Jaipur: “Pass the bucket from your left,” Deepak instructs Rahul as he keeps a close eye on his movements inside a manhole in the Nafis ka naka area in Jaipur. Once inside the hole, Deepak’s voice is the only guide to his whereabouts. Rahul responds to it quickly. Fully aware of the risks involved in getting inside these chambers, without any safety gear, workers like Rahul and Deepak mostly work in pairs.
As they proceed inside the narrow manhole, passers-by in the by-lanes of the busy street ask them to move aside. There is enough space behind Deepak but no one wants to be in the vicinity of either the manhole or the men cleaning it.
“My work has never bothered me. What angers me is when people behave as if there is latrine all over our bodies even when we wear clean clothes,” said Deepak.
The duo has been cleaning sewers and septic tanks for the last five years. They are employed by a private contractor and are only too aware of the dangerous conditions of their work. In February this year, two sanitation workers – Satish (26) and Raju (28) – employed by a contractor to clean a sewer pit at Kukarkheda Mandi in Jaipur died after they inhaled toxic gases inside the hole.
An FIR was registered under Section 304A (death by negligence) against Kailash Pareek, the private contractor, for causing the death of workers by not providing any safety gear before sending them inside.
“Satish was fully aware of the dangers of getting inside the sewer hole but since the chamber was kept open for a few hours, he was assured that the gas had escaped. He could have easily saved his life inside the chamber if he had an oxygen mask, but who cares for our lives?” Om Prakash, brother of the deceased sanitation worker, told The Wire. Ironically, a sewer machine was there when the incident happened but Satish and Raju had to get down into the manhole to clean it. In a cruel twist of fate, a JCB machine was later used to retrieve their bodies from the manhole.
SEWAGE: THE DEEPEST OF ALL PUBLIC UTILITIES
The sewer system is the deepest of all public utilities that lie beneath the road. It consists of main sewer lines, laterals and manholes. The main sewer lines in the streets are connected with branch lines to individual sewer points called laterals. This carries sewage from homes and other places to a treatment plant. Manholes are underground structures with heavy round covers that provide access to the sewer lines to inspect and clean them. Sewer jetting machines can only clean sewer lines; sanitation workers still need to get down manholes to clean them manually.
“A sewer jetting machine’s job is restricted only to pushing the accumulated waste water from one chamber to the next. After that, workers like us collect the semi-solid waste from the manhole manually and clear it,” Deepak, a private sanitation worker from Fauji basti, told The Wire.
The contractual sanitation workers say suction machines owned by contractors are capable of only handling liquid waste. On most occasions, a human being will need to get into a manhole that varies from four to twelve feet in depth, to clear it of solid waste, including human excreta.
Sewer cleaning work mostly operates on complaints registered with the municipal corporation but citizens, often in need of quick service, prefer individuals or private sewer cleaners.
“It’s exhausting for a person to make a complaint to the municipal corporation’s zone office and wait for days. So, they contact the private sewer cleaners but they don’t possess efficient sewage cleaning machine and get the work done manually. The big jetting machines are owned by the municipal corporation only,” Babu Lal, a private sanitation worker, says.
This could also mean a few extra rupees for those who decide to work on their own.
“If we go to clean the sewers through a contractor, he would pay us only the daily wages, but if we do the sewer cleaning work manually, in our individual capacity, it pays us Rs 1,000. Why would we say no?” said Mukesh Kumar, a private sanitation worker from Fauji basti.
Speaking to The Wire, Ramesh Meena, executive engineer at the Jaipur Municipal Corporation, said, “The entire sewer cleaning process in Jaipur is mechanised with the sucker and jetting machines. There may be some instances where silt accumulates but that doesn’t contain excreta. The jetting machines have an elongated pipe attached that can reach any locality.” Sanitation workers, though, underline that in many cases big machines are unable to go inside narrow lanes and elongated pipes also fall short.
'EXPERIENCE CERTIFICATE TO PROVE I CLEAN SEWERS'
For many like Deepak, the vicious cycle of dangerous work, a private contractor as an employer and pittance as pay is never ending. The only hope is a government job as a sanitation worker, where the dangers of the job are relatively less. With vacancies shrinking and strict conditions including an experience certificate needed from a previous employer, applicants like Sunny believe they have very little chance.
“We don’t receive any offer letter when we join work and the reason is that the employers want to remain protected from the claims we might ask for in case of injury or death,” said Sunny Bohith (23), employed at a hotel in Jaipur but also working as a manual scavenger to earn a little extra.
Many others in the Valmiki community find the prerequisite of an experience certificate “bizarre”.
“A Valmiki knows the art of cleaning since birth. What is the need of an experience certificate for our community to get a job in cleaning?” said Ramesh Damaria, a retired Jaipur Municipal Corporation employee from Kishan Ganj basti.
Shruti Jain is a freelance journalist.