Those who clean manholes with bare hands are at great risk

A cockroach scurried into the darkness of the manhole into which Harish would have to descend, to remove the muck that was blocking the sewage in the underground drainage network.

Two of Mr. Harish's colleagues lifted him by the arms and lowered him into the open manhole, the rim of which was lined with a dozen black and gold insects. There was enough space for a man to stand in the cave-like space.

Mr. Harish used a stick to clear the muck. In no time, the wastewater from the neighbourhood started to flow into the cavity. He worked for a few minutes more until water reached his knees and then removed a lump of black mass from the sewer with his hands.

This is what Mr. Harish and 20 others in the city do to keep the city's sewage flowing. Pointing to an electric pole to indicate the length, Keshav said: “Some manholes are as deep as this. We keep them open for one-and-a-half hours to let all the gas escape.”

The gases generated by sewage were toxic enough to render a person unconscious, they said. There were numerous cases of workers falling unconscious within seconds of inhaling toxic gases.

They cope with other problems too. “Often shaving blades and needles (of syringes) prick us,” Mr. Keshav said and added that his colleagues never got the required medical treatment. “When I enter a manhole, I get a buzz in my ears because of the gas. My hearing and sight are both impaired because of this,” Mr. Keshav said.

Asked how they felt about their work, he and the others said they were “used to it”. Many of them have been doing it for years.

Mr. Keshav said often they were chest-deep in the sewage. After clearing one manhole, they would move to another complaint, slipping into it if there was a necessity. They return home only after 5 p.m. and take bath.

Incidentally, all three workers who spoke to this correspondent were from the Koraga community. “After much asking, the corporation gave us a cake of soap,” Mr. Keshav said. However, they actually work on contract.

Junior Engineer Anil Kumar said providing protective equipment was the responsibility of the contractor.

Maitreyi Krishnan, a lawyer at the Alternative Law Forum, said the human entry into manholes was just another form of manual scavenging, which had been banned by the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993.

She said it was far more dangerous as the gases generated by the sewage were noxious and the waste contained toxic substances. She said general principles of the law required any employer to provide protective equipment to workers if their work endangered their lives.

More In: Mangaluru