A manual scavenger clearing up a blocked sewerage pipe
A manual scavenger clearing up a blocked sewerage pipe|Pic credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

Manual Scavengers: Off The Grid With No Access to Justice 

Surveys do not show the real number of manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu who continue to die in sewer & septic tanks

Cibe Chakravarthy

Cibe Chakravarthy

On 20 August 2018, Mario Vinoba, 32, welded a pipe joint so as to connect it to the sewage suction pump at the Allikulam Sewage Treatment Plant. He finished the work. As he was about to climb up the sewage well, he slipped and fell inside.

It was half past 4 in the evening by the police record. Mario could not be spotted by his friends from the parapet wall.

The fire service took more than 3 hours to fish out Mario's dead body from the bottom of the well. There were no external injuries as per the postmortem report.

It seems Mario met his death the instant he encountered the toxic water and gas of the sewage.

His death was registered as an accidental one under 174 CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code) and was said to have occurred since the safety rope snapped, causing a free fall into the sewage well.

Mario Vinoba who died inside a sewage well
Mario Vinoba who died inside a sewage wellPic credit: Cibe Chakravarthy
Mario’s post mortem certificate reports “No External Injuries”
Mario’s post mortem certificate reports “No External Injuries”Pic credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

The case is still pending at the Periamet police station, awaiting the viscera reports from the lab.

Was Mario Ever A Manual Scavenger?

Officers in the Periamet police station told The Lede that Mario was a welder and a plumber by profession and he was working with a Metro Water contractor named Hari.

Almost a year has passed and the government has not compensated the victim's family.

Shamili V, 21, Mario's only sibling told The Lede, that her brother had been working at sewerage stations in the neighbourhood for the past 10 years.

Mario was born and brought up in KM Garden near Purasaiwalkam in Chennai. His sister and his mother Bernard Mary continue to live in the 10x10 feet house at the 1st Cross Street of KM Garden.

Kishore B, 24, Mario's nephew recalled that his uncle used to work on sewage blocks in the treatment plant and repair pumps.

The major part of Mario's daily work involved switching on the pump house of the sewage treatment plant and taking care of maintenance. Both his relatives say that he never knew welding.

"Mario did not do the welding. He only fitted the pipe joint to the pump and that’s why he entered the well," his friend Siva told The Lede. Siva was Mario's colleague and one of the witnesses to his death.

Siva does not go for sewage station contract work anymore. "After I witnessed his death, I switched over to painting contracts."

Statements of Mario's friends and family convey that he was not just a plumber, but dealt with raw sewage from the neighbourhood flowing into the treatment well. Also he certainly was not a welder, as the Periamet police station insists.

Incidentally Mario’s family received compensation from the contractor months after his death. A sum of Rs 9 lakh had been deposited into his sister Shamili’s account.

While the government did not compensate Mario’s death, the contractor’s largesse is unnatural.

So was Mario a manual scavenger or not?

Manikandan A, 35, an Identified Manual Scavenger in Chennai Corporation helped The Lede find the missing piece in the puzzle.

Manikandan explained what Mario’s job entailed. “Assume that a neighbourhood has 2 lakh households with all its sewer lines to the sewage treatment station,” he said. “All these pipelines would naturally be flooded every morning. There will be gates opened in the entry well at the pumping station to collect the sewage. But the flow will be very slow. At certain places, the pipelines would be deep and gravity would not work. The pumphouse has powerful suction pumps which have to be switched on twice every day.”

"It is compulsory to use pumps or else the sewage would be on the streets. Like a magnet, they would pull out whatever is on the line including trash, plastic wastes, sanitary napkins, dresses and so on…,” Mani told The Lede.

It was Mario's work to remove all the trash and deposits from the well so that they do not enter the treatment tanks, Manikandan said.

"There will be a large net laid in the well wherein all the trash that flowed out with sewage, would be collected. All these cannot be removed with machines. It sometimes involves manual labour," Manikandan explained. Most of those who did this job belonged to Scheduled Castes.

