Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dying for a living

Every morning in newspapers all across the country, a small news item routinely appears: ‘Sweeper dies in manhole’, or ‘Sewerage worker drowns in septic tank’. The story is given a different headline every day, as the journalists play with words. Most readers do not bother to read the item, which is often just an official report stating the bald facts. I too was guilty of skimming over the items for many years of my life.

Then, in 1998, whilst writing the book Endless Filth, on manual scavenging, the news items came to life when I visited the home of one such casualty, a young Gujarati boy called Hasmukhbhai, in Wadhwan, Gujarat. Barely 19 years of age, Hasmukh died in a manhole. He had recently celebrated the fact that he’d bagged his first contract -- to clean a septic tank for the princely sum of Rs 300. He bought breakfast for friends who were helping him, for Rs 50. He would have to pay them Rs 50 each for the work he’d done. That left Rs 100 for him. He hoped to wheedle an extra Rs 100 from the owner, if the job went smoothly.

The day started well. At 19, Hasmukh was the oldest and in charge. His 16-year-old helpers stood aside as he opened up the manhole cover and waited for the gas to escape. Then the bucket slipped out of his hand and disappeared into the hole. Cursing, Hasmukh bent down, groping about for the bucket. The gas rushed up and he fell inside, unconscious. He never even knew what hit him. It was half-an-hour before he was hauled out with a rope. It was too late. Hasmukh was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. His family will never know if he died choking on the gas, or drowned in liquid shit.

Hasmukh’s story made me think about the issue seriously, for the first time. Drowning in liquid shit is what happens to at least 22,327 sanitation workers every year. All belong to the balmiki community.

Human beings shrink from any contact with faecal matter. We are paranoid about stepping on shit even accidentally, with our shoes on. If it does happen, we rush to wash the offending substance off the soles of our shoes. Can we even begin to comprehend the experience that thousands of balmiki men go through every day of their lives?

According to a 2002 report prepared by the International Dalit Solidarity Network -- which includes Human Rights Watch (United States), Navsarjan Trust (Ahmedabad, Gujarat), and the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, the government estimates that there are 1 million dalit manual scavengers in India.

I was sensitised to a degree, and began seeing sanitation workers more clearly, observing them closely and talking to them. Yet, even after interviewing Hasmukh’s family, the full impact of the daily grind of the sanitation worker -- the full horror of his existence -- did not strike me. It took a gut-wrenching interview by S Anand in the magazine Tehelka to graphically bring home the reality. Anand explains: “Entering the narrow, dark drain, the worker pushes his only weapon, the khapchi -- a spliced bamboo stick -- to dislodge the block. This exercise could take hours. ‘Holding our breath, closing our eyes, we plunge headlong. We feel our way, poking with the khapchi,’ says Sateesh. It is then that a sudden blast of putrid sludge -- besides methane, hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide -- assaults the person. ‘Even if we manage not to swallow the toxic muck, it manages to enter our bodies.’ Odourless and colourless, the carbon gases can cause suffocation. The scene is documented in the Drishti film Lesser Humans. The film makes the viewer recoil in horror and was considered too horrible for American audiences to watch.”

If the worker survives the initial ordeal, he crouches inside and loads the sludge into a leaky metal bucket or wicker basket for his team to haul out. Depending on the clog, the entire operation could take up to 48 hours. “We often work after midnight. When people sleep, the flow in the sewers is less, and our work does not disturb road-users,” says Sateesh.

Among sewer workers, there’s a category called ‘divers’, whose brief is to ‘swim’ through the large pipelines, find the blocks, and clear them.

Ashish Mittal, an occupational health physician who co-authored ‘Hole to Hell’, a 2005 study of sewer workers by the Centre for Education and Communication (CEC), New Delhi, says: “A manhole is a confined, oxygen-deficient space where the presence of noxious gases can cause syncope -- a sudden and transient loss of consciousness owing to brief cessation of cerebral blood flow. The brain cannot tolerate even a brief deprivation of oxygen. The long-term neurological effects of syncope can be debilitating.”

In most developed countries, manhole workers are protected by bunny suits to avoid contact with the contaminated water. They also sport respiratory apparatus. The sewers are well lit, mechanically aerated with huge fans and therefore not so oxygen-deficient. In Hong Kong, a sewer worker, after adequate training, needs to have at least 15 licences and permits in order to enter a manhole. In India, our sanitation workers go in almost naked, wearing just a lungot (loincloth) or briefs. In Delhi, in accordance with the directives of the National Human Rights Commission in October 2002, most permanent workers of the DJB wear a ‘safety belt’. This belt that connects workers in the manhole, via thick ropes, to men standing outside offers no protection against the gases and sharp objects that assault them. It’s a cruel joke; at best it helps haul them out should they lose consciousness or die inside the hole. The CEC study of 200 DJB manhole workers found that 92.5% of workers wore the safety belt. But this did not prevent 91.5% of them suffering injuries, and 80% suffering eye infections.

Manual scavengers are exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections that affect the skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastro-intestinal systems. Reports show that tuberculosis is rife among the community.

The CEC survey found that diseases like leptospirosis, viral hepatitis and typhoid are common. “During the course of our six-month study, three of the 200 workers died,” recalls Mittal.

Alcoholism takes its toll on more than just the health of the sanitation worker. Apart from bringing on an early death, it wreaks havoc on his family. Every balmiki basti witnesses the inevitable spiral of alcohol-related violence and poverty as a sizeable part of the men’s income disappears into the liquor shops.

Sanitation workers are at the very bottom of the social pyramid; even other dalits consider them untouchable. The only people on whom they can vent their frustration and generations of pent-up anger are women and children.

Most men in the community die young; indeed, the average lifespan of a sanitation worker is 45 years. The civic body does not offer any monetary compensation to these workers for illness or death due to occupational risks, unless the worker actually dies inside a manhole, In Delhi, permanent workers get a monthly ‘risk allowance’ of Rs 50. In some states, the figure rises to Rs 200.

In a tragic farce, sanitation workers often unionise to fight for the right to keep their jobs. With privatisation, they could lose the little security that government employment offers. So they fight for the right to die in their manholes, for this privilege to be theirs alone. They demand reservation for their sub-caste to keep these jobs. It would be interesting to find out if the men who drive the little floor-cleaning vehicles at the Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore airports are from the balmiki community. I doubt it: once jobs are upgraded they are passed on to people from the dominant castes.

In every balmiki basti, there is a recurring story. The story of the man who dies on duty, drowned in liquid shit or asphyxiated as he opens up a manhole cover. The family is desolate. The municipal corporation or civic body responsible for employing the dead sanitation worker offers, by way of solace and in a gesture of enormous magnanimity, the ultimate consolation prize -- the dead man’s job. A few days after the funeral, the son proceeds to take his father’s place. He knows that the smallest slip could land him in the same hellhole that swallowed up his father. But it’s all part of the life of the sanitation worker.

It’s heartening to see that persistence pays. The change may be slow and incremental, but when it comes it will make a huge difference to the lives of these people.

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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