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Sewer Scavengers Life Hazards

Photographer: Rajat Gupta


Joney, Brijesh and Mange brave stench, filth and danger on a daily basis in some of the most deplorable conditions imaginable; they are manual scavengers, or sewer cleaners, descending into the gutters and beyond of New Delhi. Like most manual scavengers, they belong to the Valmiki community, a sub-caste that is considered one of the lowest of the so-called “untouchable” or Dalit caste. Members of these communities have traditionally occupied cleaning and sanitation work in Indian society. The young men have one of the most dangerous jobs in India, enduring squalid surroundings for meagre pay of around 7,500 to 10,000 in Indian rupees (or 90 to 120 euro) a month. Private daily contractors are paid as little as 500 rupees for a day’s cleaning. Their supervisor Ratender Chauhan explains that the workers are not provided with any sort of sufficient equipment to help protect them against the filthy environment. They descend with nothing more than a safety belt with which they can be pulled free if they become asphyxiated by the poisonous gases. He says that most of the sewer workers working under him commonly suffer from eye problems, respiratory and skin diseases.

They work in the hope of eventually earning better salaries, but even if they do receive increased wages, much of that income will have to go to the health treatment their work will inevitably induce, Malkhan Singh and Brij Mohan say. Both men, who are in their fifties and have worked as manual scavengers for over two decades, have sustained injuries from working in cramped drain pipes and have got poisoned or developed chronic respiratory conditions due to the toxic gases. Recent official government statistics showed one manual scavengers has died every five days since the beginning of 2017 while cleaning sewers. According to data provided by Safai Karmachari Andolan(SKA), From 2008 to 2018 573 people died and 96 people have died through September 2018. In September 2018 , Vishal (20years old), Pankaj (26 years old), Sarfaraz (19 years old), Raja (22 years old), Umesh (20 years old) and Pradeep were pump operators and maintenance workers in a residential building in Moti nagar in Delhi, but they were forced by their supervisor to go inside a septic tank to clean it without any safety equipments or masks. They died after inhaling the toxic gases while cleaning the tank. Out of the six, only Pradeep survived.