Sher Singh was always out of breath. He could only run for a short time. He was only around 50 years old, so he didn’t know exactly. Singh lives in the Indian capital, New Delhi, and has suffered from lung disease since he climbed into a three-meter-deep septic tank to clear a blockage about three years ago. He was in a stuffy hole with three other comrades, two of whom died there.
“We lost consciousness,” Singh said in an interview with the German Press Agency. Methane gas was later mentioned as a possible cause. During the dangerous operation, Singh wore only shorts. He did not have a mask, gloves or other personal protective equipment.
In fact, cleaning gutters without protective equipment has long been illegal in India. In the worst case, employers who still distribute cleanup orders will face prison sentences of up to two years. So many theories.
But the practice looks different. Many men continue to work in stuffy mines without protective equipment and in life-threatening conditions. There are differing opinions as to how many actually existed and how many died in the process. According to authorities, a total of 330 people died between 2018 and 2022 while cleaning sewers without protective equipment. But Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan organization, which campaigns to end manual sewer cleaning in India, believes the official death toll is still too low. He estimates thousands of people die every year. The information cannot be verified; Wilson was simply referring to relevant reports that appeared regularly in newspapers.
According to Wilson, drain cleaners typically work for subcontractors who are then hired by local authorities to clean them. The cheapest provider will be preferred. Workers rarely receive personal protective equipment and their daily wages are only 300 to 400 rupees (3.40 to 4.50 euros). And in the sewer system, cleaners found not only harmful gases, but also insects and snakes.
Sometimes, sewer cleaners and their families protest for better working conditions. So did Amrik Singh, who wiped his tears with his sleeve on a hot afternoon in New Delhi. Singh said the toxic fumes killed his 30-year-old son in the gutter. He and several hundred other relatives of dead sewer workers held photos of the dead, alongside posters with messages. Singh’s daughter showed a poster whose message touched a nerve: “Average life expectancy of a man: 72 years – of a sewer worker: 32 years.”
Typhus, cholera and tuberculosis
Many drain cleaners struggle with skin diseases, said Ashok Kumar of the Dalit Adivasi non-governmental organization Shakt Adhikari Manch, which advocates for the welfare of drain cleaners and waste pickers in the Indian capital. They often suffered from diseases such as typhus, cholera and tuberculosis. Bad experiences at work lead many workers to become addicted to alcohol, Kumar continued.
Life is hard for former drain cleaner Sher Singh who is ill, and can barely stand. His wife works at a waste sorting factory and earns about 9,000 rupees (102 euros) per month. This means the family of six can barely afford the rent on their small apartment and one meal a day. Singh’s 14-year-old son has stopped going to school and is instead trying to support his family with painting and other odd jobs. Both the boy and his father suffered from tuberculosis. “My deceased colleague’s family each received one million rupees (more than 11,000 euros). I received nothing,” Singh said. Relatives of sewer cleaners who die on the job usually receive compensation. “I should have died,” Singh said bitterly.
However, the number of drain cleaners without protective equipment is now decreasing in major Indian cities such as Delhi. Instead, they can use a machine that sucks out clogs. They only need to get into the soup when large objects like a bag of cement get stuck, said Vinod, who, like other lower caste people, prefers not to use his last name because it shows his status in society. Vinod works in a relatively wealthier area of Delhi and receives a semi-annual contract from his subcontractor of 14,500 rupees (164 euros) per month.
At the bottom of the caste system
But latrines are not connected to the sewage system in the rest of India. For example, in several villages in the poorest states such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Cleaners there typically have to continue cleaning latrines without personal protective equipment and often with just their hands, Wilson said.
Nearly all people who clean gutters or latrines with or without protective equipment are called Dalits, previously called “untouchables” and belonging to the lower class of the Hindu caste system. They are among the poorest people in the country and have jobs that no one else wants to do. At the same time, they and their children experience discrimination from people from higher castes, for example not being allowed to enter the house or eat the same dishes.
At a protest in Delhi, sanitation worker Mamta Chawariya asked: “Why do our children have to do this work? Why not yours?” They want secure jobs.
But there may still be hope for drain cleaners. Recently, the country’s highest court asked authorities to take precautionary measures by stopping drain cleaning without protective equipment.
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