‘We live in this dirt and die here’: No end in sight for misery of Hyderabad manual scavengers
‘We live in this dirt and die here’: No end in sight for misery of Hyderabad manual scavengers

‘We live in this dirt and die here’: No end in sight for misery of Hyderabad manual scavengers

Despite laws and rules against sending workers into manholes, life remains an endless series of sewage-filled drains for these men.

Veeranna, a 34-year-old labourer, ties a thick rope to a dented steel bucket and carefully drops it into a manhole in BS Makhta Colony in Begumpet.

“Pull it!” shouts a voice inside the manhole after a few minutes. Veeranna pulls up a bucket filled to the brim with black sewage. Throwing the sewage on one side of the road, he returns to repeat the process.  

Peeps inside the manhole, and you see Venkanna, his body covered from head to toe with the foul-smelling, black muck.

As people pass by, they wrinkle their noses and cover them, trying to shut out the heavy stench rising up from the manhole. Veeranna and Venkanna though, continue their work seemingly unaffected.

“We are used to this smell. We live in it,” Veeranna declares simply.

His bare feet and hands covered in filth, the clothes he wears faded and torn in many places, Veeranna says this is how he looks, while at work every day.  

“This is a life of a manual scavenger. We are born in dirt and even die in dirt. No matter how many times I take a bath, till I die I have to live with this smell of garbage and the filth of others,” he says.

Veeranna, along with Venkanna and Venkaiah, are manual scavengers working as contract labourers for the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (HMWSSB).

A supervisor from the HMWSSB, who is present at the spot, witnesses manual scavenging daily, despite it being banned since 2013 by the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. And despite the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Council declaring a ban last year on workers entering manholes.

“It happens every day and the higher-ups are well aware of this. They will say, don’t allow anyone inside the manhole. But when the (jetting) machine doesn’t work, the officials themselves will ask me to send labour inside the manhole,” says Venu Gopal, a supervisor with the HMWSSB.

Forced profession 

“If I got a chance, I would never do this job,” says 50-year-old Venkaiah. He is particularly anxious after he disconnects his wife’s call, and careful to make sure none of the sewage gets on him or  his clothes.

“I am thankful to my friends here” he says. Bending towards the manhole, he tells Venkanna, “I’ll do it tomorrow, anna! Thank you for doing it (going into the manhole) for me.”

Venkaiah’s family is preparing for a special event, and the one thing they fear could ruin it is his job.  “Today, the groom’s parents are coming home to see my daughter. So I told my wife that I will not go inside the manhole, or else the smell won’t go even after several baths. That’s why I requested brother Venkanna to do it today for me,” Venkaiah explains.

He adds that no matter how hard he tries, he can never forget that this is the job he has been doing for a long time, as the smell and dirt never fully leave his body.

For the three men, the day starts as early as 6am, with just a handful of jaggery for energy and a couple of sips of local alcohol to muzzle the smell and feel of sewage.

For the rest of the day, there are no meals, as the men cannot bear the thought  of eating after handling so much garbage and sewage. Instead, they drink tea at regular intervals just to keep their energy levels up. The only daily meal comes at night, after they have scrubbed themselves as clean as possible.

All their clothes and belongings are segregated too. “We have four pairs of clothes that we wear throughout the week. These clothes are our uniform. We cannot spoil all the clothes that we wear for other occasions,” says Veeranna.

He asks anxiously for the time, saying that it usually takes them over two hours to clean each manhole. Veeranna has to leave by 2pm so that he can pick up his daughter from school.

And to make sure that he looks presentable when he does so, he has a fresh pair of clothes ready in the vehicle.

“My daughter never says anything, but I do not want her to feel ashamed of me because I clean manholes and drains. But she sometimes asks me to leave this job, maybe because her friends never come to our house,” Veeranna says, as his smile fades.

He says he once used to work in a construction site, almost four years ago. But the money, less than Rs 4000 a month, was never enough. And those around him never let him forget that he has been cleaning manholes all his life.  Eventully, he saw no choice but to return to this profession.

“My father also used to do this job. This has passed on to me like property. Even if I want, I cannot forget that I do this job. Once you are engaged in such a profession, people always identify you as a manual scavenger who cleans drains,” says Veeranna.

“What else can we do, we are not educated or skilled. And the government also does not give us the equipment to make the cleaning job easy,” adds Venkaiah.

Although Veeranna’s job pays him more than his construction did, the Rs 8000 he earns every month is not enough to support his family and educate his child.

“We are doing this dirty job, but what are we earning? Almost nothing – no respect and no money. With Rs 8000 how will I educate my daughter? She will also end up working here,” says Veeranna.

“No one wants to do this job – those officials sitting in the air conditioned offices would never understand how degrading this job is. They do not even talk to us, they only talk to the supervisors,” adds Veeranna.

“It is not a choice but a forced profession,” declares Venkaiah.

 Health issues

After an hour, Venkanna comes out of the manhole, and his friends help him up. Venkanna, wears a pair of short pants and a faded t-shirt. Once out of the manhole, he stands on the road wet and completely covered in sewage, without any protective gear like a mask, gloves or boots.

He quickly goes near the jetting machines, where he bathes himself in clean water, scrubbing as hard as he can.

“Don’t use too much water, you will fall sick again,” warns Venkaiah in a worried tone.

“Doesn’t matter, I will take medicines,” replies Venkanna, scrubbing some more.

Venkanna has been ill for more than a month, getting a fever after every time he enters a manhole.

“This is because of the rain – Our work has increased a lot. There are more overflowing manholes and drains. Because I take a bath six times a day, whenever I go inside the manhole, I am very likely to get a fever again,” says Venkanna.

While Venkanna gets frequent fevers and colds, Venkaiah says that he suffers from breathing problems.

“I stopped smoking beedis almost five years back, but the breathing issue is getting worse. Whenever I go inside the manhole, I feel suffocated,” says Venkaiah. However, he is unable to spend even a penny on hospitals or medicines.

“The labourers are provided with healthcare and the health officer does a weekly check up, so that we are updated about their health,” the General Manager of HMWSSB for Begumpet area, M Prabhu tells TNM.

However, the workers say they have never seen any of these healthcare facilities or weekly medical check-ups that are supposed to be provided to them.

“There is no healthcare facility for us. Even if we die, we will just become a number in these government officials’ statistics,” says Venkaiah.

The News Minute