Skip to main content

Death rate of workers cleaning sewers '5 times more' than other urban Indian workers

By Sumeet Mhaskar*
The stigmatized workforce undergoes several health problems. I will begin with sanitation work which has acquired mainstream media attention over the past few years. The most appalling health related vulnerabilities are faced by manual scavengers. This is especially the case with workers who clean sewers and are hired by municipal corporations across the country. In that sense, the state itself is directly complicit in these work related deaths.
The death of sanitation workers while cleaning sewers is almost a regular occurrence. Sanitation workers work inside the sewers, and are exposed to methane and sulphureted hydrogen instead of oxygen, ‘which acts in a similar manner to cyanide, with reversible inhibition of the respiratory enzyme cytochrome oxidase’.
One estimate suggests that the death rate of the workers cleaning sewers is five times more than other urban Indians between the age of 15 and 59. Workers die due to asphyxiation caused by the intake of harmful gasses during manual cleaning of manholes.
According to the Safai Karamchari Andolan that campaigns for the elimination of manual scavenging, nearly 1,800 workers have died while cleaning sewers during the last decade. While the death of sanitation workers has attracted attention from various segments of media and state and civil society organizations, the situation of the rest of the workers is far from better.
In his anthropological study on the sanitation workers, Lee documents how after doing the manual scavenging work, workers would feel nauseated and would at times vomit, and in many cases experienced a permanent loss of appetite. In this regard, a telling response has been documented by Prasad and Ray.
Manual scavengers told them that when they ‘start[ed] doing this [manual scavenging] work’ they found is extremely difficult to ‘eat dal [yellow lentils] for a couple of months’. In fact, they ‘could not eat much of anything, any colour’ and felt disgusted of their own hands.
The consequences of sanitation work on the health of workers are far more severe, especially in the waste dumping grounds that ‘contain a very high ratio of organic to inorganic waste, that this waste includes animal faeces and the decomposing carcasses of dogs and other small animals… and that a great many rubbish depots are cleaned out not daily but once or twice a week, and then often only partially’.
The collection of these variety of waste provides ‘conditions for the production of methane, hydrogen sulfide, putrescine, cadaverine, and other toxic chemical compounds’. The contact of sanitation workers with these gaseous substances results in ‘loss of appetite, poor memory, fluid in the lungs, eye irritation, and shortness of breath …chest pain, sore throat, and loss of libido’.
The health condition of the workers in the leather tannery is close to what I have just explained. In fact, the state has given recognition to the leather tanning as hazardous industry under the Factories Act of 1948. In the tanneries, ‘[a]ccidents regularly occur with machine operators getting trapped, workers cleaning underground waste tanks suffocating from toxic fumes, or workers drowning in toxic sludge at the tannery premises’.
In the 1970s, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health in the United States also ‘noted that the accident and illness rate is five times higher in tanneries than the average for all other industries’. While the use of chemicals has generated ‘greater profits by actualising mass production and processing at unprecedented scale and pace’, it had exposed tannery workers to serious health problems.
The wide ranging health implications for tannery workers include frequent bouts of fever, eye inflammation, coughing, skin diseases, lung cancer, severe body, bone, joint and muscle pain, severe headaches, asthma, eczema, nausea and reproductive health problems. The health scenario of waste pickers no different from the ones examined above.
Waste pickers are prone to injuries ‘in the form of cuts and bruises from glass, metal sharps, broken bottles etc.’ because they use their bare hands through the heaps of garbage. Those waste pickers who collect medical waste ‘sustain injuries from syringes, sharps and broken bottles and ampules’. If these injuries are overlooked, they further result in non-healing ulcers and Hepatitis B and C or HIV.
It is also not uncommon to find among rag pickers who suffer from respiratory problems, tuberculosis and some even develop Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. Butchering occupations are also prone to similar health challenges discussed above.
In slaughterhouses, butchers are often susceptible to knife injuries and most workers have chronic illnesses such as back pain, chest pain and in some extreme cases, even slipped disk of the spinal cord’. Then there are cases where ‘minuscule bones of the bovines get into their [workers] eyes, causing partial loss of eyesight in extreme cases.
Besides health hazards, working conditions in slaughter houses are abysmal. The capture of political power by the BJP, the Hindu extremist political party, since 2014 at the central level as well as in several state governments have resulted in the banning of the possession and sale of beef. In several cases such interventions by the state have resulted in the closure of slaughter houses and subsequent joblessness among the butchers.
---
*This is the third part of the three part series on the state of stigmatized occupations in India, excerpted from “The State of Stigmatized Employment in India: Historical Injustices of Labouring”, published by Oxfam Inida in the book “Mind the Gap: The State of Employment in India”. Click HERE to download

