'Every Time I Go Inside a Sewer, I Fear the Worst': A Sewer Cleaner in Delhi

The 20-year-old belongs to the Valmiki community, and asks why “only members of my community have to do this work?”

2 min read

(This report was first published in April 2022. It is being republished as part of The Quint's special series HELLHOLE: The Reality of Manual Scavenging in India)

Sachin Kumar, like his father, cleans sewers in the national capital. Once every few days, he covers his mouth with a cloth mask and goes inside a manhole for Rs 400 a day. “Every time I go in, I fear the worst: 'Will I come back home alive?'” he says.

Seated inside his one-room house in north Delhi, Sachin has a different set of dreams for his baby boy, Lavyansh.

“I don’t want my son to do the work that my father did and that I do now. I want him to be a doctor, no matter how much money it costs,” he says.

The 20-year-old belongs to the Valmiki community and asks why “only members of my community have to do this work?” He says, “Why don’t other communities do this job too? Why is it us? Only because we belong to a ‘lower’ caste?”

'Usually Don't Get Any Protective Gear'

Often, when Sachin gets a call from a contractor to clean a sewer, he finds himself without any protective equipment. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act 2013, however, lists at least 44 pieces of protective gear that “any person engaged to clean a sewer or a septic tank shall be provided by his employer, protective gear and safety devices.”

These include breathing apparatus, chlorine mask, emergency medical oxygen resuscitator kit, first-aid box, face mask, full-body wader suit, hand gloves, head lamp, life-guard pad, nylon safety belt, and safety goggles, among other things.

Sachin says, “I usually don’t get any protective gear. If the contractor gives it, I will use it. There are all kinds of things swimming inside a sewer, including all kinds of insects.”

'Have Watched Others Die'

He was in his late teens when he had to quit school to take up a job as a daily-wage labourer. “My father did the same work, and soon, he took to drinking heavily. He would beat up my mother and spend all his money on alcohol.”

To put food on the table, Sachin quit school and started working as a daily-wage labourer. Soon, he found himself cleaning sewers.

“I feel fear, I do. I have watched others die of inhaling poisonous gases from the sewer in front of my eyes. I don’t work for days or even a month, but I must resume work eventually. It’s about livelihood, after all, and so fear takes a backseat,” he says.

(Watch the video above for Sachin's full story.)

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