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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The case of the disappearing manhole cover

Indian manhole covers have a global market. But the Howrah-based foundries making them are in decline.

Written by Bibek Debroy |
Updated: March 11, 2021 8:45:52 am
There is a difference between casting and forging and manhole covers aren’t sophisticated enough to require forging.

There is a delightful 2014 documentary film by Natasha Raheja called Cast in India about manhole covers in New York and how they are made in India (for the film, Howrah). Indeed, manhole covers in New York, and many parts of the US, have a “Made in India” stamp. (The word manhole sounds better than gender-neutral terms like maintenance hole.) That stamping is because of rules-of-origin requirements for imported manhole covers. “Manhole rings or frames, covers, and assemblies thereof must be marked on the top surface by means of die stamping, cast-in-mould lettering, etching, engraving, or an equally permanent method of marking.” There are different types of manhole covers, depending on the end-use and material used. End-use might mean municipal authorities, commercial or industrial facilities, or utility pits. The material used might be cast iron, steel, other metals, concrete, or steel-fibre reinforced concrete.

Decades ago, when I used to work in Kolkata, a colleague and I were walking along College Street. He was a few feet ahead of me. It was raining heavily and College Street was covered in water, ankle-deep. After it poured, it took a while for the water to drain off. Suddenly, ahead of me, my colleague vanished. There was an open manhole in front of us, with the cover stolen. Had the road not been submerged in water, we would have noticed it and stepped aside. Since we didn’t, he descended into the manhole and it could very well have been me, had he not opted to be the leader. I raised an alarm and people came and rescued him, covered with filth and stinking. He was lucky to be alive. Every year, around 150 people die because of open manholes. Injuries from open manholes and deaths from other open pits are different. There have been court cases where municipal authorities have been asked to compensate for their negligence. My friend was fortunate and the muck was cleaned up, to the best of our ability. We lived close to each other and every day, on the way home from work, we used to return together, by bus. On a normal day, the bus would be crowded and we had to push and jostle to get in. On that particular day, despite the cleaning, people sniffed in his general direction and the crowd parted. We got comfortable seats.

Despite multiple end-uses and materials, we typically associate manhole covers with ones on municipal streets, hardly noticed, and usually made out of cast iron. (Roman excavations show manhole covers made out of limestone.) Typically, though not invariably, manhole covers are round and there is a famous question, popularised by Microsoft, asking why manhole covers are round. Our manhole covers aren’t particularly pretty and we aren’t fascinated by them, unlike in Japan, where there are artistic manhole covers (6,000 are listed) and there is a “Japan Society of Manhole Covers”. Remo Camerota wrote a book (Drainspotting) on Japan’s manhole covers. Mimi Melnick and Robert A Melnick have two books (one for Los Angeles, the second for all of the US) on manhole covers as a form of industrial art and their role in US culture. But the Indian ones are staid stuff, cast iron or concrete. The shift towards concrete is driven by theft, as stealing numbers are strongly correlated with the increase in metal prices. A few years ago, there was a media report that 10,000 manhole covers were stolen in Kolkata over two months. A concrete manhole cover doesn’t completely eliminate theft, though, since there might be a little bit of iron in the handles.

There is a difference between casting and forging and manhole covers aren’t sophisticated enough to require forging. Historically, India has had a tradition of casting. There are geographical clusters of modern foundries, with each cluster tending to specialise — Coimbatore for pump-sets, Kolhapur and Belgaum for automotive components, Rajkot for diesel engines, Howrah for sanitary equipment and so on. The US also has foundries going back to the 19th century. They make cast iron manhole covers, but the US needs to import them. A cursory look at US trade data suggests these are generally imported from India, China is rendered uncompetitive because of anti-dumping duties. A cursory look at Indian trade data suggests India exports manhole covers to the US, Canada, Belgium, Spain, Germany, South Africa and the Middle East (Qatar, Oman, UAE). While some exports occur through Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT) and Agra ICD, most take place through Kolkata, by sea.

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As depicted in the documentary film, this pins it down to Howrah, not just for sanitary equipment, but also cast-iron manhole covers. Catering initially to cotton and jute industries, foundries in Howrah originated in the 19th century. There are probably around 300 now. But the peak has long been over. There is an assorted range of problems to account for the decline — non-availability of pig iron and coke, labour problems, infrastructure issues, availability and price of power, and capital flight in general. To state the obvious, most are MSMEs and haven’t invested in the modernisation of technology. With environmental norms tightening, they have been asked to move outside municipal limits, making land an issue too. Naturally, Howrah foundries don’t make only manhole covers. But more often than not, cast-iron Indian manhole covers originate in Howrah.

I think someone should write a book on Indian manhole covers. Can manhole covers sold be a surrogate indicator of new road construction activity, as opposed to widening existing roads?

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 11, 2021 under the title ‘Mind the gap’. The writer is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. Views are personal


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