Treading water in a city gone under – A day in the life of a sump operator in Patna

With Nitish government under fire, the motors at Saidpur sump house, hoping to clear Patna’s waterlogged localities, haven’t stopped running since Oct 1— amidst inspections by senior officials and the occasional blown fuse.

One of the four operators on the 6 am to 2 pm shift, Sharma has to ensure that the pump sets discharge water into a drainage tank, from where it is pumped out to the Rampur canal. (Express Photo by Alok Jain)

The four motors at the Saidpur sump house haven’t stopped since October 1, when they first roared to life after remaining submerged for five days following one of the worst cases of water-logging in Patna. Jogendra Sharma, 51, can’t switch off either.

“Any senior government official can drop in for a random inspection… we have to be prepared,” says Sharma, one of the four operators on the 6 am to 2 pm shift at the sump house. Besides the operators, there are two sweepers and six electricians on each of the three shifts.

With the city under water and the blame over the civic mess washing right up to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s door, the Urban Development Ministry, the Patna Municipal Corporation (PMC) and the Bihar Urban Infrastructure Development Corporation (BUIDCO), an urban planning body that maintains all 39 sump houses in Patna, have been on alert.

For three crucial days from September 28 to 30, as Rajendra Nagar, a low-lying colony in the state capital that is home to VIPs and bureaucrats, remained under water, the Saidpur sump house had remained non-functional. As the water levels rose, many people, including Deputy CM Sushil Modi who lives in the colony, were evacuated. Amidst the uproar over the stalled sumps, the state government could do little but to wait for the water to recede. Thankfully, says Sharma, the water didn’t damage the pumps.

The sump house, or the Saidpur Drainage Pumping Plant, drains out storm water from the colony and nearby areas through a network of chambers and trunks.

While most of the water has been drained out, some areas in Rajendra Nagar, especially around the Moinilul Haque Stadium, still remain water-logged. With patience running thin, the motors at the sump house have been running all day.

This Wednesday morning, Sharma has to ensure that the entire system works to flow-chart precision — right from the pump sets that discharge water into a drainage tank at the site, from where water is pumped out to the Rampur canal that flows into the Punpun river on the southern outskirts of the capital.

Amidst the roar of the motors and the water gushing into the tank — an 80-feet-long, 20-feet-wide and 20-feet-deep pit into which the storm water from Rajendra Nagar flows in — Sharma’s colleague Vijay Kumar recalls how the flood waters rendered the sump house non-functional for five days. “The hall where all the motors are kept was under 4-to-6 feet of water. There was no way we could have started the motors. Even after the water receded and we started the pumps, we stood on wooden structures since there are cables that run along the ground near the electric panel area and we were worried about electrocution,” he says.

The six pump sets in the hall — two of which are are back-up diesel pump sets — are connected with huge suction pipes to the drainage tank.

As he prepares to take another round of the sump house area, Sharma, who earns

Rs 9,693 from his job as a contract worker with the BUIDCO, wonders why his life should interest anyone. “We are insignificant, so are our lives and jobs,” he shrugs.

Sharma says he has always done the morning shift since he began work at the sump house in 2010, setting off from his rented home in Naubatpur at 5.30 am every day.

It is 11 am. Suddenly, the roar of the pumps is broken by the sound of an explosion from inside the hall housing the motors. The electrician on duty rushes to the room, followed by Sharma and the others. “It’s from the electric panel. The fuse of one of the motors has blown,” says the electrician.

Sharma and the others decide to get one of the two back-up diesel pumps started. As the other two workers assist Sharma, the two sweepers measure the depth of water inside the drainage tank.

It is 12.30 pm. PMC Commissioner Amit Kumar Pandey and Additional Municipal Commissioner Sheela Irani have arrived on a random inspection at the sump house. Pandey asks an operator about the trucks used to move garbage out of the water-logged areas. “In the field, sir,” responds the worker. Agitated, the PMC commissioner says, “Do I look like a fool to you? I have been sweating it out in the field and I didn’t see a single truck. Do you want to explain to commissioner saab (Urban Development Commissioner Chaitanya Prasad, who is part of the inspection team and is some metres away from the others)? Be prepared to be suspended.” The workers stand, heads bowed.

The PMC Commissioner is also upset that the dozen-odd additional workers that the PMC has pressed into service aren’t present at the sump house. “On salary day, every one turns up. Once they get their salaries, you don’t get to see them,” he says angrily.

All this while, Sharma keeps himself busy, filling small jars with diesel for the stand-by pump, at a safe distance from the senior officers. The officers soon leave and Sharma heaves a sigh of relief.

It is now 2 pm and Sharma’s shift has come to an end. As he packs up, he says, “I have spent close to a decade watching this murky water. Hamari to kat gayi. Naye bachchon ke liye sarkar ko kuchh karna chahiye (My time is over. Hope the government does something for the younger workers).”

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