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Print edition : Jan 16, 2009 T+T-
in Chennai

HUNDREDS of contract workers engaged by local bodies and water supply and sewerage boards in major cities and towns to clean underground sewers virtually walk into death traps. A large number of them die instantaneously after inhaling noxious fumes in the sewers. Others die a slow death from respiratory and neurological ailments. Human rights organisations and trade unions have time and again criticised the inhuman practice of employing people in hazardous jobs such as these. Most people employed for the dehumanising work are Dalits.

The High Courts of Delhi and Gujarat have issued directions to stop manual sewer cleaning. The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis and the National Human Rights Commission have also come up against the obnoxious system. Yet the practice continues unabated in different parts of the country.

Issues relating to the safety and rights of sewer workers, mainly belonging to the Arunthathiyar community, a Dalit sub-caste, came to the fore in Tamil Nadu recently following an order by the Madras High Court on November 20, 2008. Hearing a public interest petition, the court ordered that the entry of sanitary workers into the sewerage system under the guise of removing the blocks should be prohibited, except under exceptional circumstances.

The court also directed the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) and the Tamil Nadu Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department to initiate steps to prevent the entry of solid waste into the sewage line, plug unauthorised sewerage connections, launch a public awareness campaign against the throwing of solid waste into sewers and ensure that the next of kin of a sanitary worker who died while at work is given compensation according to the Workmens Compensation Act.

No doubt, maintaining a 2,671-km sewerage network with 5.63 lakh household connections, 78,861 manholes, 188 pumping stations and five sewage treatment plants with a combined installed capacity of 486 million litres a day (MLD) in and around Chennai is a Herculean task for the CMWSSB. But this cannot justify the employment of sanitary workers to enter manholes, and that too without safety gear.

The public interest litigation (PIL) initiated through the petition on September 26 by A. Narayanan of Chennai, convener of People Against Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Merchandise (PAADAM), highlights the travails of sewer workers. According to the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, manual scavenging is illegal. Making workers enter manholes and septic tanks is also in violation of the fundamental rights under Article 14 (equality before law), Article 17 (abolition of untouchability), Article 21 (right to life) and Article 23 (right against exploitation) of the Constitution, the petitioner said.

Claiming that the government had earmarked Rs.50 crore for the rehabilitation and training of liberated manual scavengers, the petitioner said: It is reliably learnt that since the abolition of manual scavenging, many of these workers are used for cleaning of manholes and septic tanks.

If making sanitary workers carry human faeces or handle them manually whether voluntarily or through coercion, is illegal, then making workers get into manholes and septic tanks is also illegal, he argued. He added that when a poor Dalit dies inside a manhole while carrying out cleaning operations in a public sewer line owing to the apathy of civil society and the government, the government departments refuse to even provide compensation, citing ridiculous rules and indulging in unethical labour practices.

The High Court, in its interim order of October 13, made it clear that no human being should be allowed to get into drainage/sewerage lines to clear any block and it is the responsibility of the authorities to get it cleared by employing mechanical devices. The court also directed the government pleader to file a detailed affidavit indicating the number of deaths and the number of cases in which compensation had been paid.

In his affidavit filed on November 6, Sunil Paliwal, Managing Director of the CMWSSB, submitted that improvements in Chennais 90-year-old sewerage system could not be achieved overnight. He sought a time of six months to procure safety gear for the workers who remove broken manhole covers, reconstruct manholes, remove pump sets from wells in pumping stations and integrate new sewers with the existing ones.

In addition to the 100 sewer-cleaning rods and 175 grab-bucket and 13 drag-bucket machines used to remove blocks in the main sewers, three hydraulically operated desilting machines were in use for the removal of silt from manholes. Steps are being taken to procure 47 more such machines, he said. The CMWSSB has also identified 9,137 problematic manholes, which were prone to silting.

Paliwal said the CMWSSB was committed to ensuring that no labourer was allowed to enter the underground sewers for cleaning and that mechanising of the process was on. He said 20 different types of safety gear safety belts, helmets, headlamps, gas monitors, emergency medical oxygen resuscitator kits and chlorine masks had been purchased for Rs.2.84 crore. Training in the use of the equipment would be imparted to the CMWSSBs 494 sanitary workers and the 259 contract labourers, the affidavit said.

Paliwal said that the entry of sanitary workers into manholes was stopped completely in the wake of the courts final order on November 20. Even during the heavy north-east monsoon manual cleaning of underground sewers was not allowed, he said, adding that an awareness campaign had been initiated to dissuade the public from throwing solid waste into sewers.

