Despite a ban on hazardous cleaning without protective gear, contractors from Delhi’s public works department have employed several workers, including many who claimed to be minors, to desilt rainwater drains manually, without any safety equipment.
At least across four sites in south Delhi – Adchini, Malviya Nagar, Saket and Ber Sarai – where the desilting work is underway, Newslaundry found labourers descending into drains with a hoe in knee-deep sludge, without any rubber boots, hand gloves or body kit, and mostly clothed in their underwear.
Authorities are carrying out desilting, following an order from the , with an eye on the G20 meetings in the national capital in September.
In Adchini locality, where the work has been going on for over a week, no machines have been used and no safety gear allegedly provided to workers who enter eight to 10 feet deep sewers multiple times a day between 9 am and 5 pm.
India had banned manual scavenging almost 10 years ago and prohibited “hazardous” cleaning of sewer and septic tanks without protective gear – through the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavenging and their Rehabilitation Act. The National Human Rights Commission issued an advisory in 2021, stating that sanitary workers “entering or cleaning septic tanks and sewer lines” are required to be provided with helmets, safety jacket, gloves, mask, gumboots, safety eyeglasses, torchlight along with oxygen cylinder.
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A worker taking a break from the desilting work underway at Malviya Nagar.
No safety gear or medical aid
These workers who perform the job for a meagre wage of Rs 300 to Rs 400 per day, in absence of any safety equipment, often step on sharp objects in drains brimming with toxic waste. “Yeh hota rehta hai,” claimed Suresh, 35, a resident of Mahipalpur, who was cleaning a drain in Adchini. It happens often. “If we get injured by broken glass, we come out to treat our injuries and then resume work.”
The labourers mostly work in pairs – one of them enters and digs out the sludge while another stands near the manhole to dump the waste. In case of injuries, the workers put bandages on their cuts before entering the drain again.
Inder Kumar, 20, a labourer at Ber Serai claimed, “You can see how tough our job is. But still our wages have not increased much. Even when we get injured, the contractor deducts the cost for the treatment from our wages.”
At most of the sites, the workers alleged that the cost for even a bandage is deducted from their wage. No tetanus injection or other first aid is made available.
At least of the 10 workers at the Adchini site, and two of the 10 labourers at Ber Sarai, told Newslaundry that they are minors.
“It’s only been a week since I joined work here. But I haven’t entered the sewer yet, I’m scared,” said Arun, a resident of Mahipalpur, who said he was 17 years old and had dropped out of school recently. “I am just cleaning and closing the sewer lid right now. The boys who get into the sewer also get drunk. They start drinking in the morning so that they can work.”
Amarjeet, who also claimed to be a minor, said he cleans the drains as “no other work is available”.
While the supervisor at the site refused to comment on the alleged presence of minors, he maintained that the workers choose not to wear safety equipment despite being provided the same.
Around 46 manual scavengers died in Delhi in the five years up to 2022, even as the Delhi government claimed there were no manual scavengers in the capital, reported last year.
Although the Arvind Kejriwal government flagged off 200 drain cleaning machines in 2019, the labourers at Adchini said they had never used a machine to do the job, and the only option available to them was to get into the drains and clean them manually.
Spelling an intent to end manual scavenging, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a big budget announcement this February allocating nearly Rs 100 crore to transition sewage systems from “manhole to machine mode”, over all cities and towns over three years.
Most of the labourers at the worksites complained about the lack of any significant increase in their wages.
Girish, 50, a worker at Ber Sarai, who has been cleaning drains for over eight years, told Newslaundry, that his wage was increased by Rs 30 this year and that he now earns Rs 300. “I have a family of five. How will I be able to manage with this meagre amount?”
Mohammed Saeid, the labour supervisor at Ber Sarai, said the wages are decided by labour contractors who hire workers on contract on behalf of the PWD contractor, who owns the tender for desilting drains. There are two contractors involved in the process, he said, one who provides workers and another who owns the tender for desilting.
Work underway at a drain in Malviya Nagar.
Reached for comment, Sarwant Kumar, a PWD official in charge of South Delhi’s Aurobindo Marg, said the department had outsourced the work of desilting drains to contractors.
Asked if workers had been engaged in manual scavenging, he said the PWD only maintains rainwater drains which does not involve cleaning human waste. “We don’t maintain sewer lines. These are all rainwater drains. So, there could not be manual scavenging.”
The PMSR Act defines “manually cleaning, carrying, disposing” of human excreta from dry latrines as manual scavenging. The cleaning of sewers and septic tanks are described as “hazardous cleaning”. It states that hazardous cleaning is prohibited in absence of protective gear.
Bezwada Willson, convenor of Safai Karmachari Andolan, maintained that manually cleaning drains is against the law as India does not have a “very segregated drainage system”.
“In India, we don’t have a separate rainwater, stormwater or sewage drainage system. All the wastage, from the kitchen to the toilet, comes to the same drains. So, who knows what is in a drain...It is after all a hazardous job and the law never permits anyone to do any hazardous job without any protective gear,” Wilson said.
A worker desilting a drain at Ber Sarai.
No segregated drainage system
In Delhi, the drainage network comprises three types of drains: rainwater drains, stormwater drains and sewer lines. The sewer lines are maintained by the Delhi Jal Board, and rainwater drains come under the jurisdiction of both the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the PWD.
While all three are distinct networks on paper, they bleed into each other on the ground.
Moreover, the lack of sewer lines in Delhi’s unauthorised colonies often leads to a situation where the sewage from these colonies flows into stormwater drains and eventually into River Yamuna in its untreated form, Newslaundry had earlier. In many localities of the capital city, sewer lines and rainwater drains are interconnected to avoid overflowing.
Despite these realities, the official line taken by both the MCD and the PWD is that their drains have nothing to do with the sewage. All three bodies – the MCD, PWD and Jal Board – also deny employing any manual scavengers to clean the waste system.
Labourers also told Newslaundry that rainwater drains, in many places, are connected with households’ sewer lines. “Most of the drains are full of sludge,” said Ratanpal, 35, a labourer at Malviya Nagar.
The lack of a well-planned waste management system and the involvement of multiple government agencies in its maintenance and operation also lead to a lack of accountability.
This was evident in the court case pertaining to the death of a manual scavenger in Delhi’s area in September 2022. Two men, Rohit Chandaliya and Ashok Gulia, died after they entered a manhole in a Delhi Development Authority colony. Three days later, the Delhi High Court took suo motu cognisance.
In the initial months of the hearing, all government agencies – Delhi Jal Board, the Delhi Development Authority, and the Delhi government – were seen passing the buck to each other on the question of who would pay compensation to the victim’s family as per the Supreme Court’s 2014 judgement. It took four months for the dues to be cleared.