As he stood hunched over an open manhole, Venkatesh* manoeuvered a high-power water hose connected to a little truck that was too small to enter the dank, narrow lane, as many work areas for sewer workers tend to be in Hyderabad.
A nervous man in his 30s, Venkatesh directed the jet of water downwards to clear a choked sewer. Four years ago, he would have to descend its dark, grimy depths and clear the block with a stick and hand, risking injury and possible death.
“It is better after the new machines,” said Venkatesh. “I do not enter manholes on most days.” Before the machines, he said he went down manholes at least two to three times each week. Other workers and sewer-worker unions largely agreed with that experience.
There are now few chances that Venkatesh could die, as about 400 like him did nationwide since 2013, when the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, widened the definition of “manual scavenging”, the act of sending human beings into sewers and septic tanks.
The law now categorises the cleansing of sewer- and septic-tank as “hazardous cleaning”. Sending workers into sewers or septic tanks without “protective gear” and adequate “safety precautions” is prohibited and a prosecutable offence.
The machine that Venkatesh uses is a “mini sewer-jetting machine”, to use its official name, one of about 130 small ones deployed by the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board and the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation.
Both organisations hire these machines on contract from Dalit sewer workers, who were given loans to buy these machines, the first initiative of this scale in an Indian city.
The Hyderabad model was replicated in Delhi with little operational or emancipatory success, as Article 14 reported in the third part of this series, which investigates why manual scavenging persists despite being outlawed. The fifth part will explore the burden that this deadly, degrading practice places on Dalit women.
In 2018-’19, the water supply and sewerage board received a Best Practices Award for mechanising sewer cleaning from the Housing and Urban Development Corporation Limited, a state-owned company that provides technology and financing for urban infrastructure, for mechanising sewer cleaning. The award citation said the machines had made “the entire city of Hyderabad free from manual entry for sewer cleaning and maintenance”.
That claim was disputed by the president of the municipal corporation’s employees union, Gopal Udhari, who said “the practice of manual cleaning persists”. Accounts of workers and experts, especially in lower-income areas, parts of the city with older sewers, and in private areas, corroborate Udhari’s statement.
That is how on November 20, 2020, three private companies in an industrial area hired Beema and Umala Nayak – both Lambanis, a Scheduled Tribe – to clean their septic tanks. Toxic gases knocked Beema, 38, unconscious, the same happening to Umala, who tried to save him. Beema was asphyxiated to death before an ambulance arrived and Umala died in hospital.
The first information report registered against the three companies accuses them of sections 304-A (causing death by negligence) and 337 (causing hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others) of the Indian Penal Code, 1870 and offences under The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The Nayaks’ case came to notice because a criminal case was registered.
The official data about such deaths are unreliable.
On February 2, responding to a question in the Rajya Sabha about deaths of workers in septic tanks and sewers, the ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment said that between 2016 and 2020, Telangana recorded four deaths.
A cursory search of media reports on such deaths in 2016, in Hyderabad alone, uncovered seven. The Safai Karmachari Andolan, an advocacy group working for more than a quarter-century to end manual scavenging, estimated deaths in Telangana to be 27 over two years to 2019.
But there is little controversy over the broad contention that machines have successfully taken over from human beings the major job of cleaning the sewers of Greater Hyderabad.
“The practice of sending workers into manholes by the water board has largely been stopped,” said K Saraswati, Telangana state convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan.
The new machines have now taken over 60% of sewer maintenance in the water supply and sewerage board jurisdiction, the rest left to larger machines mounted on large trucks meant to keep the larger sewers clean, M Satyanarayan, Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board executive director told Article 14.
Before the mini sewer-jetting machines deployed in Hyderabad, both the water supply and sewerage board and the municipal corporation tried to maintain their sewer networks with machines on larger trucks, with the water supply and sewerage board deploying 58 and the municipal corporation 29. Many municipal corporations nationwide use these large-truck-mounted machines, but they are mostly good for main sewers, not the smaller ones that dominate India’s congested neighbourhoods, the chief domain of manual scavengers.
The hoses on the smaller machines were powerful enough to eliminate the need for the entry of human beings into the sewers “99% of the time”, said Satyanarayan, who explained that the water supply and sewerage board had implemented a “comprehensive standard operating procedure” prepared by the Administrative Staff College of India.