Comments

TRENDING

North Gujarat gram panchayat bars villagers from dealing with Muslim hawkers, traders

By Our Representative  A gram panchayat in North Gujarat has barred its residents not to buy anything from Muslim traders and hawkers. An order of the Waghasan group gram panchayat of Tharad taluka of Banaskantha district dated June 30 states that the decision has been taken in the wake of beheading of a Hindu tailor after he posted a derogatory writeup on Prophet Mohammad in Udaipur. The gram panchayat resolution says, anyone seen buying or selling any commodity from a Muslim hawker or trader would be fined Rs 5,100. Bringing this to light, Mujahid Nafees, convener, Minority Coordination Committee, in a letter to Gujarat chief minister Bhupendra Patel, says, the state government should take legal action against the panchayat chief who has signed the “unjust” order. The letter says, the act of the sarpanch and other signatories is a violation of rule of law of the state and threat to peace, pointing out, the move is in violation of Article 15 of the Constitution, which says that none

Technocratic globalism, tyranny? Health Ministry warned: bill to 'enslave' Indians

Sandeep Pandey, Tushar Gandhi By Rosamma Thomas*  Union of Concerned Citizens, a group comprising Magsaysay Award winner Prof Sandeep Pandey, human rights activist Tushar Gandhi, former judge of the Bombay High Court BG Kolse Patil, pediatrician Dr Jacob Puliyel and several renowned Indian citizens have written to the Union Health Minister cautioning him against tabling the draft Public Health Bill in the Monsoon Session of Parliament. “The Public Health (Prevention, Control And Management Of Epidemics, Bio-Terrorism And Disasters) Bill, 2017 and a Prospective Bill of 2022 as discussed in news articles, is straightforwardly violative of Fundamental Rights of the citizens of India and therefore, Ultra Vires of the Indian Constitution. It contravenes several International Treaties and Conventions including the Nuremberg Treaty of 1947 which was enacted to ensure that no country would repeat such inhuman medical atrocities on fellow human beings”, the 12-page letter reads. “Strangely, t

Unlike Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India: Ukrainian scholar tells 'Indian friends'

Counterview Desk In an open letter to "dear Indian friends", Anastasia Piliavsky, born in Odessa, Ukraine, studied at Boston and Oxford Universities (on a Rhodes Scholarship), and now teaches at King’s College, London, has said that she faces "deep moral dilemma", personally and professionally, over the "astonishingly unified Indian response to the war in Ukraine." Based on her interaction with a "number of thoughtful and caring Indian friends", in this letter, she says, she is "reeling at the ubiquitous silence at, justifications of or outright support for Putin’s terror, which now prevails in India, at the ubiquitous #IStandWithPutin and #istandwithrussia hashtags." She insists, India must understand, "Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India. Soviet leaders, beginning with (the Ukrainian) Nikita Khrushchev – who declared hindi rusi bhai bhai – built up deep political and cultural exchange with India." Text : I

'Drop all falsed charges': 150 citizens demand early release of AltNews co-founder

Counterview Desk  About 150 concerned citizens have demanded the release of Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checkng newsportal AltNews, arrested over a 2018 tweet which allegedly hurt religious sentiments, even as booking for criminal conspiracy and having received foreign funds in violation of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). Denied bail last weekend and sent to 14-day judicial custody, the concerned citizens, in a statement, regretted that while the Delhi High Court issued notice to the Delhi police on a petition filed on behalf of Zubair challenging the legality and propriety of his police remand and the seizure of his electronic devices, the “frivolous case” continues. Excerpts: The illegal arrest of Mr. Mohammed Zubair happened on June 27, 2022, by the Delhi Police for allegedly hurting religious sentiments and promoting enmity over a tweet from 2018. The IPC Sections included 153(a) (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race,

