By Upagupt Mohanty

It is not that you love everything about your 9 to 5 job. There is something or the other you dislike, be it your Know-it-all Boss, shallow team relationship, a foolish customer or a slow watch. Would you be thankful to celestial forces that you are not in the job which I am going to relate?

It’s the sanitation worker’s job. The workers get into or emerge from stinking gutters even with filth clinging to their bodies. With long wooden sticks they clear jams from the septic tanks in housing colonies. Their partners at work carry the dirt in small round baskets on their heads to throw it away from the habitable places. Once the cleaning process starts, it continues for more than 4-5hrs on the minimum side depending on the size of the sewerage system. Imagine the condition of these workers. On the slightest smell from our own bodies, we use different body deodorants or perfumes to escape the smell. Shouldn’t we consider these sanitation workers as heroes in real life as they risk their lives to provide good life to others?

Sanitation workers are employed by civic bodies such as the Water Board, Public Works Department (PWD), Municipal Corporations etc. These workers for generations have been toiling, untiringly, risking their health and life all the time to ensure maintenance of the sewerage system. In return what do they get… hurt, exploitation and above all the tag of untouchability. Damn! The worst examples of division of work turning into deep rooted casteism.

No exit from the death tunnel: There are lots of death cases of sanitation workers while at work. This year in the month of May, there was news about how two sanitation workers died of suffocation while cleaning a sewer line of the Public Health Engineering Organisation (PHEO) at IRC village. To unblock the sewer line near Sapneswar Temple at IRC village Manas, Bibhuti and Kapil (younger brother of Manas) were hired by a contractor. First, Bibhuti entered the manhole but did not return. He became unconscious by the rush of poisonous gases and fell inside the sewer. Anxious and sensing trouble, Manas went into the manhole and did not return as he met the same fate. Next was Kapil who waited for 15 minutes but neither Bibhuti nor Manas showed up. So he took assistance from some locals and pulled out their bodies from the manhole.

The deaths of these two men in Odisha are another reminder of the alarming frequency with which loss of lives across sewers have been happening nationwide in recent time. This year in the month of July, news had surfaced in a premier national news daily about 39 deaths across the country in 100 days while cleaning sewers. Perhaps, if the contractors would have implemented the laid down safety protocols and provided gears to the sanitation workers before asking them to enter sewage lines, all these deaths could have been averted. The Indian Law, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, prohibits anyone from allowing a human to go into a sewer.

Despite the ban and hazards, dangers at work, the poor payment and low compensation (in case of death), a family of sanitation workers working near a posh society expressed its helplessness. It was quite a task to get into the inner core of their minds. They didn’t let us videograph a candid conversation with them but this is how it went:

My first question was to Ramesh Mallik (father of the family). Do you know that manual scavenging is now illegal as there is a ban? Looking confused, he replied “Sir, I am not educated but I wanted my children to get educated so I did this job. But time and money had a different story in store for me. Is actually there a ban on such work? Nobody told me earlier. Even if there is, how would we survive as we have no alternative”

Tarun Mallik (eldest son) was asked, “What hurdles do you face at work?” He replied “ We work under unhygenic conditions, we know that there is filth and human excreta, at times we even find dead dogs and rats. A normal person cannot stand the nauseating stench and usually we take alcohol to tolerate it. We even find broken bottles sometimes which injure us while working” he replied showing scars on his legs.

Arun Mallik (youngest son) was asked “There are other kinds of work but why do you still do such a hazardous job?” With a smile he replied “We have been doing this work, following father’s footsteps. With no education, there is not much we can do to earn our bread. So we carry on with our work, despite the health hazards we face. We do not get any medical or insurance benefit like others as we work on a daily wage”.

Sabita Malik (mother) was asked “Do you know that while working you need to put on safety gears like mask, gloves, rubber boots etc as standard safety measures?” Shouldn’t the contractor provide for your safety? No Sir, we rather use our hands to do our work and the heavy gear even adds difficulty to our work. Despite cleaning with soap, when we use that hand to eat food then everything smells like sewage. Still, we eat to be alive and to go on to the next day’s work… who cares for our pain. Instead of a few good words on completing dangerous task, people especially corrupt persons like contractors and supervisors misbehave with us” she replied in an irritated manner.

Usually the sanitation workers are hired by private contractors for a meagre wage of Rs 300-400 a day, at times luring them with an extra amount of Rs 50- 100. Most of the time these workers are not given safety equipment such as masks, gloves, glasses etc, mandatory for people while undertaking the task under hazardous circumstances. They clean soiled toilets, sewage tanks which emanate unbearable stench. In our lifetime, we need doctors, lawyers and architects but there certainly are times when, we need sanitation workers too, these sanitation workers are the hands that take care of us putting their lives at risk. Imagine how our country would look like, if we didn’t have such heroes, obviously a garbage bin or sewer puddle. We talk about smart cities but have we addressed the ancient system of maual scavenging? The question keeps lingering on my mind.


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