“Training was given to all workmen, and also to agencies who provide additional labour,” said Satyanarayana. “The manager, sewage inspector, and the special purpose employees who monitor the actual sewer cleaning at the manholes were trained too.”
What has not changed, however, is Venkatesh’s life, the general working conditions and the lives and prospects of thousands of sewer workers like him, almost all from Dalit or scheduled tribe communities.
The machines were meant to be owned by people like Venkatesh to fulfil the larger – if somewhat vague and overambitious – aim of the programme: to provide a path out of poverty and degradation to sewer workers condemned to the same job over generations and their transformation into entrepreneurs.
Workers turn entrepreneurs
A suo motu notice from the High Court of Telangana and pressure from civil society prompted the water supply and sewerage board to talk to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and launch the mini-sewer-truck programme in 2017.
The proposal to procure nearly 70 mini sewer-jetting machines garnered national attention (here and here) and was replicated both within Hyderabad by the municipal corporation and, as we said, in India’s capital.
When the programme launched, it attracted laudatory headlines for the operational efficiency it offered and its employment model of converting Dalit manual scavenging workers into entrepreneurs (here, here and here). The citation accompanying the Housing and Urban Development Corporation Limited Best Practices Award to the water supply and sewerage board said that “scavengers have been uplifted economically as they own the mini sewer-jetting machines”.
But the numbers of these workers are low. While experts said the programme is unique in restricting the ownerships of these trucks to those from scheduled-caste or scheduled-tribe communities, fewer than 50 of 130 machines, or 38%, are owned by former sewage workers.
“It is a mix,” Ravi Kumar Narra, national president of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told Article 14, referring to the ownership of Hyderabad’s mini sewer-jetting machines.
Saraswati of the Safai Karmachari Andolan estimated that Hyderabad had at least 1,800 sewer workers, which means no more than 2.8% of them have become sewer entrepreneurs.
The mini sewer-jetting machines cost Rs 40 lakh each. Each owner had to provide a 10% down payment and get a loan approved from the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry through the State Bank of India.
“Wherever we could find workers, we have supported them,” said Narra. “Rest, members of Scheduled Caste / Scheduled Tribe communities have been supported in buying the machines.”
He said former sewer workers could become owners only after the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry persuaded the Telangana government to relax what are called “pre-qualifications”, such as being a registered contractor or owning a machine.
Without these relaxations, first-time entrepreneurs could never become contractors. So, some have, but the vast majority do not appear to have any such hope. What they hope for instead is some kind of improvement in their employment conditions, which appears unlikely.
Emancipation, a distant dream
As Venkatesh finished his work in the narrow lane of inner Hyderabad, he was joined by his fellow workers, Ramulu* and Papayya*, all dressed similarly in grimy pants, t-shirt, rubber chappals and cloth mask, a recent precaution against the Covid-19 pandemic.
Asked if they ever dreamed of owning a mini sewer-jetting machine, Ramulu, Venkatesh and Papayya laughed and said they did not know any permanent or outsourced worker who had that kind of money or the means to repay loans.
Saraswati of the Safai Karmachari Andolan said fewer than a third of Hyderabad’s sewer workers were hired by the water supply and sewerage board or the municipal corporation. The rest were hired on temporary contracts or by contractors to whom jobs were outsourced. There were also sewer cleaners hired on daily wages, but there were no records or estimates available.
Venkatesh said he made Rs 10,000 a month as an outsourced worker. He had tried other jobs, such as cleaner and helper in a puncture shop, but they paid less money than his sewer work. “I could drive,” he said. “But I do not have the money to buy an autorickshaw and nobody will stand surety for a loan.”
Venkatesh’s colleague Ramulu, who is in his 50s, is a permanent employee and earns more than Rs 25,000. But Ramulu became a permanent worker only eight years ago, said cleaning sewers and drains was the only job he had known, and it had “sucked the life out of him”.
Venkatesh said he barely made enough money for his rent, Rs 4,000, and groceries. If contract workers take a holiday, even for medical or other emergencies, their pay is cut. Any attempts to mobilise for better pay are met, they said, either with threats of being fired or vague assurances of a hike in the future.
Some experts criticised the government’s minimal involvement as being one of the hurdles to the emancipation of the vast majority of sewer workers. Most machinery – not just the mini sewer-jetting machines – that the water supply and sewerage board and the municipal corporation use belong to contractors who respond to tenders.
