New Delhi: Omar Kumar gets drunk every day before he goes to work. It is the only way he can cope with spending hours chest-deep in Delhi’s stinking sewers. “I have to drink alcohol—if I don’t, I cannot work,” he said, after another shift unblocking tunnels beneath the Capital’s slums, suburbs and factories.
Kumar, a 30-year-old father of four, is one of thousands of men employed as beldars, climbing down filthy manholes 8ft deep, dressed only in underpants and equipped with little more than a hoe and a wooden bar.
“When inside, the stench is so strong it hits you in your face,” said Kumar’s brother-in-law Vinod, also a sewage worker. “It is like descending into hell. Rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes. Dirty sludge and human waste all around. I hate my job but I have to earn money for my children.”
A campaign to improve conditions for Delhi’s sewer cleaners recently scored a major victory when the Delhi high court last month issued a code of practice for the private agencies and contractors that employ the men.
“Sewer cleaners are operating in working conditions wholly incompatible with human dignity and hazardous to health,” justice A.P. Shah said in his ruling.
The code orders employers to be made responsible for the health and safety of their workers, and for all hired men to be issued with a logbook to record their pay and any work-related injuries. It also demands sewer cleaners get free medical checks and care, protects against dismissal for ill health and offers compensation for the families of anyone who dies at work.
Under the code, which is yet to be implemented, every worker must also be issued with a daily allowance of soap and oil to clean themselves after emerging from the sewers.
But Vinod, who like Kumar belongs to the Valmiki community, a caste at the bottom rung of the country’s social hierarchy, is deeply sceptical.
“When will I get these benefits?” he wondered. “We are told we will get Rs150 a day in pay but Rs30 is taken away by the contractors as fees for hiring us.” “So when they talk about insurance and benefits, I don’t see it reaching us.”
Health problems, and drug and alcohol addiction, are common among beldars who spend 8 hours a day wading through sewage, said Hemlata Kansotia, a social worker.
“Often, children get into the drug habit, too. There is no money or inclination to go to school. They follow their parents into this job. It’s a vicious circle,” she said.
A 2005 report by a New Delhi-based Centre for Education and Communication, a think tank, found that half the city’s sewage workers were malnourished or suffered from chronic illnesses. Ashish Mittal, one of the doctors who wrote the report, said the high court’s intervention was desperately needed. “Many workers die of asphyxiation,” he said.
“A confined space without much oxygen can also cause syncope, which is a sudden loss of consciousness due to a stoppage of blood to the brain. Its long-term effects can be debilitating.”
The manholes are too narrow for workers to wear protective suits, so skin problems and respiratory tract infections are also common, Mittal said.
“These (court) provisions are not sufficient but it is a start,” said Harilal P. Mishra, who heads the voluntary National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage Workers. Some 36 workers died due to work-related diseases and injuries between 2002 and July 2008, according to Mishra’s count. “None of the families received any proper compensation.” he said.