Clean India Campaign

Down the drain

Print edition : December 11, 2015

Contract labourers cleaning a drain at Minto Bridge near Connaught Place in New Delhi on May 16. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Cleaning the drain on Ring Road-Millennium Park, in New Delhi. A 2011 picture. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

MCD safai karamcharis during a protest rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on June 17. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Safai karamcharis in Delhi work without proper compensation, medical allowances, risk allowances or timely salaries. The government’s bid to privatise sanitation work further jeopardises their future.

AFTER a long, tiring day at work, Ved Prakash Bidla limps back home every day. Years of working inside the sewer lines of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), the agency responsible for water supply and liquid waste management in the capital, has deformed his spine. “If you lift a 100-kg lid of the sewer without any mechanical equipment for years, it will take its toll on your body,” Bidla says matter-of-factly while narrating the woes of safai karamcharis (sanitation workers) of Delhi. “I am not the only one. Every safai karamchari has the same problem. Like me, most are also hard of hearing, many are partially blind, and almost everyone has a skin disease because of continual exposure to toxic gases inside the sewers,” he says.

Safai karamcharis, who form the backbone of the sanitation system in the city, work in abysmal conditions. According to some estimates by non-governmental organisations, there are over 1,000 deaths of manhole workers a year in India. More than 3,500 sewerage workers have died between 1996 and 2015 in Delhi alone. Given the hazardous work, minor and major injuries among safai karamcharis are aplenty. Expected to clean the 9,000 tonnes of waste that 1.68 crore people of Delhi generate every day, the safai karamcharis in the city work without adequate compensation, medical allowances, risk allowances or even timely salaries. Compounding their problems is the growing fear among them about the government’s policy to gradually privatise sewer cleaning processes across the country. There has been no hiring of sanitation workers since 1999 in Delhi, and the fear of retrenchment looms large. Yet, they continue to toil under conditions no human should ever work in.

Like Bidla, most safai karamcharis in Delhi enter the deep sewers without a safety suit, gloves, helmets, oxygen pipes or essential suction equipment. Protective gear, which they are legally entitled to, has not reached the safai karamcharis despite several court orders. Agencies such as the DJB and the three Municipal Corporations of Delhi (MCDs) often cite lack of funds for the unavailability of safety gear for safai karamcharis.

However, Bidla says that they cite this reason to outsource sewage cleaning to private contractors. “Both the DJB and the Municipal Corporations of Delhi have not hired a single permanent worker since 1999. All the contractors get timely payments, but the DJB and the three MCDs never have money for the most essential safety equipment,” says Bidla, who is also the president of the DJB Sewer Department Mazdoor Sangathan, the workers’ union.

Cockroaches as pointers

“If not for cockroaches, we would have all died,” says Kaushal, a safai karamchari at the DJB. “Before getting into the clogged drain, we check whether the cockroaches inside it are alive or not. If they are alive, we assume that the level of toxic gases is tolerable. A dead cockroach means risk. We leave the drain open for an hour or so to let the poisonous gases out while trying to remove the silt inside the drain with a khapchi [a long bamboo stick], often the only tool the agencies give the safai karamcharis,” Kaushal adds.

Notwithstanding the lack of protective gear, safai karamcharis have evolved their own ways to ensure their safety. The commonsensical methods evolved by them over the years speak of their vast experience in sewer cleaning, but these practices are a stark reminder of the bureaucratic and political insensitivity they have to face every day. And with the government looking out for private contractors to replace permanent workers in the years to come, the occupational hazards of safai karamcharis have only increased.

“Private contractors are bloodsuckers. Neither do they hire enough people nor do they give timely payments to safai karamcharis. Workers under a private contractor do not get more than Rs.5,000 a month. Other allowances or compensation are a distant dream. Usually, unclogging a sewer pipe is teamwork in which at least seven people help each other in different processes. When a new worker is hired by the government, the seniors train and guide him. But a private worker is forced into the drain without proper training. Most of the accidents and deaths that have happened in the past few years were all under private contractors,” says Bidla. In the second week of November, Vinay Sirohi, a 22-year-old contractual worker, died inside a DJB sewer pipe at the Keshopur Sewage Treatment Plant in west Delhi. Let alone a helmet or a face mask, he was not even wearing a shirt when his body was recovered. Sirohi suffocated to death, leaving behind his mother and his wife whom he had married just seven months ago. Tragedy had struck Sirohi’s family earlier: his father, too, died in an accident in the drain.

