44-year-old Dennis was parking his vehicle outside his office on the 100 feet road in Coimbatore, when he spotted the men. Dressed in khakhi uniforms, a worker was knee deep in sewer water as another stood by trying to unblock the drain. Alarmed, Dennis ran across the road, trying to stop them from proceeding any further.
"They had absolutely no protection on them, not even gloves," says Dennis angrily. "In addition to this, they actually work for the Coimbatore corporation and were sent there to clean the drain. I warned them and made them get out immediately," he adds.
When the workers resisted, Dennis threatened to call the District Collector and inform him of yet another violation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules, 2013. While Tamil Nadu tops the list of shame, with highest number of deaths due to manual scavenging in the last five years, Coimbatore over the last year has been notorious for the same. Three men died while attempting to clean a sewer at a pig farm in the district last month.
"I made the workers call their supervisor and stop the entire operation. When he arrived I explained the situation to him," says Dennis.
49-year-old Karthikeyan, a corporation santitation inspector, who had come rushing to the spot, was first defensive when TNM questioned him on the task given to the workers.
"It was not an open sewer, it was a storm water drain with sewage blocking the outlet," he said. "We were ordered by the office to come remove blockage because water was spilling on the road and the public in the area was constantly complaining," he adds.
But didn't the men have to get into the sewage contaminated water?
"Yes, they did," relents Karthikeyan. "They tried to remove it with some instruments but when that didn't work, they stepped in to work on it. They did not have any protective gear on them. We don't know how to remove these blockages with gloves and won't get a grip on it. We had to finish the work because we were given instructions to and a machine can't be used in this situation. I even explained this to the man who stopped us," he says.
Dennis however remained unrelenting and refused to leave the spot till the team left with their belongings.
"My own father died in a sewer," says Karthikeyan finally. "We were merely following instructions and even our superiors didn't know that we would get into sewage. Infact the supervisor has been given a memo for assigning this task now. But I am actually glad the activist stopped the workers. It shows that people are actually beginning to care."