Sanitation Workers: A look into both end of the spectrum

Story type
Case story
Sanitation Workers WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad

Sanitation Workers in India work under grim conditions often exposed to a variety of health hazards and diseases. We look into the work-life of two sanitation workers working at different ends of the spectrum.

Gangalappa, Bengaluru

50-year-old Gangalappa is a sanitation worker who performs manual sewer servicing to clear residential blockages in Bengaluru, India. Sanitation workers perform manual sewer servicing to clear residential blockages. All servicing is done above ground as they are forbidden to enter a manhole by the Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB). They use 20-foot-long strips of bamboo that are thin and flat as well as iron wires and crowbars. By using a piece of cloth wrapped around the end of a strip, the poles can only poke the blockage in the manholes or chambers but cannot break it. They also remove silt using this contraption. Often the pole breaks or gets stuck in the sewers.

Sanitation Worker bengaluru
WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad

Gangalappa says,” I have been working as a sanitation worker for more than 30 years. I have never been employed directly by the corporation or sewage board. However, I have done a lot of work for them informally.” Laws have been passed with the intent to ban manual scavenging, but in reality, this has caused this type of work to fall in the black market thus exacerbating the problem and leaving the sanitation workers even less protected.

Gangalappa shares a horrific incident from the past,” Many things end up in large sewers. Once I walked to a large sewer line to clear a cow stuck in the sewer. The sewerage board gave me a gun to walk through the sewer. The water in that large sewer is knee deep, and has all sorts of creatures in it. Snakes, birds, rats. Hence the gun. I had to cut the rotting cow with a saw. It took me almost an entire day. When I had to go home, I could not take a bus, or a rickshaw I was stinking because of the rotten cow. I walked for two hours to get home. Even while walking I had to stay as far from the public as possible.” 

He adds that he now-a-days he doesn’t have to do such things. He’s not sure how they are taking care of those blockages these days. For the last five years he has been finding jobs to clear residential blockages. People know where to find him. He usually works with one more person as it is not easy to work alone. If the blockage is between the manholes on the street, they carry bamboo strips, iron wires and crowbars to do the job. They do not have permission from the water supply and sewerage board to open manholes. But sometimes a sewer line blockage backs up into a home and they need to open the manholes on the street to clear the blockage when no one from the authorities can see them. 

Sanitation Workers
WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad

He adds, “Residential blockages are not the responsibility of BWSSB. Even if one requests them to clear it, they cannot show up immediately. BWSSB truck operators prioritise unblocking main sewer lines over residential blockages. That is where we come in. We respond immediately, that too over a phone call.”

Sanitation Workers
WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad

Now-a-days it is forbidden to get into a manhole and the sanitation workers have to do everything from above the ground. But sometimes the bamboo strip gets stuck or breaks in the sewers. In such cases the sanitation workers have to get into the manhole and pull the strip out. They have to not only clear the blockage but also remove the slit.  

SDG 6 aims to bring clean water and sustainable sanitation to everyone, everywhere by 2030. The goal for safely managed sanitation is farthest behind. Many more sanitation workers would be needed to achieve such ambitious targets but their health and their quality of lives is rarely considered. Safely managed sanitation needs to go hand in hand with safe and dignified working environment for sanitation workers who run and maintain sanitation services that protects our health. 
 

Sikander, Delhi

Sanitation Workers
WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad
Mechanised sewer servicing in Delhi.

Sikander, 35 a-year-old sanitation worker started sanitation work at the age of 14. At that time, his job was to stay outside the manhole and hold on to the safety belt along with two or three more people and pull people out when signaled to do so. As he gained experience, he started going inside the manholes of active sewer lines. Sikander says that he has to no longer do this because of mechanisation introduced recently this year. The Sanitation workers now use safety gears such as helmets, masks, goggles, uniforms and boots. 

Sanitation Workers
WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad

All work is done mechanically now and sanitation workers are forbidden from entering sewers. Sikander says-” As soon as I heard about the applications for the new mechanised trucks, I applied for the job. My previous experience helped me secure this job. Both I and my brother joined this work in January-2019. We finished our training and started our work in February. Now that the truck is here, we don't have to get inside sewers. No worries of dying because of flooded manholes or fear of not being pulled out of the manhole in time if the gas hits us. Work that used to take five to six hours, can now be done in under an hour. The jetting hose is 120 feet long and the rodding machine breaks all kinds of blocks. Silt can also be removed now, using a grabbing contraption. Now that mechanisation is here, people from other castes are also getting into this work.”

Sanitation Workers
WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad
A mechanised truck going through the streets of Delhi to service sewers

As a result of mechanisation, the work hazards of sanitation workers seem to be reduced and the job is completed quickly and efficiently. Gradual formalization and mechanization of the sanitation work is required. The policy and regulatory reform should adopt a do-no-harm principle, which would avoid further marginalization of sanitation workers where no viable alternatives exist and the criminalization and prohibition of manual work that can drive it underground. It would also help workers avoid punitive measures that target workers themselves (rather than employers, clients, and authorities). There can’t be prevention of hazardous cleaning and sewer deaths unless we push the mechanisation drive.