Sources in the CMWSSB listed more such initiatives. For instance, of the 4,110 illegal sewer connections, 1,241 had been plugged, and in the remaining cases, the Chennai Corporations health officers had been asked to take action, they said. And of the 1,448 buildings that had to put up diaphragm chambers to prevent solid waste from entering the sewers, 1,090 had already done so.

All this may be good news to the people of Chennai, but manhole deaths are a recurring phenomenon in other cities and towns as well. While passing the final order, the High Court observed: [W]e also wish to express our anguish to note that the menace of allowing human beings to clean manholes without mechanised device is going on in other places of Tamil Nadu where the common drainage system is not prevalent. Submissions attempting to justify such action can never be countenanced.

Dubbing manual cleaning as barbaric and inhuman, K.R. Ganesan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Rural Development and Municipal Administration Employees Federation, said the State governments decision to implement the underground sewerage scheme (UGSS) in all municipalities and district headquarters in the first phase should go hand in hand with the mechanisation of sewer maintenance. The UGSS is in place in Chennai, Tiruchi, Tirunelveli and Tirupur Corporations. It is under progress in Tuticorin. The scheme has been partly completed in Madurai and Coimbatore, while it has not yet been taken up in Vellore, Salem and Erode.

Of the 148 municipalities, the UGSS has been completed in six: Karur, Thanjavur, Alandur, Valasaravakkam, Mayiladuthurai and Inam Karur. Works are on in 24 district headquarters at an estimated cost of Rs.1,362 crore.

Trade unions say that modernisation of the desilting process can prevent the death of sewer workers while doing their job. Until then, they insist, the authorities concerned should ensure that the workers enter manholes only after taking adequate precautionary measures and under effective supervision.

Manual on Sewerage and Sewage Treatment (Second Edition), published by the Union Ministry of Urban Development in 1993, stipulates the safety practices to be followed in the cleaning and maintenance of underground sewers. Unfortunately, sewer-sector managers do not take sufficient steps to provide training in this regard to workers, resulting in recurring tragedies, they feel.

Although the authorities claim they do not have the exact data on the casualties of sewer workers, the CMWSSB has submitted that between May 24, 2003, and October 17, 2008, a total of 17 sewer workers who entered manholes died of asphyxiation. But trade union sources have a higher figure. Ganesan said nearly 1,000 sewer workers had died while cleaning manholes in the last two decades. Those who survive the effect of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide and methane succumb to respiratory and neurological ailments later. Many have serious health problems. Consumption of by the workers alcohol to stand the stench and filth also adversely affects their health.

Dr D. Parasuraman, retired professor of microbiology, Tamil Nadu Medical Service, said underground sewer cleaners were prone to diseases such as cholera, typhoid and hepatitis-A as untreated sewage contained biological agents including viruses and bacteria. E. coli bacteria can cause gastrointestinal diseases, and the entry of the Clostridium tetani bacterium through open wounds can cause tetanus. Prolonged contact with sewer water also results in skin problems.

As regards the compensation for the kin of the 17 people who died while cleaning manholes, the CMWSSB said that payment had been made in all cases in which orders had been passed by the Deputy Commissioner of Labour for settlement. But V. Kumar, president of the CMWSSB Employees Union, said that in many cases the contractors failed to pay compensation to the sanitary workers as per the Workmens Compensation Act. The contractors were also allegedly not taking accident insurance for sewer workers in many cases.

Being the principal employer, the CMWSSB should ensure that due compensation was paid to the next of kin of the deceased, he said, adding that Rs.5 lakh be fixed as relief to the affected families. The compensation in some cases at present has been meagre, according to him.

Statutory benefits such as Provident Fund and Employees State Insurance Scheme were also denied to the contract workers, Kumar said. He demanded that the services of all contract sewer workers be regularised as the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act was applicable to all government departments and public sector undertakings. As of now, they are paid only Rs.110 a day for carrying out the risky job, he said.

He criticised the CMWSSB for scaling down the strength of the workforce steadily from 11,000 in 1978 to 4,000 now. The contract workers were not enrolled as members of the Scavenger Welfare Board constituted by the State government, Ganesan said.

The court may have stirred the authorities into action for now, but the stand that entry of workers into manholes cannot be avoided under some circumstances indicates that Tamil Nadu has a long way to go before it puts an end to this dehumanising practice.

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