we bring about tangible change in the lives of transgender persons.

Most of them are today condemned to a life of begging and sex work due to lack of education and employment opportunities,” she says.

Tamil Nadu is far more progressive than other states as colleges are giving admission to transgender persons and the recently opened Welfare Board has been extending financial and other assistance, she adds. She also expresses hope that government hospitals will continue to perform sex-change surgeries for the benefit of the community as had recently been done at the Government General Hospital.

Ms. Babu also draws attention to the emergence of transgender authors in the literary scene in Tamil Nadu.

The books by transgender writers Revathi and Vidya are popular, she says. She herself has authored two books so far.

The first book ‘Aravanigal Samuha Varaiviyal’ is an ethnographic study of the community that explores the member’s secret societies, ritual practices, and belief systems.

The second book ‘Moonrampaalin Mugam’ is about the emotional journey of a mother and son after the son discovers his transgender status.

“The second book was widely appreciated within the community as I had detailed the suffering of our community persons at the hands of moneylenders, police personnel and clients,” she says.

But she is not stopping at that. Working on a third novel dealing with transgender sexuality, her plea to society is: “Nobody is asking for heaven, but at least don’t push us into hell.”

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition, Mar 09, 2009)

A life of dirt, danger, drudgery



Twenty rupees is all he gets for plunging into a manhole from which there is no guarantee of returning alive. Sami* does it nevertheless, oblivious to the neat people walking past him on the road, holding their noses.

He does it bare-bodied, save for a loin cloth to cover his manhood and a belt secured around his shoulder and waist, which a helper holds by a jute rope. Only, he prays to his kuladeivam (clan God) Muneeswaran before taking a dip into the sooty black waters of the sewer tank.

Eyes and mouth shut tight, he dives deep into the 15-foot deep tank. Besides human waste, such things as blades, knifes, pet bottles and discarded sanitary napkins and condoms clog the drains. These he scoops with his bare hands.

Thirty-five seconds later, he emerges from the hole, hands filled with waste matter. He looks up, his hair and moustache dripping with sewage water and says: “Don’t look so surprised. I have been doing it for five years now.”

“If you can hold your breath for long and not be fussy about dirt, you can do this job,” he says. The over-200 men who clean these toxic gas chambers in the city for Chennai Metrowater are employed on contract.

They say they are denied the benefits of a permanent employee despite putting in four to five years of regular service.

Several of them, including Sami, are poor tribals who migrated to the city in search of work years ago. They have settled in localities such as Tambaram, Nerkundram and Koyambedu in the city.

Sami said they clean 15 sewer tanks per day for ten days a month. The work is divided between three to four cleaners in every depot. “Sundays are off, and we don’t get paid for it,” he adds. Thus, he makes a little over Rs.3,000 a month.

Being contract labourers, sewer cleaners say, they suffer several disadvantages at work. “The contractor keeps changing every six months or so and there are no fixed terms of employment,” says Nathan*, another cleaner.

“Cleaners often get trapped in the narrow passages within the sewer tank. Sometimes we hurt ourselves against the rough edges of the drain. Blades and used syringes pierce our hands,” he adds.

He drew attention to the five different injury marks on his arms.

There have been occasions when deaths and serious injuries have gone unreported, he says. Sometimes, cleaners have dropped the heavy metal lids of the manhole on their feet, crushing them. But they do not have access to medical assistance which permanent workers enjoy.

Sewer cleaners say for several years now no new workers have been recruited and that they are overworked. “When there is a shortage of labour we are summoned to other depots for work when drains get clogged there,” he says.

Sami says officials at the Metrowater depot do not even provide them a soap to bathe with and he carries his own sunnambu soap. There are days when he cannot find enough time to clean himself before lunch. “On such days I sit on the pavement outside the hotel and eat. No one would let me in like this,” he says, pointing to his soiled self.

(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition on Jul 06, 2008)