On March 22, 2018, a shroud of fear and anxiety enveloped M. Manikyala Rao as he wearily made his way home. He had just returned from a demonstration held in connection with the death of a co-worker who had entered the perilous depths of a manhole in Vambay colony, Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. Rao, a contract employee with the Vijayawada Municipal Corporation (VMC) had been working as a drain cleaner since 2015, and was aware of the horrors lurking beneath the manholes. But unlettered and trapped by circumstance, he continued to risk his life in a job he had no choice but to cling to.
Today, over five years later, his wife M. Yashoda, is getting into the habit of picking fully bloomed hibiscus flowers every morning, outside her two-room house in Nunna, near Vijayawada. She will string them together into a garland and place them across Rao’s photo, which hangs on a wall of the main room.
Rao died on July 15 this year, allegedly due to asphyxiation after entering a manhole in Badavapeta area. He was 44. He did not have on any protective gear.
“He called me just before beginning his work and said he was being forced to climb into a manhole to remove a block. An hour or so later, I got a call from his co-worker, Prasad, who said something had happened. I rushed to the government hospital where his co-workers had taken him,” Yashoda recalls.
Rao was one of the 43 people who have lost their lives in Andhra Pradesh from 2004 to date, as per data compiled by Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), an organisation working for the eradication of the dehumanising, caste-based practice. Of them, 21 families are yet to receive one or all of the three components — compensation, job, and house.
Law vs reality
As per the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act, 2013, no person, local authority or any agency shall employ any person for hazardous cleaning of either a sewer or septic tank. Contravening the provisions will result in imprisonment for up to five years and a fine of up to ₹5 lakh, the Act says.
Further, the Act says that a survey needs to be undertaken when a “municipality has reason to believe that some persons are engaged or employed in manual scavenging”. It has clear provisions for rehabilitation, cash assistance, skill training, and alternate jobs for such people identified as manual scavengers.
The last such survey, conducted in 2018 across the country as per the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, revealed that there are “1,793 manual scavengers in Andhra Pradesh”. But, C. Pennobilesu, State convenor of SKA, says the survey was conducted only in four districts: Anantapur, Krishna, East Godavari, and Visakhapatnam.
“Many workers in these districts did receive a one-time cash assistance of ₹40,000 in accordance with the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), but the practice continued,” he says, adding that nearly 10 years since the Act came into existence, manual scavenging is a reality for many, and authorities need to first accept that. “Only then we can seek redress for it.”
‘No manual scavengers’
Asked about the death of Manikyala Rao, VMC Commissioner Swapnil Dinkar Pundkar says there are “no manual scavengers here. There is not a single dry latrine in our limits. Around 80% of the city’s households are connected to underground drainage, while the rest have septic tanks. There is neither any dearth of machines nor is there a need for any manual intervention,” he maintained.
Sridevi, SKA organiser in undivided Krishna district, says manual scavenging in earlier days referred to the handling of excreta manually. “Many dry latrines were demolished after the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, came into force. But, today the term ‘manual scavenging’ has taken another form. When a person enters a sewer line, he is drenched in dirt. How can this be allowed?” she says.
Mr. Pundkar says Rao was trying to remove a block in the sewer line from outside when he slipped and fell into the manhole. “We have strictly prohibited our workers from entering manholes. Cases will be booked against any person for employing a worker for this purpose,” he asserted. So far, not a single person in the State has been arrested under the 2013 Act.
Yashoda refuses to believe the VMC Commissioner’s version of the events. “A tall, strongly-built person like my husband has to squeeze his body in while climbing down a manhole. How can he just fall into it?” she says.
Now, with her husband’s passing, Yashoda says she has nothing to look forward to. She has two daughters, both married. She received a ₹10 lakh compensation from the VMC and a job in accordance with the Act, though officials labelled it purely an accident. She has been allotted a house too. The bulk of the ex-gratia amount, however, was spent on clearing debts. Savings for people who work in the sewers are a dream, and there is no life insurance.