The Chennai Corporation in their 2018 survey identified 18 more Manual Scavengers in the district taking the total to 168. Mario was clearly a manual scavenger as per Manikandan’s account. But his name is not featured in the Corporation’s list.

Officials at the solid waste management department told The Lede that during the last survey in 2018, they received a total of over 900 applications, out of which they identified only 18 genuine individuals who continue to involve in Manual scavenging.

They added that the sanitary officers who visited the households to verify, reported that the rest were not genuine.

"They identified 232 Manual Scavengers in the first survey, 2015. But then, individuals outside the list continued to die in sewers. It continued in 2016 after the next survey also. The third survey in 2018, the latest one, they added only 18 Manual Scavengers to the list," Samuel Velankanni, State Coordinator, Safai Karamchari Andolan told The Lede. He added that the government has time and again shown laxity towards conducting proper surveys.

The data available with the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, a central government body, on manual scavenging deaths in which Tamil Nadu tops the list. According to NCSK, 194 manual scavengers died between 1993 and September 2018.

Manikandan: Rehabilitation Dilemmas

It is around noon on Friday, 28 June at the Chennai Collectorate.

Manikandan A, 35, from KM Garden, listens as the TAHDCO District Manager (Tamil Nadu Adi Dravidar Housing and Development and Corporation) speaks about the government scheme for the Identified Manual Scavengers to avail themselves of loans for Rs 50,000.

This scheme was begun after The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation act 2013. As part of this Act, governments have to identify manual scavengers and rehabilitate them. This means that the manual scavengers on the list cannot be sent back to the sewers again.

Skill training, loans, residences and scholarships for their children are all part of the rehabilitation scheme.

The loan is to start up small scale businesses, so as to switch over from manual scavenging. But this rehabilitation scheme does not entice Manikandan.

Identified Manual Scavenger, Manikandan A, 35, KM Garden
Identified Manual Scavenger, Manikandan A, 35, KM GardenPic credit: Cibe Chakravarthy
Manikandan’s ID card 
Manikandan’s ID card Pic credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

"What will I do with that 50,000 rupees? Officer says that we need to pay back only half of the loan amount (the other half will be paid by the government). If I give you that 50,000 will you be able to start a business with that?" asked Manikandan.

The official tried to instil confidence to everyone in the meeting. But Manikandan, father to four daughters, could not help but raise doubts over the feasibility of the government's rehabilitation measures.

"It has been 3 years now, after they promised us rehabilitation. All of us attended an awareness camp at Amma Maaligai (Chennai Corporation). We were told that we would get a residence, skill training, 15 lakh loan amount to start a new life, scholarship for our children. Years are rolling by fast. After that 40000 rupees (One time Assistance or OTA), nothing reached us," Mani told the official.

The TAHDCO official said that the loan would be useful as it could be availed within two weeks. But Mani was not convinced.

This is the sixth communication to Mani from TAHDCO in the last three years regarding loans. He applied for a loan in 2017 and his application was verified in 2018, when he was first asked to bring propositions or ideas to start a new business.

Since Mani had a four wheeler licence, they recommended that he apply for a loan for a small commercial vehicle.

Explaining his erstwhile experience with TAHDCO, Mani said - "I took a quotation for Mahindra Dost (Small Load Carrier). Initially they said it was enough. But they subsequently asked for an RTO badge. You might know how much it would cost to get a badge. My loan was kept pending as I could not produce the badge." The RTO badge is given for a commercial vehicle and Manikandan is referring to the bribe amount demanded which makes the badge unaffordable for people like him.

Since 2015, when Manikandan was identified as a manual scavenger, neither has he undergone any skill training nor his children's education taken care of as part of the rehabilitation scheme.

Worst of all, Mani continued to work in the housing board sewer until mid-2018, even after he was identified as a Manual Scavenger.

After images of Mani working in a sewer was published in the media (including The Hindu, Times of India) in early 2018, Mani lost the only job he had had for eight years.

