Death in the sewers, again in Kozhikode

In the aftermath of the suffocation deaths of two manual scavenging workers in Kerala’s Kozhikode city, Aabha Ravindran explores the dangerous reality of sewage cleaning and the desperate call for mechanisation in the southern State

Updated - June 14, 2024 08:52 am IST

Published - June 13, 2024 08:15 pm IST

Workers immersed waist deep in Avikkal Canal in Kozhikode city in an attempt to clean it in October 2023.

Workers immersed waist deep in Avikkal Canal in Kozhikode city in an attempt to clean it in October 2023. | Photo Credit: K. Ragesh

A cleaning worker of the Kozhikode Corporation trying to clear the block in a drain on Mavoor Road in the city. 

A cleaning worker of the Kozhikode Corporation trying to clear the block in a drain on Mavoor Road in the city.  | Photo Credit: K. Ragesh

Nankal cheyyam (Yes, we will do it),” is Murukeshan’s stoic response to almost every question. Occasionally, he adds: “Cheyyanalundu (There are people to do it),” in broken Malayalam, with a heavy Tamil accent.

A 60-year-old ‘tank worker’, a euphemism for manual scavenger, Murukeshan is part of a brigade of ‘invisible’ workers cleaning sewers and canals in Kerala’s Kozhikode, a city known for its pluralism and literary legacy. The spotlight falls on them and the illegal nature of work assigned to them only when there’s a tragedy.

On May 31, Renish, 43, and Ashokan, 56, from Kinalur choked to death while cleaning the sewage tank of a restaurant at Iringadanpalli near the Government Medical College in Kozhikode city. Based on police reports, Renish stepped into the tank and collapsed. Quick to help his co-worker, Ashokan jumped in to help him, and met with the same plight. A third worker, narrowly escaped as he withdrew and called for help instead.

The cause of death has been ascertained as asphyxiation due to inhalation of a toxic gas. Though suspected to be methane, as the eight-foot-deep tank contained sewage about two feet high, a chemical analysis is under way to identify the gas; the result is expected in two months.

The practice is banned in India through the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. The Government of Kerala had deemed it illegal as early as 1959.

Citizens express concern

The incident has shaken the city: citizens have questioned civic authorities for allowing manual scavenging. The Kozhikode Municipal Corporation cancelled the restaurant’s trade licence. The restaurant had remained closed for over eight months and was preparing to reopen under a new management. Since the civic body did not employ the men who died, the blame fell on the restaurant management.

Ten days later, the relatives of the deceased are yet to come to terms with their loss. “My father survived cancer and had just started moving about. He must have wanted to help support our family, since both our mother and I cannot do any work,” says Ashokan’s son Arun Raj, who is recuperating from an injury sustained in a fall while setting up a temporary pandal. He had funded his father’s cancer treatment doing casual labour while his mother is not in a position for hard work due to arthritis. Arun Raj has a sister who is a student.

Renish was in need of money too, as he was building a house. “That’s why both of them offered to undertake the work although they had no experience in carrying out the job. We have no idea who hired them. We are yet to hear from the owners of the restaurant. There was no compensation forthcoming, either,” Raj says. Only the local legislator K.M. Sachin Dev visited them and offered some financial aid once the family produced a copy of the autopsy report.

Authorities know about practice

There have been similar tragedies in the city in the past which forced the authorities to acknowledge the existence of manual scavengers.  On November 26, 2015 two workers from Andhra Pradesh and a local autorickshaw driver lost their lives in a manhole in the heart of the city. One of the workers fell into the manhole while trying to assess its depth before cleaning it, and the other tried to rescue his colleague. Both died after breathing in the toxic gas that emanated from the manhole that was opened for cleaning. P.Noushad, an autorickshaw driver who rushed to help the two cleaning workers, too, succumbed.

Most manual scavengers in Kozhikode are descendants of the Tamil labourers brought for the purpose in the 1940s and 1950s by the then State government. Despite better education and jobs, their help is still being sought to clear clogged drains and septic tanks, and empty wastewater tanks. No one else does this job.

