As 52-year-old Kamlesh lowers himself into the labyrinth of tunnels that stretch for miles underneath the city, he braces himself for a familiar, nauseous explosion of gases. Muck sticks to his body and seeps through his clothes.
A few hours later, Kamlesh has bathed. He sits outside the rusty door of his shanty in the Jamadar Colony of Noida’s Sector 22. His neighbour Bablu died a few days ago while cleaning a manhole outside the ESI Hospital in Noida. A friend died trying to save him, while another who went to rescue them barely escaped with his life.
“Such deaths are nothing new,” says Kamlesh. “At times, death is better. Years of doing this work has given me splitting headaches, skin allergies and breathing problems. Each day brings in new ailments, but I have to keep working.” Kamlesh makes a few thousand rupees a month. The nature of his work is determined by his contractor. On days when the city’s drains are working fine, he finds sweeping work to do. “My contractor tells me which drain to clean. If the drain hasn’t been cleaned for a while, it can take me more than an hour on the job,” he says.
A typical day begins early, with him looking for work. Before entering a manhole, Kamlesh throws a match stick inside to check for poisonous, combustible gases. He lowers himself, without any protective gear, always conscious of the fact that he could face grave injuries that could kill or maim him.
The process of cleaning drains isn’t very complicated, he admits. He does it with his hands, collecting the garbage and bringing it up to the street, from where it is carted off. A “good day” sees him cleaning two or three drains, on lean days he looks for other work.
“The worst thing isn’t the smell, but the small trinkets that remind me of the life above,” Kamlesh adds. “Packets of chips, polythene bags, disposed condoms, needles, blood-stained waste from hospitals, beer bottles.” Upon reaching home, the real battle begins. “My body is covered with all sorts of filth. First I take bath with water, then rub mustard oil and finally use a bartan wali tikia (a soap used to clean utensils) to clean myself. The contractor gives me the soap and oil,” he says.
His children live with his wife in Meerut. Initially Kamlesh is reluctant to reveal what they do, but later he opens up and says that his son too cleans drains, while his wife is a sweeper in a school. Kamlesh belongs to the Valmiki community, a sub-caste considered lower than other Dalit sub-castes such as Dhobi and Vankan. “My caste prevented me from getting any education. My father cleaned toilets and no one wanted their children to study with us. They would call us dirty,” he says.
Protective gear such as full-body suits and oxygen masks have never been provided to him. But he remembers a friend who was once given an oxygen tank to carry on his back. His friend found it cumbersome. Without the protective gear, the heavy tank made movement within the manhole difficult and risked being cut by various sharp objects that find their way into the sewers. “The general belief among contractors is that we won’t be able to handle such technology since we aren’t educated.” He laughs while saying this, a chortling, laboured laugh. “It hurts to laugh, breathing is difficult. I laughed because I have been asked so many times about this equipment by mediapersons, but I have never seen it myself,” he says.
Three men met a similar end as his neighbour Bablu in July last year, at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Two men had entered a blocked drain and hadn’t come up, and another had died trying to save them. Like many deaths that Kamlesh claims to have seen, Bablu’s asphyxiation followed a similar pattern. The police lodged a case, officials turned up to dispense sympathy and make promises, and the odd member from the National Safai Karamchari Commission, NGOs and cameramen all came. “But it only lasts a few days or weeks. Sometimes it is enough to get a job, at other times, the promises are forgotten,” he says.
For Kamlesh, loss of life isn’t the biggest fear. His work, no matter how dangerous, puts food on the table. “If the smell is particularly bad, I wash my face and re-enter. If, even that doesn’t help, we smoke a bidi and drink some booze. Some times the contractor gives us the booze,” he says. In 2006, the Supreme Court had laid down guidelines for cleaning operations for manholes. Primary among them was that, “unless absolutely necessary, civic bodies in the state will not employ human agency to carry out cleaning operations”. State governments were asked to supply equipment for checking the manhole for poisonous gases if entering was required. In case a worker had to enter a manhole, despite perceived risks, “such orders should be given in writing”, the court had said. Periodic medical check-ups, insurance of workers and discontinuance of the use of contractors by civic bodies were also included in the guidelines.
Kamlesh has heard of medical entitlements for those who work in Delhi. But, he says, he can’t make such demands. “If I fall sick, I am on my own. There is no medical advance or compensation. At best, I can get some daaru before the next manhole.” But there is a “positive side”: “Inside, time stops,” says Kamlesh. “It’s only there, when I am covered in filth, that no one treats me like dirt.”