(Charkha Features) - Underground sewers are a necessary facility in our cities, but these black holes are taking away the light from the lives of sewer cleaners. When monsoons come to Delhi, over-flowing sewers are not far behind.

In many places in Delhi, over flowing sewers create hell-like conditions causing immense inconvenience to people. And this scene is repeated every year. But these sewers are also death traps. In order to clean these gas-filled sewers, poor daily wage labourers are made to climb down into their poisonous depths. It is not surprising that some of them die or contact many deadly diseases. Even though MCD spends millions of rupees on this work, every year it's the same story. And the corporation never takes into consideration the condition of those poor labourers who almost always risk their lives when they clean these sewers.

Around 200-300 people are expected to die every year by suffocation in sewers. Those who survive the suffocation live a life of hell because of the poisonous wastes present inside sewers. Compiled figures from differences sources on sewer lines put estimates of people involved in India in cleaning sewers at around 2 million.

Data suggest that in last one and half years, 22 labourers died while cleaning sewers in Delhi. In just one and half months, 10 labourers died while cleaning sewers in the capital. Four of them died in Wazirpur in June and July 2004 and two in Samaipur Badli.

The parents of Ajay, who died in the sewer accident four months back, are yet to recover from the shock of the death of their son. His mother says that she cannot believe that her 20-year-old son is no more. She holds a paper that shows that the Government offered her second son a job, to compensate for the death of their first son.

Civil society groups are now stepping up efforts to ensure the rights and safety of the cleaners. A seminar organized by the collaboration of social and non-governmental organizations saw the issue being discussed. Participants stressed the fact that labourers with no safety devices or life-saving instruments were being forced to clean these sewers. The deaths of such cleaners are preventable and must not be seen as accidents. According to Subhas Gatade, the coordinator of this movement, in most of the cases the dependents of these dead workers don't even get compensation.

After a series of deaths, Delhi Water Board ordered that sewers should be cleaned in the presence of engineers of the Water Board. But no officers or engineers were present when the sewers of Wazirpur or Samaipur Badli were being cleaned. The irony is that even now about two dozen deep sewers are being cleaned in Delhi but no safety measures are observed and no responsible officers from Delhi Water Board are present during the operation.

As these sewers are closed for a long duration many poisonous and suffocating gasses like carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide and methane are formed in them. It should be noted that not only domestic wastes but wastes from factories are also present in these sewers. Today, even ordinary homes use large amounts of chemicals to clean the floors and bathrooms. Sewer waters contain a large amount of grease, many types of chlorides and sulphates, mercury, glass components, ammonia and many other chemicals. Once the skin comes in contact with these poisonous chemicals, boils and burns are common. There are strong chances of asthma and lung infection because of the nitrate present. Chromium in the sewer water leads to nose and lung infections. The high temperature inside sewers aggravates the situation.

A survey conducted in Delhi suggested that 49 percent of the cleaners are suffering from breathing problems, cough and pain in the chest and 11 percent from dermatitis, eczema and skin infections. 32 percent complained that constant and long contact with sewer water causes ear problems and ear infections and burning of the eyes and bad eyesight. Lack of appetite is their common disease.

However, these figures have not encouraged any effort from the Government. Also, information about the hazards to the life of sewer cleaners has not been disseminated to social organizations. A few years ago, Kaamgaar Swasthya Suraksha Mandal, an organization from Ahmedabad, did some minimal work in this area. (The writer conducted the survey over 6 months, covering about 300 families, with assistance from volunteers.)

According to Jitendra from Trinagar, anyone involved in sewer cleaning can work only for 10 to 12 years. After that, the body is no longer remains fit for this kind of work. But what they are supposed to do if they get no other work?

Because cleaners belong to the unorganized daily wage sector, no one is really concerned about ensuring their safety.
Stinky smell, filth and the uncertainty of their job gets them addicted to alcohol. Before entering into the manholes, they get drunk so that they cannot feel the filth around them while working. It is a known fact that after alcohol intake, the oxygen content in the body decreases, and with almost no oxygen inside deep sewers, the cleaners could easily suffocate. Rameshwar, a worker from Bihar who cleans a manhole in Lajpat Nagar, tells us that if they enter the manhole without getting drunk they would start vomiting, so it is not possible for them to work without being drunk.

There are many laws related to safety measures to protect cleaners. Government guidelines say that sewer cleaners must be provided with instruments to check poisonous gasses, blowers to throw out polluted air, torch, gloves, glasses, ear cap, and helmet. It is the responsibility of the working agency to arrange for their drinking water, soap for bathing, water and space for the workers after they complete their cleaning. But in reality safety measures are not implemented. Because cleaners belong to the unorganized daily wage sector, no one is really concerned about ensuring their safety.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has issued strict orders in this aspect, but it remains an order on paper, never implemented. Most of the work of sewer leaning in Delhi and other cities is in the hands of contractors who keep labourers on temporary basis. To top this dismal situation, sewer cleaners face social distancing. People do not want to marry their daughters to them.

Discussions about sewer cleaners usually revolve around the issues of untouchability and harassment, with no attention to their real and practical problems. The solution lies, not in political and intellectual debates, but in providing the workers with the safety measures and the most essential economic support.