Police investigations reveal that Sirohi was hired by a private company as a valve operator for the plant. Yet, he was made to enter a sewer without training. “Private contractors are not accountable at all. In no circumstances should a single safai karamchari enter the sewer pipe alone, as we see in Sirohi’s case. You need a work permit before entering the sewer and the work has to be done with fellow karamcharis under the supervision of engineers. No such thing happens in private work,” says Ashok Taank of the National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and Allied Workers (NCDRSAW).

Privatisation bid & the caste factor

There is a deeper malaise in privatisation. “The civic agencies outsource cleaning work to some private companies, who then let out the same work to many other small contractors. These small contractors rely mostly on labour agents to get workers. Most private safai karamcharis do not even know whom they are working for. Because of privatisation, the already narrow link between the civic agency and the safai karamchari has completely been nullified. To top it, the nexus between civic authorities and contractors is so deep that the investigating officer often supports the contractor in cases of accidents and deaths. The system is rotten because of a chain of illegal commissions that are paid to various officers of civic agencies,” says Taank.

Not that the civic agencies earlier had a proper system of training safai karamcharis. The civic authorities relied on the traditional knowledge of the safai karamcharis, encouraging gross casteism in the process. “It is assumed that this work will be done by Dalits, especially Valmikis. The general explanation the civic authorities would give when safai karamcharis demanded training facilities was that since they have been cleaning the muck of society for ever, they would not need formal training,” says Taank. However, following a Delhi High Court order in 2008, the civic agencies started a training programme, but it remained a mere formality. Instead of a practical programme, they were given theoretical classes and notes that many could not even read because of the larger problem of illiteracy among the Valmikis.

However, as safai karamcharis worked as a community in the civic agencies, the technique of sewer cleaning was passed on from one generation to the other. But this link between the senior and the junior employee broke because of privatisation.

Cleaning a sewer pipe or a drain is highly technical work. A team of safai karamcharis enters the drain by first assessing the level of the gases in the drain. The silt on the top has to be then removed to locate the problem of a blocked drain. This, sometimes, requires entering as deep as 10-15 feet inside the drain. Each step has to be measured to prevent any mishap. The lack of protective gear means that the safai karamchari is exposed not only to toxic gases like methane, hydrogen sulphide or carbon monoxide but also glass particles and sharp metals. Despite repeated demands of safai karamcharis to label cleaning work as technical, the government has refused to make it so because of the larger financial liabilities it would entail.

Privatisation of sewerage cleaning and the freeze in the hiring of permanent workers have led to a situation where a small number of people are expected to clean the whole city. For example, the DJB had 8,000 sanitation workers 15 years ago. At present, there are not even 2,500 safai karamcharis. Many temporary workers have not been made permanent despite the rule that a temporary worker must be made permanent after 720 workdays.

The municipal corporations, too, are hugely understaffed. For a city which is bigger than many small countries in the world, there are fewer than 20,000 permanent safai karamcharis. “Except for a few people who joined as temporary workers before 1996 and were made permanent after 1999, there have been no new recruitments,” says R.B. Untwal, the convener of the MCD Swachhata Karamchari Union.

After the trifurcation of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi into North-West, South and East zones, the problems of safai karamcharis have only escalated. The workers have been striking work at least twice every year in the last decade to get their salaries. Many a time, the workers do not receive their salaries for as long as six months. “What should we do? We are not Ambanis or Birlas. We survive on monthly wages. Where will our families go? Many of us were made permanent after serving as temporary workers for as long as 20 years. The MCD refuses to give us our arrears also, even when the officers and contractors get timely payments. Most of us are in huge debt and are paying high interests because our salaries don’t come on time,” says Surinder Taank, a safai karamchari at the East Delhi Municipal Corporation.

