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

HSBC shareholders seek exit from funding Adani's 'contentious' Australian coalmine

By Our Representative  In a move that may embarrass India's top business house known to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, shareholders of HSBC, a British multinational investment bank, the largest in Europe with total assets of US$2.715 trillion, are likely to decide at its AGM on May 28, 2021 a plan to exit coal financing related to the Adani Group, as it begins digging the Carmichael mega coal mine in Australia, reports Melbourne-based South Asia Times.

Gross 'injustice' to children: Rs 5000 cr cut in education budget; 15 lakh schools shut down

Counterview Desk  More than 100 dignitaries, including educationists, academia, social activists, teachers’ union, civil society organisations (CSOs), various networks and people working on child rights, in a letter to Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman have sought reversal of reduction in allocation for education in the Union Budget 2021-22, even as demanding substantial increase in it.

Communal rhetoric? Hindutva preached by RSS-BJP is 'monolithic', not Hinduism

By Prem Verma*  I am a devout Hindu but not a believer of RSS Hindutva form of Hinduism which brings about hatred of other religions. My Hindu religion has not taught me to look down on other religions and neither has it instilled in me to go about converting others to my religion because my religion is superior.

Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

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".

Ciminalising 'tool' created, name: Gujarat Land Grabbing Prohibition Act 2020

By Varsha Bhagat-Ganguly, Rejitha Nair* The year 2021 in Gujarat opened its account with 647 alleged land grabbing cases under investigation, 16 FIRs filed against 34 land grabbers within 35 days of Gujarat Land Grabbing Prohibition Act 2020 (GLGPA), as informed by the Additional Chief Secretary (Home), Gujarat State, in a press conference on January 22, 2021. He further informed that of 647 alleged cases, 605 applications of land grabbing were received by different collectors who have initiated suo moto proceedings in 42 cases. The total land in these cases is estimated to be around 1.35 lakh square metre, worth Rs 220 crore as per jantri rates (ready reckoner of land prices in different parts of the state). By March 15, 2021, at least six even cases are before the Gujarat High Court. Of about 11 cases reported in the daily newspapers, in three cases, grabbing of government land is charged, and the rest are land disputes between two individuals. The promptness of the district collect

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

RSS love for 'killer' Myanmar junta behind Indian military presence at Tatmadaw Day?

By Shamsul Islam*  If a shameful act means an action which is criminal and nauseating, it would be an understatement to describe the attitude of the present RSS-BJP rulers of India towards the demolition of democracy and large-scale killing of the people of Myanmar by the military ( tatmadaw ) junta which took power through a coup on February 1, 2021 after renegading the election results in which the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy, was a clear winner.

Chhattisgarh’s Apra riverfront imitates Sabarmati: 'Devaluing' water, environment

Sabarmati riverfront By Mansee Bal Bhargava*  This year’s #WorldWaterDay (March 22) focus was on ‘Valuing Water’. My school friend, Pragati Tiwari from Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, called that day knowing my interest in water matters. We were remembering our childhood days as how we used to play on the banks and the bed of the Arpa Nadi (River) during the summer holidays and as how the river would swell like Anaconda to flow happily during the monsoon.

Bihar massacre on Holi day: Brahminical, casteist mindset behind 'uneasy' silence

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*  Several people were killed in Bihar amidst Holi festivities, but not much response has come in from the media. The silence of the government and the society as a whole is also appalling. We seek to romanticise these festivals, yet we forget that every year they take so many lives. This despite the fact that Holi appears to be the best time for 'avenging things'.

India's draft migrants policy: Whither concern on job restrictions imposed by states?

By Anil Kumar*  India’s Niti Aayog has prepared a Draft Migration Policy. The draft policy acknowledges migration as an integral part of development, and it calls for positive government interventions that facilitate internal migration. With a rights-based solution to migration, the draft states that the policy should “enhance the agency and capability of the community and thereby remove aspects that come in the way of an individual’s own natural ability to thrive”.