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Manholes: safety steps ignored

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RISKY: A conservancy worker removing silt from a manhole in Bangalore.
RISKY: A conservancy worker removing silt from a manhole in Bangalore.

Afshan Yasmeen

Bangalore: If that TV commercial showing a man belting out a song from a manhole amuses you, perhaps a reality check is in order. Being in a dank, stinking hole is nothing to warble about: spare a thought for the manhole cleaners.

Typically, underground sewers are closed for months at a time, accumulating toxics gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulphide and methane. The waste that flows into the sewers includes effluents from industrial units.

Sewage contains large amounts of ammonia, chlorides, sulphates, and mercury besides grease and glass shards, Shashidhar Buggi, Superintendent of SDS Tuberculosis and Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Chest Diseases Hospital told The Hindu.

“The high temperature inside the sewers and the poisonous gases can cause asphyxiation. Even if the person survives, he is sure to get boils and burns on the skin. There are chances of catching lung infections because of the presence of nitrate. Chromium in the sewer water leads to nose and lung infections,” Dr. Buggi said.

Unmindful of the law, and court orders, the civic agencies deploy workers to enter manholes and remove the silt and waste without providing even the basic protective gear such as gloves and gumboots.

Seven workers have died of asphyxiation in manholes since January this year in Bangalore and Mysore. Of these, three men — two of them workers and one their rescuer — died in a manhole in Yelahanka New Town last week. However, the compensation paid to their survivors is meagre. The Alternative Law Forum has complained about the deaths to the State Human Rights Commission. Clifton D’ Rozario of the forum said there were many laws related to safety measures for these workers.

“Government guidelines say that sewer cleaners must be provided with instruments to check poisonous gases, blowers to eject polluted air, torch, gloves, glasses, ear cap, and helmet. But such safety measures are never implemented. As these cleaners belong to the unorganised daily wage sector, no one is concerned about their safety,” he said.

Most workers usually check the concentration of toxic gases by lighting a match and throwing it inside to burn the gases. They allow fresh air to circulate in the manhole for at least an hour before entering. “It appears that these steps were not followed at Yelahanka,” he said.

Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) Chief Engineer (Waste Water Management) S.M. Basavaraju said there were about 1.5 lakh manholes in the city in addition to the 300 sub-main sewers.

“While the manholes in residential areas can be cleaned with suction pumps and jetting machines, sometimes it is inevitable for the workers to enter the manholes to remove the accumulated silt. But the Yelahanka incident happened mainly because the workers were in a hurry to finish work,” he said.

“Yelahanka Assistant Engineer Somashekar G.T. and Works Inspector Nagendra have been suspended on the charge of negligence,” he added.

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