NEW DELHI - Sukh Ram strips to his bare minimum and slithers into a stinky manhole as traffic whizzes above him. With no face masks to protect against odious fumes, no protective gloves and a primitive spade as a tool, his job is to clean a choked drain of muck so that it doesn’t overflow when monsoon rains hit the city.
“Nobody cares about our safety. If we don’t clean these drains the city would come to a standstill and still nobody looks into our needs,” complained Sukh Ram, 35, a migrant labourer from Bihar working in the capital’s elite Jor Bagh area.
“Many of us catch deadly diseases and we are the sole breadwinners of our families,” Ram told an IANS reporter.
Near Pragati Maidan, another worker who refused to give her name said: “They (authorities) do nothing for us. I fear for my children’s health, I don’t want them to go through what we do. We are always inviting deadly diseases and working in fatal conditions.”
Hundreds of ‘nallah beldars’, as sewage and drain cleaners are called and employed by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), work in similar conditions.
Ahead of the monsoon, these agencies are hurrying up to clean drains of months of accumulated rubbish to avert waterlogging on the roads - but mostly without adhering to recommended safety measures.
Between Aug 3, 2008, and May 13 this year, 21 workers died in the mire while cleaning the drains. Of these three were DJB employees, while the rest were daily wagers working on contract for the three agencies.
In March alone, six victims - from Alipur, Narela, Bawana in northwest Delhi and the zoo in Sunder Nagar - died after inhaling toxic gases in the drains they were cleaning. Following these incidents an NGO, National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and Allied Workers (NCDRSAW), filed a petition with the high court to seek safety of workers.
The Delhi High Court had earlier set up a committee of experts to prepare safety guidelines for those who work in underground drains. The experts said every worker needs to be equipped with face masks, gum boots and additional oxygen tanks in case the drain is deeper than four feet. Workers should also be given oils for protecting skin and soap to clean up later.
According to Hemlata Kansotia, co-convener of NCDRSAW and the petitioner in high court, umpteen court directives and guidelines to the agencies have not yielded results. The situation is similar all over India, except in Gujarat, where a strong workers unions’ campaign called the Garima Abhiyan has ensured that the safety norms are followed.
“The high court has placed 16 interim orders for MCD workers and other contract workers demanding safety, ex-gratia payments in case of accidents or death, providing provident fund and social security. A committee has also been set up as per high court orders to ensure the implementation of these orders, but not enough is being done.” Kansotia told IANS. “The directives are not being followed.”
“The MCD, NDMC and the DJB are liable for the deaths of these workers and the high court has given a judgement saying any worker who dies while cleaning drains and sewage lines is entitled to an ex-gratia payment of Rs.300,000 to be paid by the principal employer,” her lawyer Jai Singh said, adding that so far, this had been paid only to the employees who died, not to the daily wagers working through a contractor.
According to members of the high court-appointed committee, workers should ideally undergo medical check-ups every six months as they are susceptible to gastrointestinal disorders, stomach infections, cholera, typhoid and respiratory problems arising due to inhalation of methane gas that collects in the underground sewage lines. The employer should then submit the results of the test to the committee.
Ranjit Kaur, internal medicine specialist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), who has often seen such cases, said: “There is not enough oxygen inside the drains and this often results in hypoxia which can even lead to fatal consequences.”
Hypoxia is the condition when the oxygen supply to the brain is inadequate.
“There are also chances of them catching skin infections and fungal infections due to exposure and infection from rat excreta,” said Suranjit Chatterjee of the Indraprastha Apollo Hospital here.
The petition to the high court said the DJB had not been following requisite safety precautions and equipment provided to the workers were of poor quality. They were also too heavy for comfort.
“Workers prefer not to wear and use the equipment and most of the time DJB engineers are not present at the site,” the petition said.
DJB spokesperson Sanjam Cheema declined to comment about the safety equipment, but said: “We try to educate these workers because most of them are not used to the safety harnesses and do not wish to wear them.”
In the MCD, head of Department of Environment Management Services (DEMS) Anil Prakash said: “We are not the ones dealing with this, it’s the labour welfare officers.”
But Chief Labour Welfare Officer C.A. Dham said: “I have no idea about this. The DEMS is responsible.”
MCD spokesperson Deep Mathur admitted that the safety measures adopted were not “too advanced” as it was “daily wagers who were employed, mostly”.
NDMC spokesperson Anand Tiwari said: “There has been no case of death of our worker in the recent past and all statutory precautions are taken by us.”
(Shweta Srinivasan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)