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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.
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*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

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