Unseen, unheard they labour for a city that does not give them a second thought

Sixty-year-old Jayaraman gets into a 2.5-foot deep stormwater drain in Pulianthope and within moments, disappears into the chamber. Minutes later, he comes back out with a shovelful of a black mass – silt that has been deposited in the drain over the past year.

One of his colleagues, Gomathi takes the muck-filled shovel and dumps the silt nearby, using her hands to clean the implement. Jayaraman then disappears into the chamber with the shovel once again, and begins cleaning. From the depths of the dark chamber, all that emerges is the sound of the shovel scraping through silt.

Outside, hundreds of vehicles and pedestrians pass by, oblivious of the efforts of these men and women, efforts that will eventually help prevent waterlogging on the city’s roads.

Jayaraman is one of many workers who shovel silt day in and day out, to keep the city’s stormwater drains free of obstructions before the onset of the rains. Not one of them wears a mask or gloves and no safety gear is given to any of them them. By the end of their shift, a black layer covers their bodies – the effect of the silt.

Most of the workers are agricultural labourers from Tiruvannamalai and other parts of rural Tamil Nadu. They moved to the city after income from the fields could no longer support their families and are engaged by contractors for the Chennai Corporation.

The searing sun adds to the difficulty of the task. Except for an hour’s lunch break at 1 p.m., they work until sundown. Minutes before the clock strikes two, Sethu and his colleague Manickam climb into two nearby drains and start cleaning them, removing lumps of silt with just a plastic bag to cover their heads. For hours together, they stand in silt that comes up to their knees. “We have been cleaning stormwater drains for the last two months. We started work near the market in Pattalam. The contractor pays men Rs. 400 a day and women Rs. 300,” said Sethu.

Asked whether they faced problems at work, Jayaraman said, “Do we have a choice? We have got used to the dirt and stench and work in extremely difficult conditions for the sake of a livelihood.”

Rajeswari, another worker, said, “The contractor does not provide us with even a bar of soap or water to wash ourselves. We go around asking people for water.”

While the drains are mostly 2.5-feet deep there are a few around 3 to 4-feet deep, one of the contractors said. “We do not provide safety gear to the workers because they do not use it,” he said.

(Some names have been changed)

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