Many middle-aged men and youth shun the vocation because of a lack of human dignity associated with dealing with faecal matter. “This job requires skill and not everyone can do it. We do what most others detest, yet we are looked down upon,” laments K. Sekharan, in his 50s. He is a plumber’s assistant and sometimes needs to go into the sewers.

Service by word of mouth

The service is demanded through word of mouth, with costs ranging from ₹5,000 to ₹8,000 depending upon the quantum of work. This is where the casual labourers such as Renish and Ashokan fit in. They have no experience in the field, yet are ready to take the risk for less than half the remuneration that the professionals will charge. “The professionals are hard to locate and it is not practical to shell out such a big amount for minor works,” says Sekharan, though not a professional, is not inexperienced either.

It was such desperation that led to the recent disaster at Iringadanpalli. “It was foolish of Renish and Ashokan to just enter the tank as soon as it was opened. We should always check for oxygen before descending into such spaces,” says Shiju K.P., a professional ‘well digger’ in the city. Shiju and his team often send a lit candle down the well to determine the presence of oxygen. If it is low, they either spray water into the well or work an electric fan for at least half an hour to move the air. 

S. Jayasree, Health Standing Committee Chairperson of the Kozhikode Municipal Corporation, vouches that the Corporation does not use the services of manual scavengers. “We have machines to clean septic tanks and do not need people to enter them. The ward sanitation committees, however, hire people to resolve certain drain-related situations where machines cannot be used (too narrow drains, the ones in narrow lanes and those with stubborn clogs),” she says adding that the Corporation takes proper precautions for their safety in such cases. Incidentally, in the two recent tragedies, the workers were hired by private individuals or agencies.

S. Ratnesh, a plumber, who has emptied a number of sewage tanks for his clients using suction machines, says, “If there is more hard and solid matter inside, electric cutters could be used to break the mass.” Sekharan, who works with Ratnesh, says sewage tanks are not as dangerous when they are shallow; wells are.

In June 2023, a news photograph of a manual scavenger standing waist-deep in a drain near Stadium Junction in Kozhikode had kicked up a row. It was evident from the picture that he was gouging out mounts of plastic that had clogged the drain. Under fire for doing little to end the practice, city Mayor Beena Philip had said it should not have happened. The State Human Rights Commission sought an explanation from the civic body on the occurrence. 

P.K. Nasar, Kozhikode Corporation Councillor who was at the site when the cleaners entered the drain at Stadium Junction last year, vouches that a health inspector had advised the labourer against it. “But the worker, who was with the team for days in a desperate attempt to clear the drain fast, did not wait for the machines to be brought in,” he says. 

Technology to the rescue

The Government of Kerala was the first to recruit a robot six years ago to clean manholes and drains. Bandicoot, a product of the start-up GenRobotics, has since been upgraded and shipped off to several other States. However, the price of the robot, ranging from ₹10 lakh to ₹40 lakh, makes it unaffordable for smaller local bodies that have Budgets as low as ₹50 crore.

A robotics expert at the National Institute of Technology-Calicut claims that the manhole cleaning robot uses basic technology. “Our students developed prototypes of robots that could be used for manhole and drain cleaning at a lower price five years ago,” says Sudheer A.P., associate professor of robotics at mechanical engineering at the institute. “We can incorporate a camera and some intelligence into these robots, if necessary, to equip them for preventive maintenance. Setting up channels inside the drains to help the robots move about could also help,” he elaborates.

Corporation to buy machines

The death of the cleaning workers at Iringadanpalli has forced the Kozhikode Corporation to announce its plan to bring in some heavy machines for drain-cleaning. “The Corporation is planning to purchase a sewage suction and jetting machine, which would cost around ₹4 crore. Two mobile septic sludge treatment plants are also in the plans, each costing around ₹45 lakh. The tender proceedings for both have begun,” says S. Jayasree, Health Standing Committee Chairperson of the Corporation. The Corporation was inspired by the Kochi Corporation that had recently implemented the same technology.

“The suction machine can take in wastewater and filter it instantly. Also, the jetting machine uses a high-pressure water jet to remove stubborn clogs. The two machines will practically eliminate any need for humans to enter drains or manholes,” she says.

Sekharan is relieved that the corporation is getting machines for this kind of work. “It is a relief that we will not be called in for the job now,” he says adding that most have now moved on from this work. 

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