Chennai residents 'suffering': Faulty design, implementation of storm water project

By NS Venkataraman*  The Greater Chennai Corporation is now implementing storm water drainage project in 559 roads, covering a distance of 1033 kilometres, which cost around Rs 4,070 crore. For this massive project, which is targeted to be completed between April and September this year, huge loan has been availed from World Bank, Asian Development Bank and others. Several technocrats have pointed out that the project has been designed with outdated technology and quality of the implementation is so poor that the residents have been put to great hardships. As part of the project, digging of the road has been done to around 5 to 6 feet deep and width of around 4 to 5 feet. The drains are being constructed using steel reinforced cement concrete with two walls on either side with provisions for manhole, chute etc. This has been done in front of several houses leaving little space between the gate of the house and that of the drainage structure. As the work has been going on for mor

Prime Minister's 'affordable' housing policy fails to help Gujarat slum dwellers: Study

By Rajiv Shah  A new study on the implementation of one of the major policy initiatives for the urban poor by the Narendra Modi government after it came to power, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), has said that in Gujarat, which happens to be the Prime Minister’s home state, has quoted state officials as “confirming” that no progress towards tenure regularization, a key requirement for providing housing to the state’s slum dwellers. Stating that this particularly true of smaller town, the study, carried out by the non-profit Homes in the City (HIC), which is based in Bhuj, district headquarter of Kutch that saw a devastating earthquake in 2001, says, the failure to provide affordable housing is there despite the fact that there has been “significant demand” in all the 83 out of 153 Gujarat municipalities studied by experts involved in the study. According to the study, out f a total of 1.41 lakh demands for housing under the Beneficiary Led Construction (BLC) category, 94,232 (66.7%)

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

'Contractor-official nexus led to RTI activist's murder': Fact-finding team seeks probe

Courtyard inside of PWD office where Ranjeet Soni was killed Counterview Desk  A fact-finding team* visited Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh (MP) on June 19, 2022 to meet with the family of Ranjeet Soni, who was shot dead on June 2, 2022 inside the premises of the PWD office in Vidisha. The objective was to gather information about the circumstances surrounding the death of Ranjeet Soni and his work on exposing corruption through the use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. A report prepared by the team members says that Ranjeet had been extensively using the RTI Act to access information from the government, and upon receiving documents showing misuse of public funds or corruption, he was filing complaints to various authorities including the Lokyukta, Publi Works Department (PWD) and the Chief Minister’s Office. It notes, Ranjeet used to work as a contractor and often undertook government works in collaboration with other contractors, including those being investigated for his murder. A f

Electricity Bill: Centre's reform measures contain 'carrot and stick package' for states

Counterview Desk  The Peoples’ Commission on Public Sector and Public Services (PCPSPS), claiming to be a network of eminent academics, jurists, erstwhile administrators, trade unionists and social activists, seeking consultations with stakeholders with those who are against the government’s decision to monetise, disinvest and privatise public assets/enterprises, has said that the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill-2022 will have far-reaching impacts on the finances of states. Insisting that the proposed Bill would lead to “assault on India’s federal structure”, in a statement, it says, it would weaken the finances of states’ power distribution companies, have adverse impact on utility employees, cripple the states' finances, impose a heavy cost burden on the smaller subsidized consumers (especially farmers), and benefit only corporate business houses. “States cannot afford to ignore the far-reaching implications of the Bill on their economy, finances, agricultural and industria

'Highly abnormal': AltNews journo's arrest suggests 'deterioration in media freedom'

By Bharat Dogra*  Leading media organizations have come out in strong support of recently arrested journalist Mohammed Zubair. These organizations include, among others, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Club of India, the Delhi Union of Journalists and DIGIPUB, a platform for several important digital media organizations. All these organizations have condemned the recent arrest of the noted journalist and demanded his immediate release. While leading human rights organizations and political parties have also made somewhat similar statements, the strong support of media organizations is particularly important as the effort of the authorities has been to try to present the arrested journalist as someone who has been indulging in irresponsible journalism.  In such a situation the support of those media organizations who are familiar with his work and who are most capable of judging the quality of his work is very important. In this context it is important that some media organization