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The rain men: A day in the life of Mumbai’s sewer cleaners this monsoon

It’s monsoon in Mumbai again, one year after a doctor fell down an open manhole and days after a 3-yr-old died similarly. It’s on the 2,097 labourers like Chaughule that Mumbai depends to man its drains. But rain doesn’t worry Chaughule, it is what lies beneath: “There is just so much plastic”.

Hindmata Junction in Parel on June 9, the day IMD declared start of monsoon, when Chaughule spent more than five hours standing in water. (Express photo/Amit Chakravarty) Hindmata Junction in Parel on June 9, the day IMD declared start of monsoon, when Chaughule spent more than five hours standing in water. (Express photo/Amit Chakravarty)

THE previous weekend, with heavy showers forecast, Sandeep Chaughule and his friends had been braced for the worst. June 8 had passed by quietly. But by the time he had reported to work on June 9, overnight showers had resulted in floodwater rising dangerously at Hindmata Junction in Parel, Central Mumbai. Within an hour, the water had reached up to the pavement and snaked forward, forcing Chaughule to prise open the nearest manhole and hope for the best.

Wet weekends are typical of Chaughule’s job as a labourer in the Sewerage Operations Department of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). But it is on days when clouds linger on the Mumbai skyline, hinting and teasing at rain but not quite delivering, that Chaughule’s job manning open manholes becomes more crucial. On such days the men inspect the insides of the drainage network that flushes out floodwater from the city, and clear it of blockages.

Chaughule, 32, is part of a mammoth effort undertaken by the BMC each monsoon to minimise flooding at spots prone to waterlogging. In the island city alone, the BMC has activated 300 pumps with a capacity to drain between 60 and 1,000 cubic meters of water every hour. A total of 2,097 labourers have been deployed in three shifts at these spots, to clean entrances of manholes and to operate excavator, suction and desilting machines, to allow flood water to drain away while ensuring the safety of passing pedestrians and motorists.

Chaughule, 32, is part of a mammoth effort undertaken by the BMC each monsoon to minimise flooding at spots prone to waterlogging. (Express photo/Amit Chakravarty) Chaughule, 32, is part of a mammoth effort undertaken by the BMC each monsoon to minimise flooding at spots prone to waterlogging. (Express photo/Amit Chakravarty)

On August 29, 2017, well-known gastroenterologist Dr Deepak Amrapurkar had died after falling into an open manhole, less than a kilometre from his home in Prabhadevi. The manhole had been opened by residents of a nearby slum to drain water from their flooded homes. Following the incident, the BMC put nets over the city’s manholes. More recently, on June 8, a three-year-old died in Trombay after falling into an open drain. The cover of the drain had blown open due to ‘water pressure’. Police filed a complaint against the private contractor who had failed to clean the silt obstructing the flow of water into the drain.

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For the rest of the eight months in the year when there are no rains, Chaughule cleans and maintains the drains.

As Chaughule gets up to go to work this Wednesday, he hopes there won’t be a repeat of June 9. The Parel native is on the morning shift all this month and makes the short trek from his home in the by-lanes of Parel village to Hindmata Cinema on Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Road to report to work at 7 am. To ensure minimum possible disruption at Hindmata, the BMC has set up a permanent office right below Hindmata flyover, across the road from the cinema.

Flooding at the junction, that stands over a saucer-shaped patch of land, affects traffic movement into Parel and Sewri. After the first showers, images of people wading through knee and sometimes waist-deep water at Hindmata are common.

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Going in, Chaughule and his 20-odd colleagues do not know how the day will go. It’s hot and humid, the air laden due to pre-monsoon showers of the past few days, and Chaughule and his colleagues welcome a breather in the cool of their office — comprising two large aluminium sheds, equipped with fans, tubelights and a few chairs.

Ten minutes later, he leaves to inspect the cover of a drain that has sunk into the ground as a result of recent repair work. The drain network bisects the concrete surface of the road and is laid over with loose paver blocks. “We have raised the drain cover back to the level of the road and laid cement around it so that it isn’t damaged further,” Chaughule says later, his entire morning taken up by the work.

Their spot of luck with the rain continuing, the men use the dry weather to inspect other drain covers as well.

