A blue truck is parked along a roads, and a horrible stench is emanating from around it; a huge mound of sewage is dumped behind the truck, and most residents are nowhere near the area.
But three men are standing behind the truck, despite the smell, looking into an open manhole on the road.
And inside the manhole is another person, picking up the waste from hundreds of households with his bare hands.
This is the scene that TNM witnessed on the morning of Saturday, June 24. The area was BS Makhta in Begumpet in Hyderabad - though, considering the banned practice of manual scavenging is practiced everywhere in the city with impunity, this could just be another place, at another time as well.
Jetting machines ineffective?
It was just 10 days ago that the Telangana Minister for Municipal Administration and Urban Development, KT Rama Rao, introduced 70 mini sewer-jetting machines in the city, with an aim to eliminate manual scavenging.
But while these machines haven't been put to use yet, the machines that are already in use are of little help, say workers on the ground..
Venkanna, a 32-year-old contract labourer who went inside the manhole at BS Makhta, tells TNM that this is his daily job.
“The machine provided by the HMWSSB is small, and so is the pipe which is supposed to suck all the filth from the manhole,” Venkanna says.
“We won't say it is useless, but it does not address the complete issue. Only 60% of the filth comes out, after that, the filth keep getting stuck in the pipe as it is too small,” he explains.
Shockingly, the HMWSSB supervisor who comes to check the work to see whether it has been done properly or not, says, the officials of the water board are well aware of this problem.
“They (HMWSSB) send labourers to check on the contract workers. The officials first say ‘don’t let them go inside manholes’, but when I tell them that the machine could not do all the work, the officials themselves would instruct us to send one of the labourers inside the manhole,” says Venugopal, a labourer who comes to supervise the work from HMWSSB.
Official’s brazen justification
When TNM spoke to the General Manager of the Water Board for Begumpet area, he did not completely deny the fact that manual scavenging has been happening in the city. However, he claims that they allow manual scavenging only under the supervision of Deputy General Manager or the General Manager.
“We do not allow labourers to go inside the manholes unless it is an emergency or completely necessary. We ask them (contractors) not to encourage manual scavenging, but in some cases, if there is no other option, they go inside only with the permission and supervision of DGM and GM of that area,” General Manager of HMWSSB for Begumpet area, M Prabhu tells TNM.
TNM informed him about Saturday’s incident, where no authorities were present for supervision.
That’s when the General Manager then went on to justify manual scavenging in the most bizarre, apathetic manner possible.
“It must be a small manhole,” M Prabhu says. “They are provided equipment and uniform for the work.”
“If there is obstruction in the manhole, they do go inside these small manhole. They are provided proper uniform along with gloves and masks,” Prabhu reiterates, as if that makes up for continuing the illegal practice.
No masks, no uniforms
Meanwhile, Venkanna who went inside the manhole, has no such equipment. He went inside the manhole wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, without any gloves or mask.
“The gloves are of poor quality. This job would require better quality gloves. The gloves they provide get torn the moment we start the work,” says Venkanna.
He also denied being provided a uniform or masks for the job.
The General Manager though has a ready justification for that as well.
“They do not have the practice of wearing gloves and masks while doing this work. Even if we provide them, they don’t use it. The uniform and equipment should we kept in the vehicle for them to use, but they don’t use any of those things,” Prabhu claims.
He also denied forcing workers to do manual scavenging. “We never force the labourers to go inside the manhole. We have never instructed the supervisors to send labourers inside the holes,” he adds.
In November last year, T Narsing Rao died of suffocation while cleaning a manhole in JNNURM colony in Hyderabad.
The residents hired three men, including Narsing, to clean the overflowing manhole in a block of the colony, when the incident happened. Narsing had first opened the manhole to check the blockage with a stick. He leaned inside to get a better view.
“His friends called him but Narsing did not respond. They rushed to check on him but he was already dead by then. He might have inhaled poisonous gases inside the manhole and died of suffocation. All of them were also drunk," Inspector J Narender, Hayathnagar earlier told TNM.
However, Narsing’s death was not the sole such incident in the city; in August, three daily wage labourers, Srinivas, Satyanarayana and Nagesh, had died due to asphyxiation in Hyderabad's Madhapur area after they entered a 11.5ft deep, and 3.5ft wide manhole.
Two more labourers, Veera Swamy and Kotaiah, lost their lives in a manhole at Kapadia Lane in Hyderabad’s Sultan Bazar area allegedly due to inhalation of poisonous gas in May last year.
Despite manual scavenging, being banned in India, a recent study conducted by Basthi Vikas Manch revealed that there are at least 10,000 manual scavengers in the city.
However, the Socio Economic and Caste Census 2011 (SECC-2011) data of manual scavengers released by the Ministry of Rural Development, a total of 553 manual scavengers were identified in both the Telugu states. Andhra Pradesh had around 388 identified manual scavengers while Telangana had 165.
Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay Award winner and founder and national convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan, had earlier told TNM that the government data is wrong. “In Hyderabad alone, there are around 4000 manual scavengers. How can any data say that across the state there are less than 200? The number is much higher than what the data reveals,” he said.
One of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) workers in Hyderabad, Saraswathi, had earlier told TNM that HMWSSB had played a major role in employing manual scavengers.
The the water board since January has put up a restriction on manual scavengers to clean a sewer or a drain, but she claimed that the contractors often violate the rule.