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 continued…