Across UP districts, a similar story
Hazardous cleaning without any protective gear has been prohibited in India since 2013, but nearly 20 workers told Newslaundry that they perform this task only for a meagre wage of Rs 300 per day without any protective gear such as masks or gloves, using a bucket and a rope to scoop out sludge in case the bamboo pole does not work.
The decomposing organic matter in manholes produces a toxic gas called hydrogen sulfide, which can trigger nausea, delirium, and convulsions.
According to the union ministry of social justice and empowerment, 400 people have lost their lives due to this hazardous task since 2017 – Uttar Pradesh accounts for 61 of these deaths.
And to tackle such risks, the centre launched the Namaste scheme in 2022, to identify these workers, provide them with occupational training and safety equipment, and push for the mechanisation of sewer and septic tank cleaning.
In the 2023-24 budget, the union government allocated only Rs 97 crore to support the programme. Progress in terms of mechanisation, meanwhile, has remained minimal.
Newslaundry met workers at sewer clean-up sites in three of the most populous cities of Uttar Pradesh, including capital Lucknow, Kanpur and Varanasi, only to find a similar story across one locality after another.
The ground reality
In Kanpur, the ground reality is much different from what the government portrays on paper. As per data provided by Kanpur Municipal Corporation, there are 23 types of machines to clean the city’s sewer lines spanning across 3,290 kilometres.
And according to the KMC, its 145 permanent sanitation workers, who are responsible for maintaining the city’s sewer lines, are provided with a life insurance policy worth Rs 10 lakh and equipped with all the necessary protective gear.
But workers employed informally, under contractors, continue to be engaged in hazardous cleaning and experience exploitation in terms of both wages and safety.
“Leave aside safety equipment, we don’t get anything even if we get injured while working,” said Suresh, a sanitation worker who works under a contractor with a monthly salary of Rs 7,000. “Recently, I injured my finger while lifting the lid of a manhole. You know how heavy those lids are. I spent Rs 20,000 on my treatment. All from my pocket. I had to lose wages for the days of my absence for my treatment.”
According to Suresh and his fellow workers, even if a machine is used, they have to enter sewers either to fix the hooks on the machines or to clear out solid waste. “Today, the local councillor asked me to go and clear a sewer line that has been overflowing. I tried it with a pole but it did not work so the machine was called. But the entry points were somehow blocked. So, I had to get down into the dirty sewage water up to my neck to remove the bricks that were hindering the work,” claimed Suresh, entering a sewer in Kanpur, wearing only underpants, without any protective gear.
KP Anand, general manager of Kanpur Municipal Corporation, said the department is making all efforts to prevent such manual cleaning of sewers. “The contract agreement with contractors has clear norms that they have to follow proper procedure such as providing safety equipment and all. So it is the contractors’ responsibility to provide the safety gear. Whenever we find any such violation, penalties and fines are also imposed on the contractors…it will take some time but gradually everything will be mechanised,” Anand told Newslaundry.
Workers such as Ravi and Suresh, who are employed under contractors, can be considered part of the informal sector while those officially employed by a civic agency or a private firm represent the formal segment.
According to Anand, the use of machines depends on circumstances. “Machines have the capacity to suck the silt. But sometimes bamboo sticks are used to clear the blockage.”
Civic agencies deploy several types of machines, including hand-grabbers, hydraulic grabbers, and super-suction, jetting and Bandicoot devices. While a hand-grabber is used in narrow lanes for depths not greater than four feet, a jetting machine is used to create high-pressure to clear choked lines at depths up to eight feet. Hydraulic grabbers perform desilting and are often used in sewer lines for depths up to seven or eight feet whereas a super-suction device works as both jetting and suction machines for depths up to 25 feet. A Bandicoot machine can clean any type of manhole for depths up to 24 feet. It consists of two major units – a stand and a robotic drone. The drone dives into manholes.
In Lucknow, a ‘compulsion’
In Lucknow, the task to clean and maintain the city’s 2,643-km-long sewer lines was entrusted to private firm SUEZ for 10 years in 2019, under the UP government’s ‘One City One Operator’ initiative. This initiative aimed to enhance coordination and maintenance activities of the sewer infrastructure by assigning a single agency, or the operator, the task to manage the sewer network, treatment plants and pumping stations.
The company and the local Jalkal department together have a total of 219 machines, including hi-tech systems such as Bandicoot robots.
However, even as the SUEZ boasts of 100 percent mechanised sewer cleaning, the presence of labour contractors and their seemingly opaque operations casts a cloud on the official claims about the situation on ground.
While permanent sanitation employees across Lucknow’s six municipal zones unanimously asserted that they no longer enter manholes without protective gear, Newslaundry found a small group of workers engaged in hazardous cleaning without such equipment in Rajajipuram area.
“I have been doing this work for only the last two years. Everything is a compulsion,” said Niraj, desilting a drain with a bucket, with another worker stationed outside to pull up the sludge with a rope. Wearing only a towel around his waist, Niraj said he earns Rs 400 a day performing this task in UP’s capital.
A few kilometres away, Newslaundry found three workers manually cleaning a sewer with the help of buckets and ropes near the city’s iconic clock tower.
Like Niraj, they claimed to have been hired by a contractor and were not familiar with SUEZ.
“Frankly, I, too, have heard about this SUEZ company for the first time,” claimed Babulal, a labour contractor who hires workers such as Niraj from the city’s slum, adding that most of their work comes from “large contractors”. “We have never actually met the main contractor. As far as I know, the Nagar Nigam issues a tender, and the winning contractor hires us for the labourers.”
According to Babulal, there are nearly 40 labour contractors like him in Lucknow, but there’s not much clarity on the chain of command.
Rajesh Methpal, project director of Lucknow One City One Operator, told Newslaundry that SUEZ never engages any subcontractor. “We hire manpower through manpower agencies. But then also the monitoring of this manpower and ensuring their safety is our responsibility,” Methpal said, claiming the firm has ended manual scavenging in the form of sewer cleaning in the city.
Newslaundry also reached out to the Lucknow Jalkal department for comment. This report will be updated if a response is received.