Hyderabad: 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 this teeming city of about 10 million.
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’s better after the new machines,” said Venkatesh. “I don’t 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 offense.
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 (HMWSSB) and the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC).
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 (here are the first and second parts), 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.
Read the series here:
The Hyderabad Model
In 2018-19, the HMWSSB received a Best Practices Award for mechanising sewer cleaning from the Housing and Urban Development Corporation Limited (HUDCO), 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 GHMC 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 20 November 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; 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 (IPC), 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 2 February 2021, responding to a question in the Rajya Sabha about deaths of
A cursory search of media reports on such deaths in 2016, in Hyderabad alone, uncovered seven. The Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), 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 (the HMWSSB) has largely been stopped,” said K Saraswati, Telangana state convenor of the SKA.
The new machines have now taken over 60% of sewer maintenance in HMWSSB jurisdiction, the rest left to larger machines mounted on large trucks meant to keep the larger sewers clean, M Satyanarayan, HMWSSB executive director told Article 14.
Before the mini sewer-jetting machines deployed in Hyderabad, both HMWSSB and the GHMC tried to maintain their sewer networks with machines on larger trucks, with the HMWSSB deploying 58 and the GHMC 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 HMWSSB 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 labor,” 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 thousand 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 fulfill 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.
Less Than 3% Of Workers Turn Entrepreneurs
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 HUDCO Best Practices Award to HMWSSB 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 DICCI, told Article 14, referring to the ownership of Hyderabad’s mini sewer-jetting machines.
Saraswati of the SKA 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 DICCI through the State Bank of India.
“Wherever we could find workers, we have supported them,” said Narra. “Rest, members of SC/ST communities have been supported in buying the machines.”
He said former sewer workers could become owners only after the DICCI 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.
The (Distant) Dream Of Emancipation
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 SKA said fewer than a third of Hyderabad’s sewer workers were hired by the HMWSSB or the GHMC. 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 don’t 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 a medical or other emergency, 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 emancipation of the vast majority of sewer workers. Most machinery––not just the mini sewer-jetting machines––that the HMWSSB and the GHMC 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 HMWS&SB. He termed the sewer-worker-entrepreneur programme a “quick fix” to a complex problem.
A Cursory Solution To An Enduring Problem
“If I could afford a down payment (Rs 400,000 for a machine) why would I still be in the same (sewer cleaning) work?” Venkatesh asked. Multiple times through the interview, he stressed he didn’t 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 PEMSRA.
“Whenever 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 SKA.
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, The Main 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 law (PEMSRA) 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 HMWSSB and the GHMC said that except for the oil and soap, everything else was arbitrary, and more often than not, workers didn’t 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.
The Enduring Hold Of Caste
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 SCs and STs. 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 HMWSSB and the GHMC, 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 SC or ST 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 27 March 2021, 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 report.