The martyr who cleans your drains

Thousands of sanitation workers die every year in India while cleaning sewers. Are their deaths any less than the sacrifices of our armed forces?


A manual labourer is lowered to clean sewage in Kolkata. Photo: Reuters
A manual labourer is lowered to clean sewage in Kolkata. Photo: Reuters

All Arabic words have a three-letter root. Once the root is recognized, the words it forms are easy to pick out. S-J-D is the root for bowing in prayer. From it we get words like sajda (to prostrate in prayer), sajid and sajida (he who and she who lies prostrate in prayer) and also masjid (the place where S-J-D happens).

Almost always the three letters are consonants. Sometimes they are not; for example, the word for light is noor, but the name for luminous is anwar. Where did the O go? Actually it is still there, because in Arabic the letter for O is interchangeable with W.

Similarly, the SH-H-D root stands for martyrdom. From it we get shaheed and shahid, but also shahada. We know shahada, because it is the testimony “La ilaha ill Allah, Muhammad Rasulullah”, meaning that there is only one god, Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.

The meaning of shaheed and shahid is “he who is witness” to this testimony. So what is the relationship between the words martyr and witness? Why are they the same thing? This is something unique to the Abrahamic faiths. Indian languages do not have the word “martyr” and I’ll come to that in a moment.

Martyr is from the Greek word marturia (the letter Y—Upsilon—is pronounced U in Greek). Marturia or martyr also means witness, and here the “witnessing” is to the fact of the word of God.

And so we arrive at the understanding that the word doesn’t mean what we usually think it to mean—i.e., sacrifice. It means someone who to the end insists that the testimony is true.

My Hindi and Gujarati dictionaries translate martyr as shaheed, an Arabic word. This is because there is no revelation to “witness” in Hinduism. Marathi uses hutatma, but here to me the word indicates the afterlife, and is closer to the sacrificial aspect of martyr than the testimonial.

I am writing about this because we are going through days in which martyrdom is being mentioned a lot. Ten soldiers died in Siachen a few weeks ago and one of them, Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad, is a hero because he almost survived the calamity.

Some days later, five men from the security forces died in an attack in Kashmir but two of them, Captains Pawan Kumar and Tushar Mahajan, were singled out for praise because they were officers.

I want to talk about other martyrs.

What is the most lethal work in India? It is done by those who know that their work is dangerous and that the chances of death or injury are very high.

The work kills 2% of those who do it in Delhi, meaning 100 deaths annually in a community of 5,000, according to a 2014 story on the Zee News website. If this ratio were to be applied to the Armed Forces, we would be looking at 40,000 dead soldiers a year, and there would be no end to the news coverage.

But these martyrs that I am referring to find no coverage and no honour, because they work in our sewers.

A January 2014 study by the non-profit Praxis India called “Down The Drain!”, on the occupational and health hazards and the perils of contracting faced by the sewerage workers of Delhi, shows that every year 100 sewerage workers die after entering drains and manholes with high temperature, slippery walls, floors and toxic gases, in Delhi.

The report says that most sewerage workers, due to lack of medical attention, suffer from several dreaded diseases like cardiovascular degeneration, musculoskeletal disorders, infections, skin problems and respiratory ailments.

It adds: Apart from health hazards, the other issues they face are low pay, caste-based discrimination, prejudice, lack of occupational safety and apathy of government agencies.

How do we treat these people?

The report says that in many cases, the sewerage workers are hired on a contractual basis but are removed before the completion of the tenure and not paid in accord with the agreement.

Writing for The Hindu (“Deaths In The Drains”, 4 April 2014) publisher S. Anand said: “According to an estimate I made in 2007, at least 22,327 men and women die in India every year doing various kinds of sanitation work. Figures are hard to come by since this concerns the deaths of a section of population that most of India refuses to see. Santosh Choudhary, then chairperson of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, had told me in 2007 that at least ‘two to three workers must be dying every day inside manholes across India’.”

These are staggering numbers and the fact that we are ignorant and totally unconcerned about a sacrifice of this magnitude says much about our society, none of it good.

For most of us, the idea of martyrdom is limited to the deaths of uniformed men. The emotion we feel is linked to this. Their actions are seen as protecting us from evil, and their sacrifice is seen as deliberate, making it sacred. I cannot resist pointing out here that at midnight on 14 August 1947, we inherited a mercenary army that till a minute before had been available for hire from the time of Herodotus. General Dyer only gave the order at Jallianwala Bagh: The aim was taken and triggers pulled by the Gurkha Regiment and Baloch Rifles.

But even so, all deaths in service require our respect and our admiration, and so it should be for our soldiers. It is just that there are many more of us who rise to the task and offer themselves, deliberately, silently and without recognition, to the nation.

Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.

Also read | Aakar Patel’s previous Lounge columns

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