Stuck in obscurity

Thousands die every year de-clogging the sewerage lines despite court orders for safety measures and restricted use of manual labour for the demeaning job
Sunday, June 10, 2012
A memorial to sanitary technician man in Russia. In India, manhole workers are treated as untouchables. Photo by: Vladimirovich//Wikicommons

On June 1, two sewerage workers died after entering a manhole in Lucknow city due to inhalation of methane gas from the sewer. Not even a simple rope was available at hand which could have been thrown in to pull the men out. The workers, both in their 20s, were engaged by a private contractor to clean the manhole before operationalisation of the new civil lines laid down by the Lucknow Jal Nigam.

This may seem like another accident, but every year thousands of men die after inhaling the toxic fumes from sludge flushed by million of homes, industries and offices of urban India. The collective mass of waste emits a cocktail of hydrogen sulphide - even 600 parts per million of which can cause unconsciousness - methane, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and ammonia. Within a span of 52 days (April to July 2005), 16 manhole workers lost their lives in Gujarat.

The collective mass of waste emits a cocktail of hydrogen sulphide - even 600 parts per million of which can cause unconsciousness - methane, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and ammonia. Within a span of 52 days (April to July 2005), 16 manhole workers lost their lives in Gujarat.

According to data procured by the Safai Kamgar Vikas Sangh, 288 workers died in 2004-05, 316 in 2003-04, and 320 in 2002-03, in just 14 of the 24 wards of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. However, these figures are much below the actual deaths since most of them go unreported or are categorised as accidents. Adding insult to the injury, the sewage workers, instead of being applauded for their work, are considered untouchable even in death. In 2006, two workers died of asphyxiation in Benares, Uttar Pradesh. Instead of a decent burial and adequate compensation to their families, the bodies were thrown in a garbage van. After a hue and cry was raised, the bodies were picked up and buried right in front of the mud houses of workers.

Immersing themselves into the most harmful of chemical sludge, death due to asphyxiation is just one of the occupational hazard sewage workers face. Several of them suffer from occupational diseases including infections, skin problems, Hepatitis A, respiratory problems, gastric cancer and spinal abnormalities due to the crouching position in which they have to work. It is for this reason that periodical medical check up and insurance cover are essential. To ensure dignity to this essential workforce, provision of comfortable housing and education for their children have also been mandated but all the promises remain on paper.

Immersing themselves into the most harmful of chemical sludge, death due to asphyxiation is just one of the occupational hazard sewage workers face. Several of them suffer from skin problems, Hepatitis A, respiratory problems, gastric cancer and spinal abnormalities due to the crouching position in which they have to work.

What's needed today are scientific studies to analyse the risk associated with this work to press for better working conditions and compensation. Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) needs to research on the diseases that a sewerage worker can contract and their direct as well as indirect impact on quality of life. Manual scavenging has been abolished according to law but because of sheer poverty, sewage workers are still compelled to immerse themselves in the shit and piss of millions, contracting all kinds of diseases as well as the status of untouchables. If civic bodies can spend crores on beautification of roads, development of green belts, why can't funds be spent to buy new machines which can spare humans from doing the hazardous work?

Fight for the rights of sewerage workers has been going on for quite some time and though the court has intervened in the best possible manner, there is little progress made on the ground. On February 15, 2006, the Gujarat High Court came up with a sound judgement stressing on use of machines and disallowing anybody from entering a manhole unless it is absolutely necessary. Sampling of gas and water needs to be done to ensure there is no health risk, safety equipment including oxygen mask, googles, gum boots, helmet etc should be given to the workers and the higher official should give the order for operation in writing making the civic body and himself liable for any accident.

The Gujarat High Court came up with a sound judgement stressing on use of machines and disallowing anybody from entering a manhole unless it is absolutely necessary. Sampling of gas and water needs to be done to ensure there is no health risk, safety equipment should be given to the workers. 

However, despite the court order, 26 manhole workers died in just one year after the judgement in Gujarat. Another PIL has now been filed in the court since none of the directions given in the judgement including constitution of safety committees, procurement of advanced cleaning equipment and adoption of protective measures have been implemented on ground.

In another case (Delhi Jal Board versus National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and Allied Workers & others) filed by the Human Rights Law Network, the Delhi High Court passed an order in 2008 criticising the Delhi government and the State apparatus for  being insensitive to the safety and wellbeing of sewerage workers and directed them to compensate the families of the deceased to the tune of Rs 1.71 lakh. However, the authorities remained adamant and Delhi Jal Board challenged the decision in the Supreme Court. The apex court, in its order passed in July 2011, dismissed the petition and increased the compensation amount to Rs 5 lakh.

Sadly, most civic bodies in the country are shrinking from their responsibility by subcontracting most of their work including that of sewerage cleaning thus worsening the condition of workers. The job remains as hazardous, but there is no guarantee of a compensation, safety equipment and other precautionary measures. The voice of protest is also shrinking since the contract system ensures curbs on formation of workers' union which could press for their demands.

H P Mishra heads Ahmedabad-based Kamdar Swasthya Suraksha Mandal, which filed a civil petition for rights of sewerage workers in Gujarat High Court.

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