Seshakumar, well cleaner and deepener

Seshakumar always dreamt of being a policeman or an army officer. “I wanted to do something courageous; in a way, what I do now calls for a lot of courage,” says the 34-year-old, who has cleaned and deepened wells the last 19 years. “We had financial troubles in my family, and so I had to go to work after Class IX.”

But climbing into a well, he says, is not just hard work, it’s also risky business, since noxious gases that build-up inside closed wells can asphyxiate and kill. “We always open closed wells and let the gases escape. Then, we light a paper and drop it inside; if it burns until it hits the water, it’s safe. If it’s extinguished, there probably are toxic gases.”

Well-cleaners prefer to avoid such wells, but when they’re pressed to clean it, they hose down the sides with water, as well as douse themselves head-to-foot. “We then tie a rope around our waist, and climb-down. That way, even if we pass out inside, we can be pulled out.” Have people died inside wells, I wonder aloud. “Don’t you read newspapers, madam?” asks the soft-spoken Seshakumar.

A routine well-cleaning takes about two to three hours, Seshakumar tells me. The five-member team (Seshakumar does the actual dredging inside the well, others work the motor and man the ropes) gets paid about Rs. 5,000, which includes the rental and fuel for the motor. Firstly, the water in the well is pumped-out; next, the kachada (rubbish) is scraped, and sent up in buckets. “Before fresh water can seep in, the clayey soil and periya manal (large sand particles), need to be removed. If fine sand starts pouring in from the sides, we get out immediately, as it can cause the well to collapse.”

Well-cleaners need to be excellent swimmers, as well as hold their breath for a long time, says Seshakumar. “We’re also called to deepen wells. In Chennai, wells are typically around 20-25 feet deep; we dig another seven feet, and put in concrete rings. Water-tables have improved considerably, thanks to rain-water-harvesting, and water seeps through the holes on the sides and between the stack of rings. Look at this,” he points inside the neighbour’s well. “Can you see the water trickling through the brickwork? It’s probably an old well, that’s why it’s lined with brick and clay,” he says. Typically, wells are dug in the eesani moolai (N.E. corner),” says Seshakumar, adding that it’s advisable to clean wells once a year to have a healthy and clean supply of water.

Seshakumar works as a plumber part-time, as finding well-cleaning work throughout the year is difficult. “There are days when I make money; others, none at all. Sometimes, when I step out of a well, completely covered with seru (mud and clay), I wonder if it’s all worth it. But then I think of my two daughters. The older one often tells me, ‘show me your hand daddy’, and pretends to give me an injection with a broomstick,” he smiles. “She wants to be a doctor. I want to make her dream come true.”

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)

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