Twenty rupees is all he gets for plunging into a manhole from which there is no guarantee of returning alive. Sami* does it nevertheless, oblivious to the neat people walking past him on the road, holding their noses.
He does it bare-bodied, save for a loin cloth to cover his manhood and a belt secured around his shoulder and waist, which a helper holds by a jute rope. Only, he prays to his kuladeivam (clan God) Muneeswaran before taking a dip into the sooty black waters of the sewer tank.
Eyes and mouth shut tight, he dives deep into the 15-foot deep tank. Besides human waste, such things as blades, knifes, pet bottles and discarded sanitary napkins and condoms clog the drains. These he scoops with his bare hands.
Thirty-five seconds later, he emerges from the hole, hands filled with waste matter. He looks up, his hair and moustache dripping with sewage water and says: “Don’t look so surprised. I have been doing it for five years now.”
“If you can hold your breath for long and not be fussy about dirt, you can do this job,” he says. The over-200 men who clean these toxic gas chambers in the city for Chennai Metrowater are employed on contract.
They say they are denied the benefits of a permanent employee despite putting in four to five years of regular service.
Several of them, including Sami, are poor tribals who migrated to the city in search of work years ago. They have settled in localities such as Tambaram, Nerkundram and Koyambedu in the city.
Sami said they clean 15 sewer tanks per day for ten days a month. The work is divided between three to four cleaners in every depot. “Sundays are off, and we don’t get paid for it,” he adds. Thus, he makes a little over Rs.3,000 a month.
Being contract labourers, sewer cleaners say, they suffer several disadvantages at work. “The contractor keeps changing every six months or so and there are no fixed terms of employment,” says Nathan*, another cleaner.
“Cleaners often get trapped in the narrow passages within the sewer tank. Sometimes we hurt ourselves against the rough edges of the drain. Blades and used syringes pierce our hands,” he adds.
He drew attention to the five different injury marks on his arms.
There have been occasions when deaths and serious injuries have gone unreported, he says. Sometimes, cleaners have dropped the heavy metal lids of the manhole on their feet, crushing them. But they do not have access to medical assistance which permanent workers enjoy.
Sewer cleaners say for several years now no new workers have been recruited and that they are overworked. “When there is a shortage of labour we are summoned to other depots for work when drains get clogged there,” he says.
Sami says officials at the Metrowater depot do not even provide them a soap to bathe with and he carries his own sunnambu soap. There are days when he cannot find enough time to clean himself before lunch. “On such days I sit on the pavement outside the hotel and eat. No one would let me in like this,” he says, pointing to his soiled self.
(Originally published in The Hindu, Chennai edition on Jul 06, 2008)