The Hole in India’s Heart

Nobody cares about workers who die cleaning sewers in abysmal conditions

We boast of great scientific feats. We have sent a space mission to orbit Mars. Our submarines can hit any target in the world with nuclear weapons. Yet, our scientific priorities are so twisted that we have not bothered to build enough mechanical cleaners to unclog our drains. Lakhs of manual cleaners — almost all Dalits — still work chest-deep in the muck.

Anybody who has seen these workers will shudder with horror. The sight of a human entering a sewer full of stinking muck is sickening. But nothing is done about it. Many workers are killed every year by poisonous sewer gases.

Last week, one more worker was killed cleaning a drain in Delhi. The contractor had not provided safety gear. The workers had to clean out the muck with their bare hands. After one of them died, the police registered a case of manslaughter against the contractor. The bigger question is: why is even a single manual worker sent into drains when mechanised cleaning is mandated by the Supreme Court?

In 1993, the Supreme Court banned manual cleaning of latrines and manual carrying of excreta, describing them as an affront to human dignity. In 2014, it ordered state governments to stop manual cleaning of sewers and latrines and rehabilitate displaced workers. Recognising that drains and sewers can be death traps, the court permitted manual entry only in emergencies, after providing safety gear like facemasks, goggles, gumshoes, gloves and safety belts, and an ambulance standing by in case of mishaps.

None of these safety measures was taken in last week’s tragedy. Tragically, that is normal.

Smart Sanitation

Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to create a series of smart cities. Why not start with smart sanitation? Why not have electronic systems that detect imminent clogging of drains and sewers, and automatically clean them by mechanical means? The cost is modest. But the political will is missing.

Bezwada Wilson, winner of the Magsaysay Award and head of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, told the Times of India recently ( TxTuY8) that over 200 workers died in drains in 2017 and 2018. “We must mechanise sewage cleaning. Our sewer systems vary from one city to another. Some are over 150 years old. Many small towns and older parts of metropolitan India have complex sewer networks that run below narrow lanes. We need to use mini-sucker machines and robotic equipment. They are available in India. Even after 70 years of Independence, we have not moved one inch in mechanising our sewers.” This is not just a sanitation issue, he declared, but one of human rights.

Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign has focused on stopping open defecation. That is a worthy aim. But so surely is getting all workers out of sewers. Official data say there are around 7 lakh safai karamcharis cleaning latrines and sewers. Wilson claims there are far more. In one interview, he estimated the number at 25 lakh, including 1.6 lakh women.

On The Big Screen

Some years ago, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Marathi film, Court, was India’s entry for the Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. It did not succeed there, but won many other awards. It narrates the story of a safai karamchari who dies in a sewer.

Instead of arresting the contractor, the police call it a case of suicide and arrest Narayan Kamble, a social activist and protest singer, for abetting suicide. A witness testifies he saw the manhole worker singing Kamble’s songs. The police hate Kamble for being a left-wing agitator, and are happy to lock him up on one ground or another.

The public prosecutor informs the court that Kamble possessed two banned books. Defence counsel Vora replies that one book is on yoga, and the other one is a critique of rituals of the Goyamari sect. For this, Vora gets beaten up by some Goyamaris.

The worker’s widow testifies that her husband cleaned manholes without any safety equipment, and had already lost one eye from exposure to poisonous sewer gases. She admits he was an alcoholic, but denies that he ever talked of suicide. The autopsy report suggests that the worker was killed by poisonous gases, with no sign of self-harm.

Kamble is in very bad health and gets bail. But he is then re-arrested for promoting sedition under the cover of conducting folk-artist workshops. The case drags on and on. Even as Kamble’s health worsens steadily in jail, the prosecutor gets busy with his own personal issues, the defence lawyer does the same, and the judge goes on leave, enjoying a holiday.

These are not bad people. But they are cogs in an utterly callous policejudicial wheel, each going through the motions of justice without providing any.

Despite winning awards, did Court sensitise voters to the horrors of sewer work? Did it result in a public outcry to force state governments to end this terrible practice? Alas, no. We all readily condemn the plight of manhole workers, but then change the conversation to the entry of Priyanka Gandhi into politics, our cricket team’s performance in New Zealand, and the chances of Modi winning the next election.

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