Delhi’s dalit sewerage workers labour in the city’s sewers without bodysuits, oxygen cylinders and other protective gear
‘Dirt’, British anthropologist Mary Douglas famously explained, is ‘matter out of place’. Dirt, on its own, does not mean impurity, contamination or pollutants. Dirt is what we, as a society, designate as ‘unclean’, thereby giving birth to a social order and its boundaries. Outside the boundary is ‘dirt’ or ‘dirty’, marking the purity of what lies within the boundary.
We treat sanitation workers who clean this dirt no differently.
We ostracise them as ‘matter out of place’.
Sometimes he puts cold water to lessen the nauseous gush of gas. On other occasions, he lights a matchstick and tosses it in to detect the presence of explosive sewer gases (methane, hydrogen sulphide and nitrogen oxide). He says that there is so much gas that if you keep gold next to it for 24 hours, it would turn black. Exposure to these gases often gives him a splitting headache and irritates his eyes over long spells. Skin allergies and breathing problems are not alien to him. And death due to asphyxiation always looms large.
Urban Delhi is served by a gravity collection sewerage system, with an enormous, hydra-headed network of branch sewers, intercepting sewers, peripheral and trunk sewers, and a criss-cross of drains and over 100,000 manholes, which carry the raw sewage generated in Delhi everyday. This monstrous labyrinth, its belly lined with rotting sludge and cobwebs and emitting an offensive stink, devours the waste we recklessly consume and dump.
In his everyday life, a sewage cleaner comes in contact with this mix of human excrement, fungus-ridden stale food, plastic, used sanitary towels and condoms, jagged and edged blades, needles, broken glass and bottle shards, odious and noxious industrial effluents and blood-stained refuse from hospitals, even globular tumours rendered waste after a biopsy. Inside the dark belly of the sewers, Jal Board sewage workers also routinely dodge rodents and insects.
The Jal Board evolved as a colonial entity that is responsible for the treatment and disposal of sewage and drainage as well as the production and supply of drinking water in Delhi. “For every 1,000 consumers in the city, there are 13 or fewer Jal Board employees,” says an indignant Taraspal Tomar, President of Delhi Jal Board Employees Trade Union. Tomar is angry. His anger stems from deep concern for frontline sewage workers and the occupational hazards they are exposed to as they inspect, repair, unblock and maintain the sewers.
Some alcohol and a puff of smoke, he tells you, is the only way he and his co-workers can buffer the assault of lethal gases and vomit-inducing odour. He believes that descending into a manhole is an act of valour. He knows you and I cannot or will not do it. But he has to do it, to feed his stomach, to pay for his children’s education and to keep the hearth burning. He would give it up the instant he found other work. Other, dignified work.
The burden of increasing urbanisation and its accruing filth is borne by a total of 18,000 Jal Board employees across Delhi. Most workers, loyal and seasoned, have a minimum work experience of 10 years. This is because there has been no new recruitment since 1998, a time when the workforce of the Board was almost double (with 37,000 workers). However, despite their enduring loyalty through the years, there is an apparent attitude of apathy towards the workers.
To shield themselves from exposure to gases, the workers express a strong preference for protective gear such as full body suits. Maintaining that the ‘unlettered’ workers fail to appreciate such technology, many Jal Board officials approach the issue of workers’ safety with callousness. A group of workers in the past were given a lone oxygen cylinder and a mask. It proved to be redundant.
He remembers getting into a sewer with a bare oxygen cylinder on his back and a mask on his mouth. The cylinder was ill fitting, too burdensome on his back; it impeded his work. He knew he was risking his life. The lone cylinder, he thought, was nothing like a full body suit. It left him exposed to grave injuries and bodily contamination.
There is little respect for the life of a sanitation worker, someone who sanitises our environment but is outcast in return. The workers recount several instances of tragic on-site accidents, injuries and neglect on the part of the DJB officials. While a few acknowledge that not all officers are unsympathetic, most workers are disappointed and feel betrayed: “There is no law to protect us. No one to support us. Who cares for us?” a chorus of voices erupt.
The workers, even in the absence of adequate protective technology, do not fear the loss of their lives. Their deepest insecurity is the fate of their family in the event of their death. And what worries them sick is the absence of social security support – a whole gamut of entitlements concerning pensions, health insurance, food, housing, electricity, children’s education.
Among the welfare facilities that the DJB claims to extend to the employees, the Staff Welfare Fund is meant to cover costs in the wake of accidents, premature death, prolonged illness of employees or their dependents. It also promises funds for scholarship, a daughter’s marriage, subsidised holiday home facility, medical facilities (including medical advance), compensation in case of death or partial disability, compassionate appointments to legal heirs, payment of bonus and even a ‘dirt allowance’ (mustard oil, washing soap, hard soap) for those who come in direct contact with sewage.