The corporations of Delhi have three categories of safai karamcharis—permanent, temporary, and substitute. While permanent workers and temporary workers are fighting for timely payments, the situation of substitute workers is worse. Substitutes are those workers who replace permanent workers on leave. A substitute worker does not get more than 10 days of work in a month but stays as substitute for many years hoping that he would be given regular work. Even the substitutes do not get timely payments.

To top it all, discrimination against the safai karamcharis is rampant. Most safai karamcharis are Dalits, especially Valmikis. “We are untouchables in our department. Even when a safai karamchari is asphyxiated in a drain, the engineers do not come to give us water. Such is our state. There are many safai karamcharis who are non-Dalits. But they are generally given office work like gardening or soft clerical work. Only Dalits are asked to get into the drain,” says Untwal.

The 2008 Delhi High Court order on a public interest litigation petition filed by the NCDRSAW and the Human Rights Law Network in New Delhi directed the civic bodies to provide adequate protective gear and free medical care, compensate for occupational diseases, and create separate funds for statutory provisions like provident fund and gratuity. The civic authorities have hardly followed any of these judicial instructions properly.

Most of the officials at the DJB and MCD cite lack of funds as one of the main reasons for non-implementation of the court order. “We agree that safai karamcharis should get better facilities at work. But the DJB is short of funds. Our funds have not increased according to the inflationary trends. One protection suit for a safai karamchari costs around Rs.11,000. As a result, there are hardly any funds left for safai karamcharis after we set aside the annual maintenance funds, which is necessary to keep the system running. The policy of privatising work is meant as a measure of asset reduction,” a DJB official told Frontline on condition of anonymity.

The problems of safai karamcharis, bureaucratic insensitivity and shrinking public expenditure have left the city’s sanitation work largely unattended. For instance, for more than 6,000 kilometres of sewers, there are fewer than 2,500 permanent sewerage workers in the DJB. For a city which requires more than 80,000 safai karamcharis in the municipal corporations, according to some estimates, there are only 30,000 workers. “The DJB’s own guidelines make it clear that for every 1.6 kilometres, there should be one worker. This means more than 50,000 sewerage workers are required for the whole city. The regular flooding and clogging of drains are inevitable in a situation like this,” says Hemlata Kansotia, co-convener of the NCDRSAW.

Hemlata Kansotia says that cleaning is not a temporary work and, therefore, its contractualisation violates all labour laws which make it clear that if the nature of the work is permanent, the labourers should also be permanent. Rajeev Mehrolia of the Akhil Bharatiya Safai Mazdoor Sangh, a pan-Indian trade union, agrees: “The Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act strictly prevents any contractualisation of essential work. Not only should the work be made technical and permanent, all safai karamcharis should get proper allowances and facilities. To ensure its implementation, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis [NCSK] should be made a quasi-judicial body with the power to punish defaulting agencies. There is no point of an institution without teeth.” At a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, has completed one year, neither the Prime Minister nor any of his officials have raised the most pertinent concern about the plight of the safai karamcharis. At best, government officials have evaded the questions about safai karamcharis and put in place unviable plans.

At a time when more workers are needed to keep the city clean, the civic authorities, along with private companies, have been echoing the Prime Minister’s technology mantra. In this case, the civic agencies have been saying that technological improvements and mechanisation of sewerage work will replace the need for more workers in future. However, for that to happen, the governments must ensure proper segregation of waste. At present, the drain carries a mix of biodegradable waste and non-biodegradable objects like plastic bottles, glass particles, metal objects, and many such things—the most important reason for the clogging of drains. In many unplanned areas of the city, the lanes are so narrow that the large suction machines cannot even enter them.

The refusal to acknowledge that safai karamcharis are the pillars of the city’s cleanliness has raised further doubts about the seriousness with which the Union government is approaching its Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Understandably, 55-year-old Bidla scoffs at the Abhiyan. “I always knew that the world is not concerned about us. But the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is the cruellest joke played on us by far. One day, they will have to face our dead brothers,” says an angry Bidla.

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