“I have witnessed three deaths since I entered this profession. People enter septic tanks and die… This drain is relatively easier as it is an open drain,” said Navi Shah (48), a contractual sanitation worker with the Delhi Public Works Department. Shah and an army of several others are tasked with making sure that roads don’t overflow with water once the monsoon hits the city in July. The initial deadline for completion of work was June 15.
According to PWD officials, 60% of drains that come under their jurisdiction in the city have been desilted. “The first phase of desilting will be complete by the onset of monsoon. We have extended the deadline to June 25,” said Chief Engineer, PWD, Umesh Mishra.
At the Raj Ghat service lane, a team of eight has been working since March to rid the drain of silt. Oblivious to the cockroaches and the dust, workers said they have seen worse.
With 15 years of experience, Shah has a few tricks up his sleeve. When he works in hot, gas-filled drains, those around him pour Limca on his head to cool him down. “And when the drain is septic, I burn a piece of paper and throw it in. It helps clear the air,” he said.
“We don’t want to do this, but we have to feed our families. Every once in a while, a minister comes and tells us that it is because of us that the city is not flooding. That gives us a sense of accomplishment,” said Vijay Kumar (35), as he breaks for lunch.
Last week, BJP MLAs inspected PWD drains and alleged that desilting work had “not even begun”.
“PWD has 1,260 km of roads under it. Around 65% of drains under my jurisdiction have been desilted,” said a PWD official in charge of the ITO area.
However, the municipal corporations believe otherwise. “Most of the incomplete drains come under PWD. The drains are all connected and all our progress will be washed away as monsoon sets in,” said an EDMC official.
However, work is far from complete in their areas as well. While the North Corporation has finished work on 63% nallahs under their jurisdiction, East Corporation officials said that they have completed 84% of their work. South corporation has desilted 68% drains.
While sewers can be cleaned by machines employed by the Delhi Jal Board, open drains with dry waste have to be cleaned manually.
Workers said things have improved since the machines came in. “Years ago at a big project in Vikaspuri, there was a 50-foot-drain that required cleaning. The owner offered Rs 15 lakh for anyone who would go in. I took the leap of faith. I told the owner to give the Rs 15 lakh to my family if I died in the drain. And if I came out alive, I would take Rs 20,000,” said Shah.