The ‘dirt allowance’ has been gradually withdrawn, while a medical advance is mostly never forwarded, leaving the worker to file for a belated reimbursement, which is paid to him after a portion of it is habitually siphoned. Most of the welfare promises remain on paper. Worse still, an employee’s assistance cell – to help unlettered, semi-lettered employees with information about available welfare facilities, filing forms or writing grievances and claiming medical reimbursement – too remains on paper. “They keep us in the dark about everything and the educated ones amongst us are deliberately oppressed,” says a worker. Repeated attempts by workers to learn about their provident fund have been dismissed by officials who instruct the workers to come the next day. “But tomorrow never comes,” rues a worker.
Their friend was forced to enter the manhole. The gas hit him so hard that he fainted. Officers at the site ran away, not taking responsibility for his life. A fellow worker, who rushed him to the hospital, contemptuously remarked: “Should the officer have saved his own life or our friend’s?” Neither was a medical advance forwarded nor any compensation offered. The victim was bedridden for three months.
Instead of treating the workers with respect and dignity, the Jal Board has been stubbornly indifferent and has not guaranteed adequate safe equipment and security conditions for the workers. This stands to violate a 2011 order passed by the Supreme Court in response to a PIL (Delhi Jal Board versus National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and
Allied Workers & Others) filed by the Human Rights Law Network in the Delhi High Court in 2007. Appallingly, in 2008, the Jal Board had challenged the order (dated 21.04.2008) passed by the High Court and filed an appeal in the Supreme Court contending that the Delhi High Court ‘overreached its powers while awarding compensation and directing them (DJB) to ensure safety and security of the sewage workers.’
Brazen insensitivity towards distressed, dalit workers is a function of casteist mindsets rooted in the stifling hierarchy of caste structures. Offering an explanation for the Jal Board official’s indifference, a worker says, “It is because we are dalits. Dirty and exploited.” His eyes a mix of hurt and wisdom, he proceeds to add, “But handling filth everyday does not make us dirty people, except in the eyes of the officers and the public.” The silence that follows is a piercing reminder of the everyday humiliation that the workers endure.
It is hereditary caste-bondage to menial work, not choice, that keeps the sewage workers chained to this job. For generations, they have toiled to provide us with clean surroundings. But save for hurt, exploitation and untouchability, they receive little in return. Discrimination is sometimes overt, with non-dalit castes -- Jats, Brahmins, Thakurs -- also occupying permanent posts of sewage workers. “But they do private dhandha. They are dealers or small shop owners. They never do the ‘dirty’ work. It’s we who touch shit,” the workers inform.
It is no surprise then to witness upper-caste Jats returning to the Jal Board branch office in their car, a white Alto. One learns that they report to work only to leave for jobs unrelated with ‘dirt’, and return from their ‘clean’ jobs every evening to grace the biometric machine with their finger scans. Attendance recorded. Yes, this happens under the nose of the Jal Board officials.
From the brazen strut to their carefree nonchalance and loud pleasantries, the demeanour of Jat fellow workers towards their dalit workmates is severely patronising. The scene of a young Jat condescendingly pinching the cheek of a senior dalit employee in a show of affection mirrored subtle cruelty. Such expression of affection was ill received by the employee, who tolerated it without protest but felt humiliated nonetheless.
Wives of most workers render part-time domestic labour, are employed as sweepers in schools, or are homemakers. And their children attend government schools where, the workers unanimously agree, teachers fritter away time listening to music and discriminate against their children. A worker said, “With such poor quality education, where will our children get work?” Another added, “Who likes to be soiled in muck all day? Would I ask my child to do this work? No.”
He feels that the Sheila Dikshit ‘sarkar’ completely failed him. It never understood his poverty and slapped the poor with caps on cylinders, increasing inflation and ghettoised living in ‘harijan bastis’. He feels demoralised, disheartened and uncertain about his job. The voice of Tarapal Tomar, his union leader, echoes in his head: “What will ‘sarkar’ privatise next? The air we breathe? Privatisation will not only make it difficult to buy a bottle of water but also render the workers jobless when private companies bring in their own labour.”
(Agrima Bhasin is a researcher at the Centre for Equity Studies, a New Delhi think-tank engaged in research and policy advocacy on issues of social and economic justice. This is the final part of her series on Delhi’s safai karamcharis, researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2012)
Infochange News & Features, August 2013