When livelihood puts you six feet under

Credit: thewire.in

By Shreya Haridas

Chennai, Dec 22: Twisting his hand inside a pale, headless, wobbling goat carcass, D Segharan gets hold of something inside the goat. He then squeezes out its faeces like milking a cow (SIMILE), into a tank filled with mehendi-coloured goat faeces. In the slaughter house, where malnourished butchers work with dirty shirts dotted with blood stains, resembling the piled-up goat skins at the entrance, the 75-year old wears a relatively clean blue shirt with a torn sleeve. He bargains beside a pay-and-use toilet adjacent to the slaughter house, which brings back all the food digested back to the mouth. “I will clean your sewer, but you should take me to your place and drop me back,” he fixes the deal.

“My father used to clean sewers. Thus, I too got into the profession,” Segharan remarks, as if it is not a big deal to clean sewers. He studied till 7th standard, and wants his daughter, who is currently in 7th standard, to study as much as she can. His wife used to work at a tannery till three years before, but now is a house-wife, to look after their naughty daughter.

Segharan belongs to Scheduled Castes (SC) category who have been traditionally cleaning sewers and doing other menial jobs. Although the government has come up with the Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act, 2013, banning the practice of employing people from cleaning sewers, the lack of regulatory mechanisms and alternatives, pushes the uneducated lower class into the profession again. Despite the Act, a government survey conducted in February 2019 in 170 districts in 18 states identified 54,130 people engaged in this job. According to data published by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in December 2019, Tamil Nadu alone has recorded 40 deaths while cleaning sewers between November 2016 and 2019, the highest in India. In a recent survey by Change India NGO, Tamil Nadu registered a death of 206 manual scavengers, the highest in India. In spite of a programme such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, little attention is devoted to this aspect of sanitation. Socio-Economic Caste Census data reveals that 1, 80, 657 households are engaged in this work for a livelihood. Another study shows that 80% of India’s sewage cleaners die before they turn 60, after contracting various infectious diseases.

“Nobody, not even the corporation, has told us not to engage in this. In fact, the corporation asks us to clean sewers most of the time.” The corporation has also started to provide them with protective gear, like hand gloves, boots and masks, since four years. Earlier, they used to clean sewers with bare hands and legs and no masks. “We don’t smell anything stinky in the sewers. It’s just like our surroundings.”

Segharan has a toilet at home- an advantage of being an SC in an urban area.

Ramachandran, 30 years, who accompanies Segharan wherever he goes says, “He is like my brother.  My life is also similar to his…my father used to clean sewers and we also belong to SC.”

Segharan also goes for painting buildings, which he says is the hardest job he has ever taken up. He gets only Rs 700 for painting, while he earns Rs 10 per goat and Rs 2000 per sewer he cleans.

Segharan describes how he cleans a sewer. “I wear my gear and go down through the manhole. The sewer is almost 6 feet deep. I take the faeces out and collect them on a sheet or paper laid outside. Then we take it to some other place, sometimes to near my house and let it dry for one day. Then the corporation van comes and collects the dry faeces along with other wastes and dumps it in some other place, mostly at Perungudi.”

He complains that the Chennai corporation is a “no-chance.” They don’t allow manual scavenger unions, and don’t allow them ID cards referring to them as sewer cleaners. The corporation also denies them receipts for their salary, which is given in cash.

Ravichandran L, Hony. Dy. Controller of Sulabh International , an NGO which has been in the forefront of the fight against manual scavenging says that Sulabh has its own definition for manual scavenging. They recognize cleaning dry latrines only as manual scavenging and not cleaning of sewers. Sulabh has propagated the use of twin-pit latrines since 1970s, where human waste is coverted into manure by living organisms like insects and earthworms. “Mahatma Gandhi said that ‘Everyone must be his own scavenger.’ With our latrines, you can clear your own and your family’s waste. If a mother cleans her baby, it is not scavenging…but if non-family cleans our waste, it is scavenging.” About the health of manual scavengers, he says, “They contract many diseases like jaundice, cholera etc during their job, most of them water-borne diseases. Some of them slip in the sewer and die.”