“Outsourcing maintenance work is cheaper than improving infrastructure,” said G Rameshwar Rao, chairman of the Telangana chapter of the Institution of Engineers and former operations director of the water supply and sewerage board. He termed the sewer-worker-entrepreneur programme a “quick fix” to a complex problem.
“If I could afford a down payment (Rs 4,00,000 for a machine) why would I still be in the same [sewer cleaning] work?” Venkatesh asked. Multiple times through the interview, he stressed he did not want his son to end up doing the same job.
Ramulu pointed out that there were hundreds like him. “Even if all of us get loans, who will get selected, and who will clean?” he said.
While it was evident that not all workers could become owners, activists said the programme could have been made better for all workers if the initiative was strengthened by prioritising workers’ issues, rehabilitation and a rigid implementation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
“Whenever a new technology comes along, the attitude (of the government) is to get the work done, not address workers’ issues and implement their rights,” said Saraswati of the Safai Karmachari Andolan.
Indeed, beyond somewhat reducing the chances of death, the government offers no comment or solution to daily, systemic failings that can be addressed, such as safety.
Sickness is constant
When we spoke to Venkatesh, Ramulu and Papayya, they did not have gloves, gumboots or protective jackets; not the “bacteria-free uniform” that workers were extensively photographed in when the programme launched.
Protective gear could potentially reduce exposure to poisonous gases and infections. While the 2013 law does not describe protective gear, allowing contractors to cite a handkerchief as a safety feature, a Telangana government order lists hand gloves, gumboots, jackets, helmets, torch lights, oxygen masks, oils and soaps among safety and welfare equipment for sewer cleaners.
Workers and union members from both the metropolitan water supply and sewerage board and the municipal corporation said that except for the oil and soap, everything else was arbitrary, and more often than not, workers did not have the technology to assess the toxicity of gasses in a manhole.
Sickness, then, continues to be the only constant for the vast majority of sewer workers.
Ramulu said he felt like 70 due to constant body aches and chest pain but has stopped seeking care. Venkatesh held out his hands and displayed his feet to show the skin infections that he has stopped tending to.
“Pasupu raasukuntam [we apply turmeric],” Venkatesh said about addressing skin infections common to many colleagues.
“Golilu vesukuntam [we pop pills],” Ramulu said before we asked.
The workers we spoke to said that it had been a year since forms for health insurance cards were collected from them, but there had been no update from supervisors.
Every worker appeared to have heard of a death down a manhole or of a death by chronic illness.
“My father died while on duty inside a manhole,” said Papayya, a reflection of the fact that the children of sewer workers overwhelmingly end up in the same profession.
Casteist remarks, prejudice and working with indifferent superiors were commonly reported.
Some of these incidents – narrated by workers, retired workers, and union leaders – could attract an FIR or even a case under the law meant to prevent atrocities against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. However, most government bodies treat such endemic prejudice as local, work issues and not systemic problems.
Apart from reducing the death rate of sewer workers, the Hyderabad model appears to offer little in terms of replication nationwide, if the enduring degradation of sewer workers and their status in Indian society is to be addressed, said experts.
Beyond the jurisdiction of the two government agencies, the water supply and sewerage board and the municipal corporation, manual scavenging of drains and septic tanks continues in the suburbs of Hyderabad.
Private establishments, such as industries or companies or individuals, routinely hire workers for a daily wage to clean manholes, septic tanks, and drains, often without protective gear or other safety measures.
“Such instances often go unnoticed, except when a death is recorded officially,” said Saraswati. “Nobody else will do this work except people from Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities.”
If the mini sewer-jetting machines ever stopped working or could not be used, he said, only one community would be asked to go into the sewers, as they are in other Telangana towns, where they continue to die in darkness.
On March 27, two people, a worker and a supervisor, asphyxiated to death down a manhole in Miryalaguda, a town less than 150 km southeast of Hyderabad.
“Minutes before he collapsed, the worker sent his helper up as the man was feeling choked up,” said a senior Miryalaguda municipal officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, since he was not authorised to speak to the media. “Noticing the collapsed worker, the supervisor at site stepped in and fell unconscious too. Both were declared dead at the hospital.”
*Names have been changed to protect identity.
Ayesha Minhaz is an independent journalist writing from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
This reportage was supported by the Thakur Family Foundation. The Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this reportage.
This report first appeared on Article-14.com, a project that tracks misuse of the law and the hope it offers.