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Their life clogged with dangers

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Manual sewer cleaning is practised in the city despite the obvious dangers involved in the job.
Manual sewer cleaning is practised in the city despite the obvious dangers involved in the job.

Vidya Venkat

Sewer cleaners vulnerable to diseases

CHENNAI: Officials of the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) say they engage 255 men on contract to undertake sewer cleaning work across the city. This despite claims of mechanising sewer cleaning operations in the city. In April this year, the Board had announced the purchase of three desilting machines for cleaning sewers and top officials confirmed more machines would be purchased soon.

A senior Metrowater official agreed that manual sewer cleaning was “inhuman” as it required workers to plunge into sewage water. However, he cited frequent sewer blocks as areason for engaging men in the job.

Metrowater Managing Director Sunil Paliwal said that every day there are at least two complaints of sewer blocks from each of the 155 depots in the city.

Sewer cleaning work is dangerous as it is done with minimal protective equipment. Official sources confirm 10 cases of worker deaths since 2003.

Until 2007, contractors of Metrowater were not even required to take an accident insurance for the safety of sewer workers. It was only after two sewer workers died at the Kodungaiyur sewage pumping station after inhaling toxic gas that the civic body made it compulsory for contractors to take insurance for workers.

Though Metrowater officials say accidental deaths of contract workers have been compensated, trade union representatives say that in most cases contractors pay, only for funeral expenses and get away with paying compensation. Cases of death of sewer cleaners have also been reported from private agencies such as leather tanneries functioning in Nagalkeni near Chromepet and private residential apartments in municipal and town panchayat areas.

Health hazard

Community health researcher Dr.Rakhal Gaitonde of the NGO Community Health Cell said even if sewer cleaners did not die during work, the hazardous nature of their work made them vulnerable to diseases and premature death.

“But these issues are never addressed owing to their addiction to alcohol. Few realise that the very nature of their work is responsible for alcoholism,” he said. Being contract workers, sewer cleaners are not eligible for any medical benefits too.

Sewer blocks

Reducing incidences of sewer block can help Metrowater avoid engaging men to clean sewer holes. According to Metrowater officials, faulty design and poor construction of sewerage lines in the city are one of the reasons for frequent sewer blocks. Sources say absence of sufficient stormwater drains in the city also results in accumulation of silt in the sewer lines.

This apart, lack of civic awareness among users also leads to sewer lines getting clogged. Mr.Paliwal said hotels and meat shops in the city, for instance, had not provided proper diaphragm chambers in the sewage system which resulted in solid waste matter from here clogging the drains.

The Board, however, has no rules whatsoever to penalise users for throwing solid waste matter in the drains, he said. It would rather send a man down the hole to do the dirty job.

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