It is almost as risky for a person to step into a manhole to unclog sewer lines in urban India as it is for security personnel fighting insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. Over the last eight years at least, the death toll among sewer workers has started to converge with that of security forces deployed in the beleaguered state.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, which keeps tabs on terrorism-related casualties, 411 security personnel died in Jammu and Kashmir between 2010 and August 27, 2017. This means that since 2010, the insurgency in Kashmir has claimed, on average, 51 men in uniform every year.

Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson’s Safai Karmachari Andolan has been collecting data on those who dive into putrid sewer lines only to be tragically fished out as corpses. Since 2010, there have been 356 such deaths, or about 44 every year.

This annual average has already been outstripped in 2017 – India’s sewage system has killed 90 people so far. By contrast, 54 security personnel died combating militants.

Then again, former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, in his reply to a Parliamentary question in 2015, said a total of 171 Army personnel were “martyred” fighting terrorists between 2012 and 2014 countrywide. In the same period, a total of 142 sewer workers died.

The Safai Karmachari Andolan’s data on deaths in the sewage system is palpably underestimated. For one, it covers just 21 states and Union Territories, not all 36. For another, the Andolan was hamstrung because it began to collect data retrospectively from 2014.

That year, the Supreme Court passed strictures against the governments, both at the Centre and in states, for sending people into manholes without even protective gear, and ordered Rs 10 lakh to be paid to the survivors of each of those who died in the line of duty – that is, cleaning the underground gutters.

Since then, the Andolan has catalogued deaths in sewer lines. Because its mission mainly was to ensure payment of Rs 10 lakh to the survivors of sanitation workers, the Andolan’s volunteers entered a death into the datasheet only after securing a death certificate and postmortem report of the deceased. Anecdotal accounts, obviously, did not pass muster. The database records deaths since 1987.

This is precisely why there has been a sharp spike in the death toll among sewer workers in recent years. As the Andolan found out, the families of the deceased had either misplaced death certificates and postmortem reports, or the families themselves could not be located, having moved out from their areas of residence after their bread winners asphyxiated in the gutters.

Fatal occupation

Statistically then, it is safer to be a soldier serving in Kashmir than a sewer worker. Estimates presented in different media reports citing defence sources vary between 156 and 160 deaths among Army personnel between 2012 and 2016 in Kashmir. During the same period, urban India’s sewage system choked to death 202 workers.

An intricate network of terrorists targets and bleeds Indian soldiers to death. This network is often primed by Pakistan, which also fires and kills across the border. A network of sewer lines suffocates workers whose task is to keep the sewage flowing and urban India ticking.

As a nation, though, we privilege the death of the soldier. He is hailed a martyr, his coffin swathed in the tricolour and given gun salutes before he is cremated or buried. He is deserving of it. After all, he died to protect us all.

Whoever thinks of the man who died cleaning the gutter? He merits just a few paragraphs in the city pages of newspapers unless his death has a horrendous novelty, like in two recent cases in Delhi. He certainly cannot aspire to be a walking-talking symbolism of Indian nationalism, lest that very idea begin to stink with the noxious odour of the gutter. This is perhaps why the sewer worker is missing from the campaign photos of Swachh Bharat.

It is not just about death, readers would say, pointing out that the Army is stationed in inhospitable terrain – for instance, two soldiers die every month at the Siachen Glacier. Living in relative isolation, far away from their families, they live on the edge. Nearly 100 soldiers are said to commit suicide every year. Accidents during routine troop movements claimed nearly 300 lives in both 2012 and 2013.

But even serving at the Siachen Glacier cannot be as difficult as diving into a manhole and removing blocks from sewer lines, in nothing more than a loincloth, breathing poisonous gases – such as methane, hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide – and wading through the sludge of human waste.

No bunny suites, no masks, no oxygen cylinders, and, worse, nobody even thinking of mechanising the periodic cleaning of gutters. The only way to survive this inhuman working condition is to drink liquor to numb the senses. As Wilson told, “There is no proper study done but 90% of the workers are hooked to liquor. Many die young and there are few among those employed with municipalities who live to the retirement age.”

In contrast to the monthly salary of Rs 25,000 that an Indian soldier gets, apart from allowances and perks, Wilson said those employed with municipalities get between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000. Their jobs are now increasingly being parceled out to private contractors, who pay anywhere between Rs 4,000 to Rs 6,000 a month.

Ultimately, whose work and death is privileged depends on the narrative that the nation’s dominant classes create.

Misguided nationalism?

Indeed, those who wish to park tanks on university campuses to teach the young to admire the Army are advised to demonstrate a modicum of gratitude to the hapless sewer worker in these years of Swachh Bharat. In case they think India can survive without these workers’ sacrifices, often demanded of them with callousness that is criminal, here is a story from the Partition era to disabuse them of their notion.

As the Radcliff line was announced on August 17, 1947, the Dalits in Pakistan began to move to India in the hope of better job prospects. As Urvashi Butalia writes in The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, “India tried to lure them away with offers of relief, housing, loans, jobs, while Pakistan tried to prevent them from going with stories of how difficult things were in India…”

The cheapest and most convenient mode of travel for the Dalits living in Pakistan’s Sindh province was by sea. But there were a shortage of ships and carriers, prompting the Pakistan government to introduce a permit system, which allowed only a limited number of people daily to board ships in Karachi for India. So, a large number of the Dalits wanting to move to India were lodged in Karachi’s transit camps.

Their understandable failure to report to work collapsed Karachi’s sewage and sanitation system. The city was fast turning into a stinking garbage heap, prompting the Sindh government to pass the Essential Services Maintenance Act, which disallowed the Dalits from leaving Pakistan. The Indian political class frothed and fumed but to no avail.

About this event, BR Ambedkar reminisced on an election tour of Punjab in 1952, “Immediately after Partition, Pakistan Government issued orders prohibiting the Scheduled Caste people from leaving Pakistan for India. Pakistan did not bother so much if the Hindus left, but who would do the dirty work of the scavengers, sweepers, the Bhangis and other despised castes if the untouchables left Pakistan.”

Ambedkar said he requested Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s prime minister, to take action. “He slept over this issue and did not even casually mention it during the course of various discussions with the Pakistanis,” Ambedkar complained. “None of the Congress Harijans raised a finger at this persecution of their brethren in Pakistan.”

Seventy years later, it is still people from the erstwhile untouchable community who choke to death in urban India’s sewers. Those who wish to place tanks in universities, fly the tricolour high, and mistakenly believe Swachh Bharat is a veritable revolution should build, for starters, a model of underground sewers that no one has to enter to clean, let alone die.