Taking out a new red shirt that she had bought for her husband for their 25th wedding anniversary on August 12, Yashoda remembers how enthusiastic he was about buying clothes. He was particular about cleanliness, she says. He would bathe thrice a day and use copious amounts of Dettol, she adds, pointing towards the half-empty bottle of the anti-septic liquid.
“But on the day he died, there was nothing on his body, barring his undergarment. He was lying naked in the hospital. No one thought of covering his body, slick with grime. I had to use my chunni to cover him. I was told that even the ambulance had refused to take him,” says Yashoda, fighting back tears.
Yashoda had never known what exactly her husband’s job entailed until after he died. She also never understood why he guzzled down more than his usual amount of alcohol every night or why he washed his hands frequently until his co-workers explained to her what he did as part of his job.
“Many workers engaged in manual scavenging do not tell their families about their work,” shares Raju (name changed to protect privacy), a worker from Circle II of Vijayawada. My family knows I have a cleaning job. But they do not know how dangerous it is. We continue doing it because we are unlettered and know no other work. We have heard of many cases where workers in their late teens died after entering a manhole,” he says.
Explaining his daily job, the 44-year-old adds, “Our day starts at 8 a.m. and goes on until 8 p.m. We clean sewer lines or remove blocks every day. There are nearly 250 workers in the three circles of the city. Despite all of us working every day, there is always work pending. These days, we are trying our best to remove blocks without entering a manhole. But there is no other go when it is too deep for a jet machine to reach. In many localities of Vijayawada, manholes go up to 25 feet deep. Machines can reach only up to 15 feet.”
Raju has been doing the same job for the past 24 years. He distinctly remembers the golden rule that a senior co-worker had once shared with him: “Hold your breath for as long as you can — a maximum of 60 seconds. When you think you can hold it no longer, come out immediately and raise your hand and you will be pulled out.” That is what he has strictly followed all these years.
Sometimes, in the rush to come out, he says workers slip and fall into the hole. That is what he thinks might have happened to Rao. “He had been working for a long time; he knew when to come out,” he adds.
“My husband was disgusted with the job, and yet he did it so that I do not have to go to work,” rues Yashoda, who struggles with low BP and leg pain from an accident she met with years ago.
The search for solutions
Last year, Vijayawada became the fourth city in the State to receive a robot, named Bandikoot, from Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) as part of their corporate social responsibility initiative. While the efforts of Genrobotics, a Kerala-based startup, were lauded by activists and officials, workers had difficulty operating it. “The machine was getting stuck,” Raju says.
Nivin Nair, deputy general manager (business operations) at the startup, says an upgraded version, costing up to ₹40 lakh, was launched recently. “Our product is being used in 19 States. We provide training to workers on dos and don’ts. It can be operated by any person with a little help,” says Nair.
SKA national convenor Bezwada Wilson says governments, including the Centre, do not take the issue seriously because it concerns the lives of the marginalised — cleaning jobs are mostly done by those belonging to communities from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes. In Andhra Pradesh, Rellis, Madigas, Malas, Yanadis, all from SC and ST communities, do the job. Rao belonged to Yerukula community.
Besides, there is no health allowance for the drain workers, says Pennobilesu. While sanitation workers get it, the same has been denied to those who actually need it. “Drain workers do not work till their retirement age. Many of them discontinue in between owing to health issues that they develop because of their job,” he says.
Nor are they eligible for government schemes like Amma Vodi that offer financial assistance to women, because their monthly household income just about exceeds ₹12,000. To be eligible for the scheme, the family income in urban areas should be less than ₹12,000. The workers get ₹18,000 per month, if they work on all days.
“It is shameful that a country making strides by landing on the moon does not have basic machinery to prevent the death of a worker,” Pennobilesu concludes.
“Our day starts at 8 a.m. and goes on until 8 p.m. We clean sewer lines or remove blocks every day. There are nearly 250 workers in the three circles of the city. Despite all of us working every day, there is always work pending”Raju (name changed) a worker from Circle II of Vijayawada