Sickness, Shame and Death Haunt These Invisible Manual Scavengers
(This article has been republished from The Quint’s archives in the wake of yet another manual scavenging death in Delhi’s Dwarka. It was originally published on 4 November 2017.)
Deep Singh leaves home at 4:30 am everyday. The 55-year-old says that as he looks at the mirror before heading out, he is reminded of the lie that he lives. Deep’s wife has no idea that he has been working as a manual scavenger for the last ten years.
Raju left his Meerut home to go to work for the last time on 14 October 2010. A manual scavenger on a temporary payroll, Raju was told to go to Sector 23 in Sanjay Nagar, where a blocked drain needed clearing.
Raju entered the manhole without knowing that the manhole had too much liquid silt inside. As they made their way down the manhole, fumes of toxic gas began to rise. He managed to fill a bucket of the blockage, and gesture about the dangerous gases within before falling unconscious inside the drain.
Another manual scavenger, Ankit, rushed in. He managed to help Raju out, but fainted when he came in contact with the gas. Seeing this, Neeraj lowered himself into the drain. This repeated itself a few times, with every scavenger falling unconscious while trying to save the other. Meanwhile, Raju regained consciousness. He tried to help save Neeraj, but the gases proved deadly.
He was rushed to the nearest government hospital, in Sanjay Nagar Sector 23. At the Sanyukht Zilla Chikitsalya, Singh says, his friend was denied medical attention because the hospital lacked the required equipment. Raju was then taken to the Shivam Hospital in Raj Nagar, 1.5 km away. There too, he was turned down. Raju died as he was being transported to a private hospital (Sarvodaya Hospita), 4 km away.
Raju is survived by his wife, Neelam, and their three children. Neelam was given a job as a peon at the Nagar Nigam Pallika and has been allotted a one-room flat at the Sarkari Nigam Sewa in Sector 5.
She says that despite efforts by Raju’s former supervisor, Ratender Chauhan, their family has not been given any monetary compensation for his death.
Coping With Alcohol
Manual scavengers stare death in the face every day. Some die on the spot. But others, like Ravi, die a slow, drawn-out death.
Ravi Chauhan was hired by the North Delhi Nagar Nigam, as a Nalla Beldar (Sewer Worker) in 2002. Working inside a manhole is never an easy job, and the manual scavengers are usually given alcohol before their work. Ravi became an addict in no time.
The alcohol took a heavy toll. By 2015, Ravi was bed-ridden. On 29 October that year, he died of chronic liver failure.
He left behind his wife Anita, and children, Ashish and Shruti. Anita tells The Quint that Shruti went into depression after the death of her father. She can no longer study. We haven’t received any compensation, yet, Anita says. She wasn’t given a job either. She currently works as a domestic maid and barely manages to make ends meet.
I met Suresh and Malkhan Singh in Sector 10, Raj Nagar, Ghaziabad. Both are in their mid-50s and have been working as manual scavengers for the Nagar Nigam Palika for over two decades now.
Suresh, 55, began working as a manual scavenger in 1982 for a mere sum of Rs 210 per month. Between 1985-91, his salary was hiked to Rs 750/month. He was made a permanent employee in 1992, with a monthly salary of Rs 1,458. Today, he makes about Rs 25,000 a month.
In 2012, Suresh was sent to clean a sewer near the New Ghaziabad Railway Crossing. He inhaled toxic gas, which caused respiratory problems. In 2013, he was diagnosed with Herpes, which infected his left hand, causing partial paralysis.
He would undergo treatment in different private hospitals for his respiratory problems, but after the death of his wife in 2013, he sticks to his inhaler, resorting to older prescriptions if he needs to.
Fifty-two-year-old Malkhan Singh worked as a manual scavenger on a temporary payroll for 14 years, at a meagre salary of Rs 350 per month. Later, he was made a permanent employee, with a monthly salary of Rs 6,000. Two decades of manual scavenging have taken a toll on Malkhan’s health. He suffers from respiratory and heart problems, for which he undergoes treatment at the GB Pant Hospital in Delhi. His doctors have told him to get a pacemaker, but he can’t afford the surgery. “I spend about Rs 10,000 a month on medicines,” he says.
Thirty-year-old Brijesh worked at the Britannia Biscuit Factory before joining the Nagar Nigam Palika as a Nalla Beldar. In 2008, Brijesh joined the corporation as a sewer worker in the hope that the job would bring him both money and security. He thought it would be only a matter of time before he was put on the permanent payroll. But that hasn’t happened for Brijesh or any of the other temporary workers who were hired at the time for a monthly salary of Rs 7,500.
When Brijesh married Pooja later that year, he did not tell her about his job. It was only in 2017 that he came clean, after he began to notice his skin break out in rashes – something Pooja contracted too. Pooja is ashamed of the work he does, and forces him to bathe twice when he returns home. She says she refuses to share a bed with him on the days he has to enter the sewers.
Brijesh and Pooja have been prescribed Citrizine and Tocoderm cream for their skin rashes and itches.
Before he became a manual scavenger in 2007, Deep Singh used to work as a daily-wage labourer with no fixed income, something he hoped the sewer work would change.
In 2008, Deep was working inside a sewer full of water when he hurt his spine, climbing down the broken stairs in the sewer. It cut him, leaving him with a 2-inch deep scar.
The injury left him unable to work for over two months. His supervisor Ratender helped him get two months of salary and some part of his medical bills. Deep can no longer lift heavy objects. Seeing his condition, the GM at Nagar Nigam Palika, Babu Lal, appointed him supervisor on 28 December 2012. It didn’t last. Deep was removed from the post the following March after his appointment sparked discontent among the union members.
Deep still works as a manual scavenger; but he no longer enters the drains. He has been married for 30 years, and has three children in their mid-20s; but keeps his job a secret from his family. He hopes he will never have to tell them about his work.
When asked about his retirement, he says: “Jab tak saans hai, tab tak aans hai. Humare kaam mein koi retirement nahi hoti. (I’ll work for as long as I live. In our line of work, no one retires)”.
India’s Best Kept Secret
Manual scavenging was banned in 1993, but continues across the country. Those who take up the job, do so in the hope of a better future. Health issues related to breathing problems and skin allergies are very common among these workers.
Ratender Chauhan supervises 35 manual scavengers. On paper, the Jal and Sewer Board hires these men as sewer workers, and denies employing them as manual scavengers. But the reality remains that all these workers are made to work inside the sewers. Ratender is informed via text messages about the drains that need to cleaned/unblocked.
Ratender says he tries to give lighter workloads to the workers who are in their 50s and above. He says he also helps them file petitions and works to help improve the abysmal conditions they work in.
According to existing regulations, each sewer worker must be given 30 items to ensure their safety. But these workers are only given a safety rope, he says. No mask, no shoes, no covered overalls for safety – nothing is issued.
On the day I met Ratender and his workers, they had cleaned five drains in the morning shift.
Among the workers is 32-year-old Kuldeep, who joined this line of work after he lost his job at a Bisleri factory. I’ve entered the sewer twice today, Kuldeep tells me. It is 6 am and he is shivering.
Kuldeep likes to sing and crack jokes to lighten the mood while he works. Today, he is singing the nursery rhyme: “Machli jal ki raani hai, Jeevan uska paani hai”.