Despite a Madras High Court ban, the practice of employing workers to clean manholes and unclog drains continues; 15 manual scavengers have died in the last year-and-a-half

They do the city’s dirty work under cover of night and when they die, the matter is quietly swept under the carpet.

Manual scavenging, the practice of using human beings to clean manholes and sewers, is banned under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prevention) Act, 1993. There is also a Madras High Court ruling against the practice.

The deaths of a contract worker and a junior engineer of Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) on Tuesday night have thrown light on the fact that local civic bodies continue to employ workers to clear unclogged drains and clean sewers. Worse, the absolute disregard for safety measures.

According to V. Kumar, president of CMWSSB Workers Union, regular employees do not enter manholes. “It is always the contract employees who do the job. This, despite the mandate that people who do regular work should be on the rolls of the organisation and not on contract. Clearing clogs in sewers is permanent work,” he said.

“It is not always possible to clean the manholes using machines. They do not have much reach. In the event of a sewage overflow, there is no option but to get workers to clean them,” Mr. Kumar said.

Though workers are advised to wear protective gear like safety masks, gloves and gumboots before entering manholes, the authorities do not provide them with the required material, some workers said. In many cases, workers themselves refuse to use safety equipment, preferring to take refuge in alcohol instead, an activist said.

Before entering a manhole, the worker is supposed to open the lid and wait for 10 minutes to let the poisonous gases escape. “The noxious fumes can cause asphyxiation. In the last four years alone, 27 workers have died while cleaning manholes manually,” said Mr. Kumar.

According to data collected by social activist A. Narayanan who has filed petitions against the practice of manual scavenging, 15 persons died between February 2011 and August 2012 in sewer lines and septic tanks, across Tamil Nadu. A majority of these accidents were in Chennai.

“A few days ago, I found a sanitary worker fully immersed in a manhole on Vellalar Street in Purasaiwalkam, attempting to clear a block. He wasn’t using any protective gear. It is highly condemnable that such incidents take place despite the issue drawing the Supreme Court’s ire. A new bill against manual scavenging, with stringent punishment clauses, is pending in the Parliament,” said Mr. Narayanan.

The fact that Tuesday’s accident happened late at night draws attention to the blatant disregard for norms. “There isn’t much visibility and it is very dangerous,” said Mr. Narayanan.

According to a CMWSSB official, the worker did not enter the manhole but had merely opened its lid to let in the cleaning equipment. He is said to have inhaled the gases and fallen into the pit. “The work was carried out at night so that traffic would not be affected,” the official said.

Manual scavengers are exposed to deadly viral and bacterial infections that affect the skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Tuberculosis and alcoholism are rife among the community, an activist said.

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