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As the morning winds down, talk turns to the theft of two manhole covers in the locality the day before. A cast iron manhole cover weighs more than 50 kg and fetches upwards of Rs 70,000 in the recycling market. In BMC’s F-South Ward alone (of which Parel is a part), there are 5,000 manholes.

After a home-cooked lunch of roti and vegetables at the office, Chaughule and team return to inspect a drain just a few feet away. They pry open the lid with pickaxes even as their colleagues place barricades around to offer protection from traffic racing around them. Under the lid, they find pieces of plastic, one rubber slipper and assorted bits of garbage, and remove it wearing thick black elbow-length rubber gloves. The men then place a circular iron grill that fits snugly into the opening — the BMC’s insurance against death or serious injury in case someone falls in. The manhole’s lid will be replaced after all the garbage is cleared and water washed down. Chaughule and the others are required to stock such grills with them. The men then place a flag on poles seven feet high warning ‘Danger, open manhole’, before spreading out across the road and telling pedestrians to keep away.

On dry days, Chaughule and his team must ensure that manholes are clear of all garbage, to allow water to flow out. (Express photo/Amit Chakravarty) On dry days, Chaughule and his team must ensure that manholes are clear of all garbage, to allow water to flow out. (Express photo/Amit Chakravarty)

“Garbage flowing in the water gets stuck in the grill and we have to keep pulling it out every five minutes. There is just so much plastic,” Chaughule says later, adding that last year, they had spotted a large TV set floating down the road and pulled it aside just before the water could suck it down a manhole.

At the site where Chaughule is posted, that means opening a series of five manholes to let out the rising rainwater, starting with the one outside the cinema. “It takes us six to seven minutes to open a manhole. So we take a call depending on how close the water is. The crucial thing is to open the manhole before the water reaches it, otherwise it will be impossible to open it because of the pressure,” says Chaughule.

He remembers that on June 9, the day the India Meteorological Department officially announced the beginning of the monsoon, he stood in nearly 2 feet of water for five and a half hours, doing the manhole checks. On days such as that, when more than 100 mm of rainfall was recorded both in the city and suburbs, as on August 29 last year, when the city received 315 mm of rainfall, there are no fixed duty hours. Chaughule says that on that day in August last year, he and his colleagues stood at their posts for more than 25 hours, submerged up to the waist, helping the elderly cross the road, advising pedestrians to stick to safe spots on their way home, and assisting the traffic police in clearing a truck that had stalled in the middle of the road.

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“The safety of people walking on flooded roads is very important. I have the advantage of knowing this area very well, so when someone asks me whether a stretch is safe, I can tell them confidently that they can walk ahead,” says Chaughule, adding that in his seven years of deployment at Hindmata Junction during the rains, there has not been a single instance of a person getting hurt.

Pramod Khedkar, Deputy Chief Engineer at the Storm Water Drains Department, underlines the work done by men like Chaughule in both keeping pedestrians safe and preventing waterlogging.

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Chaughule says he moved to the BMC after quitting his job in the airline hospital industry for the security of government employment. He now earns a Class IV employee’s salary of Rs 5,200 per month, and lives with his mother, wife and twin four-and-a-half-year-old sons.

For the rest of the eight months in the year when there are no rains, Chaughule cleans and maintains the drains. (Express photo/Amit Chakravarty) For the rest of the eight months in the year when there are no rains, Chaughule cleans and maintains the drains. (Express photo/Amit Chakravarty)

Nearly a decade into the job now, Chaughule finds the four months of monsoon a lot less hazardous than this work during the rest of the year, which involves using machines to clean accumulated sludge from drains. “After opening the lid , we wait for at least half an half for all the toxic gases to clear out,” he points out, adding that the job requires them at times to descend into drains to manually insert the pipes of suction machines. “Compared to that, what we do during the rains is nothing. It feels a lot more relaxed,” he says.

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By 3 pm, Chaughule’s shift draws to a close. Removing his orange reflector jacket and gloves, he points to a yellow strip of wood nailed to the wall near the office, that works as a flood-water marker.

“Last week, the water here rose to one and a half feet. But Hindmata now gets a lot less flooded than it did when I was young,” he says, leaving.

First published on: 24-06-2018 at 12:10:07 am
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