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Low Wages, No Safety Equipment, Institutional Apathy: How Manual Scavenging is Still Practised in Kolkata

Contractors employ sanitation workers on a daily basis. For four hours of work some contractors pay Rs 230, others pay Rs 180.

Sanitation workers are used to descending into the sewers just wearing their underwear. They are used to drinking tea in a huff while standing in a manhole. What other choice do they have?

Bapi Bhoiya, Rajesh Hazra, Babu Maji, Shibdashi Hazra state outright, “In order to earn money we have no other option but to get down in the drain.”

Sourav Dutta writing for Anandabazaar Patrika reports that despite laws being in place, Kolkata’s sewage pipelines and septic tanks are still cleaned manually by sanitation workers.

As per the report, they don’t have access to protective equipment like masks, gloves etc. They get to work at 8 am and embark on the oft-ignored work of cleaning after the city.

Bapi who has shifted to Tangra recently told Anandabazaar Patrika, “After getting down into the sewers, the stench is of course there. I just stuff tobacco into my mouth to distract myself from the smell.”

The sanitary workers use bamboo sticks to check the depth of the water in the sewers.

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Anandabazaar Patrika reports that another manual scavenger Sanjib said, “We won’t descend into neck-deep sewage. We wear shorts or gamchha (towel) before descending into the depths.”

Gloves, boots, masks are supposed to be provided but workers employed in cleaning the sewers near the Topsia’s ward office in Gobra said, “None of that is there!”

Anandabazaar Patrika reported that the sewage water is also poisonous. Various NGOs supporting the rehabilitation of manual scavengers have reported that diseases often plague the workers because of toxic work conditions. Another sanitation worker Gautam Harir said, “When working in the sewers, our hands and feet are often slashed by sharp objects. The contractors don’t even reimburse us for the medical expenses due to such injuries.”

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He added, “Everyone is mindful that if they fall sick, they will be refused the money that they need for their children’s education and household expenses. Hence, even if a worker falls sick, no one goes to the doctor. That polluted sewage water is our antiseptic.”

A large number of manual scavengers have died trying to clean sewage pipelines and septic tanks, across the country. However sanitation worker Rajesh Hazra doesn’t have the time to think about those statistics.

Smiling Hazra told the newspaper, “I descend into the sewers, ten minutes after I open the manhole cover. Our life is in the sewers. We eat, drink and do everything else in the sewers.”

When asked if he goes for health checkups, Rajeshwar Rai said, “We don’t require them.”

After coming home from work, most sanitation workers tend drinking heavily. Mominpur resident Brijesh Balmiki said, “Such is our work. If we don’t drink, we can’t fall asleep.”

Six years ago the Parliament passed the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013. According to that law, those engaged in this profession are supposed to be rehabilitated. At the state level, the administration should be aware if anyone is being employed in such work, as per reports.

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However, sanitation workers said that the ‘Babus’ give out the contracts of cleaning the sewers to contractors. The contractors then employ sanitation workers on a daily basis. For four hours of work some contractors pay Rs 230, others pay Rs 180.

Bapi Bhoiya told Anandabazaar Patrika, “’Babus’ are the corporation workers. They are all ‘Babus’ to us.”

Tarak Singh, in-charge of Kolkata municipality’s Sewerage & Drainage division said, “We have stopped employing people to do such work in the municipality. We don’t outsource the work to contractors either. We are following the orders of the Supreme Court. We have advanced machinery to clean the sewer pipelines. A few private organisations are trying to malign the reputation of the municipality.”

The secretary of National Commission for Safai Karamchari (NCSK) Narayan Das told Anandabazaar Patrika, “Neither municipality workers nor sanitation workers from the contractors are engaged in manual scavenging. We will take swift action if we receive any such complaints. There are government initiatives to rehabilitate workers involved in this profession. Hence they have no fear of losing their occupation.”

Roy, who works for the contractor, told Anandabazaar Patrika, “We are the contractor. We get contracts from the municipality. We hire workers for Rs 210 every day and get the job done.”

When asked about the gloves, boots and masks required for such work, he said, “Those are not necessary. The safety gear gets in the way of the cleanup.”

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About the scavenging machines, the newspaper reports that Rajkumar Singh, an employee working for a contractor said, “Can the machines do the work of men! We extract soil from inside the pipes. Hence the municipality gives the work out to contractors.”

Singh, however, claims that the sanitation workers he employs get to work wearing protective gear. According to him, if the scavengers are injured at work, they are provided medical aid. However, Shibdasi and Rajeshwar deny this.

Shibdasi earns her pay by cleaning toilets. She said, “It hurts to clean toilets by sprinkling powder. It is better if 2-4 buckets of water are poured into the toilet first. However, we don’t get more than two buckets of water.”

Still, several women travel from Natun para in Tangra to do such work.

While scrubbing a public toilet Saraswati Hazra admitted, “I have ailments on my hands and legs, but if we don’t do the work, how will we earn?”

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