When he moved from Karnataka to Mumbai about a decade ago, Manoj Sipre (29) knew life would be tough for an unskilled labourer. But he didn’t imagine then that he would end up where he is today, about 12 feet underground, balancing himself at the base of a 2-feet wide manhole and filling bucket after bucket with the inky black sludge that he’s standing in.
Sipre is barefoot without protective gloves or boots. Across his face is a grubby handkerchief. As Mumbai’s drains are being hastily declogged ahead of the monsoon, Sipre makes more trips into the dark manhole than the others on account of his slight build. “The other workers lower me down with a safety belt. Then they hand over the bucket and the shovel. After the bucket is full, it is pulled up and emptied while I start filling up the next one,” he says. Most drains that would yield several bucketloads of sludge will take multiple trips to clean. Sipre, who lives in Dharavi, is one of the thousands of manual labourers desilting minor nullahs and drains.
Almost everywhere in the suburbs and in South Mumbai, they appear to be working without any protective gear, simply waiting for 20 minutes after opening a manhole cover as the noxious fumes escape, then wading in barehanded. According to the rules in the contracts with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), NGOs provide workers with a mask, a pair of gloves and boots, but these are simply not designed for the job and the labourers prefer to work without them. Sipre opts for a handkerchief tied across his nose before he is lowered into the drain near Mahim station.
“We have to cover our mouths and noses because the smell is unbearable. The mask keeps slipping off, which is why we use the handkerchief. The smell is really strong and I feel dizzy so, I consume gutka, it helps me cope,” he says. Employed by NGOs on contracts to undertake annual desilting after poor response from usual contractors, these workers start their day between 8 and 9 am and work till 5 pm with half-an-hour to spare for lunch. While some NGOs like the Hindu Muslim Samajik Sangathna pay between Rs 700 and Rs 800 to each labourer per day, many others in South Mumbai pay between Rs 300 and Rs 400 a day, depending on the quantum of work. Apart from daily wages, many NGOs provide two meals a day, room rent and medical expenses to the workers.
Not using gloves and boots routinely leads to illness and injuries among the workers. Apart from plastic bags filled with garbage, there are plenty of broken glass pieces in the waste, causing unexpected gashes. Aware of the dangers and bleeding from a fresh cut, 26-year-old Pradip Surve from Madhya Pradesh is still reluctant to put on the protective gear. “If we wear the gloves, the garbage keeps slipping out of our hands and it slows down our work. Besides, the gloves tear because of the glass. The boots are not very effective as water fills up in them and makes it hard for us to walk around. We wear the mask sometimes in the morning. But it gets wet while working and the smell is intolerable, he said.
Surve and his seven co-workers wear a bright orange vest before diving into the mass of filth that is Nityanand Nagar nullah near Matunga station railway lines. Their work may be distasteful but the labourers find the regularity useful.
Barring the pre-monsoon work, many of these workers also spend the four months of monsoon, from June till September, cleaning the nullahs. Thirty-five-year-old Guddu Sheikh, a resident of Nagpada, has started enjoying this work after doing it for several years. “When I moved to Mumbai with my family from Varanasi, I took up the job of transporting goods on a hand cart. But it was an erratic job and the pay was irregular. Then I opted for a job involving desilting of nullahs and drains. We have to work in different localities but its a stable job that has to be done every year,” he says. For the remaining six months, he does odd jobs.
Contractors say providing better working conditions and equipment is just not affordable. Shahid Farooqui, who employs a few labourers, says he’s doing the best with the available resources.
“The BMC does not provide any equipment and I have to bear the cost for it. Besides, the BMC pays around Rs 480 (per day) for every labourer. I have to manage the expenses and pay them Rs 700. There is a need to increase the manpower to complete the job,” he says. In G North ward alone, around 13,500 workers under 27 NGOs are cleaning minor nullahs since April 1. Another 700-odd workers under seven NGOs are cleaning roadside drains. Each NGO is allotted 1 sqkm stretch of nullahs to be cleaned before the monsoon arrives.
For roadside drains, the BMC has allotted 52,120 man-days. For the western suburbs, 1,11,191 man-days have been allotted and 78,235 man-days have been allotted for the eastern suburbs. For minor nullahs, the BMC has allotted 83,584 man-days for the city, 1,14,258 man-days for the western suburbs and 1,73,112 man-days for eastern suburbs. The labourers candidly admit that many of them take refuge in intoxication, primarily alcohol, to get used to the stench.
Vilas Patil (33), who moved to Dharavi from his village in Jalgaon, says he consumes alcohol with lunch to help ignore the odour. “The smell of the nullah never leaves us as we have to swim in it. On most days, I have half-a-quarter of country liquor with my meal and some more when I get home,” he says.
Dr Kaminidevi Bhoir, a psychiatric counsellor for Mumbai Police and a private practitioner, has dealt with such cases for 12 years. “Since I live close to Gautam Nagar in Dadar, which is home to many conservancy workers, around 20-25 of them come to me asking for help. Seeking psychiatric help is considered a social taboo due to which most people won’t go to a hospital. In many cases, the workers’ family members bring them to me with complaints of hallucination. Consuming alcohol on a regular basis can lead to chronic symptoms like losing touch with reality. They experience alcohol-induced psychosis and are in need of psychiatric intervention,” she says.
Bhoir tries to convince them to get admitted to the de-addiction centre at KEM Hospital, but not everyone is willing. One thing the men are certain of is their desire to ensure better job prospects for their children. Patil has enrolled his five-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son in a private school in Ambarnath. “If they study well, they will never have to take up a job like ours,” he says.