While the contractor told Mani that the orders were given by the officers in the Slum Clearance Board, the officers told him the reverse.

The six member family runs on his wife's earnings who works as a housemaid. With the loan opportunity from TAHDCO becoming a distant dream, Mani stays at home without any prospects.

If there are any jobs, they are all from the neighbourhood, to fix the sewage blockage, which he does not accept.

Manikandan’s family
Manikandan’s familyPic by special arrangement

Finally in December 2018, Mani wrote to the National Human Rights Commission, stating his present condition after being identified as a Manual Scavenger more than 3 years ago.

The Commission in response ordered the state government in January 2019 to take immediate action with reports to be communicated to the Commission in 8 weeks’ time.

Nothing happened though and Mani had to write once more to the Commission. This time, the Commission replied by mid-May 2019, giving 6 weeks’ time to the state government to respond.

Meanwhile Mani tries to find an answer to his second daughter's question - as to why she was shifted from St Joseph's School to the Corporation School.

Now he wonders about the Rs 50,000 loan offered to him by TAHDCO, when faced with demands for three new school bags from his kids.

"In case I get that 50,000 rupees loan, I would buy only good dresses for my kids and provisions for the kitchen," said Manikandan.

Manikandan no longer treats his loss of job, his ongoing rehabilitation which has slowed down at present, as a mere personal livelihood disaster.

Ever since he was removed from the contractual job, he has acted as a spokesperson for the rest of the 9 member team which works in sewers with the Vyasarpadi Slum Clearance Board.

During the loan awareness meeting held at the district TAHDCO office, on 28 June, Mani told the district manager that while all ten of them had been forced to do manual scavenging for more than eight years, only three were identified as such.

Seven still continue to work in sewers without being identified as manual scavengers.

Working The Sewers

Due to poor solid waste management and waste collection at the housing board apartments, the backyards de facto become mini dump yards.

10 to 15 feet underground run the sewer conduit pipelines, which joins the main Metro Water sewerage connection outside the housing board.

While Mario worked at the sewerage pumping station, Mani and his colleagues work in the pipelines which get blocked inside the housing board area.

While the CMWSSB (Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board) uses jet rodding machines in case of blockage in the main line, the slum clearance board gets the job done inside the housing board area with contract manual scavengers.

But they have to start early in the morning before the sewage starts to flow. On a visit to the Kalyanapuram housing board at Elephant Gate, Mani explains how they would work on blockages in the sewer pipelines in between the apartment complexes.

Underwear is the uniform once you enter the workplace. The manual scavenger has to find out the blockage spot beyond which the sewage flow has slowed down.

Opening the manholes, one can spot the chamber door at 4 to 6 feet depth. When in blockage, this would be flooded with sewage.

Equipped with sets of iron rods, 4 feet each, which could be joined to form a lengthy rod mechanism, the worker tries to lift the chamber door.

In case the door is broken and cannot be lifted up, someone must get underneath and pull it by force.

During this beginning level inspection work, one should watch out for worms and insects which tend to climb up the body.

Generally waste clothes, sanitary napkins, jute bags get stuck into the chamber, creating the blockage in the first place.

These could be pulled out with the rod mechanism.

Sewer line behind Kalyanapuram Housing board looks like a dumpyard
Sewer line behind Kalyanapuram Housing board looks like a dumpyardPic credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

Row the sewage to release the block and as you do it, the sewage so far held under high pressure, tends to splash above the ground, reach as high as one's mouth. If rods don’t work, then the burden rests on human hands and legs.

Trash tends to adhere and harden as islands, which block the sewer and gases tend to collect in the space above the chamber. The gas will not completely escape when you open the manhole. Being denser, they remain at the bottom.

Kathiravan: A Life Lived In Agony

"Kathiravan often complained of headache and he used to sit down sometimes at the site itself, while we were working. It is the gas exposure. It goes to the head," Mani explained how gas and other fluids tend to keep them in the state of a trance.

“Gare ah irukkum," he said. One feels disoriented. "Once we reach home after work, we tend to sleep hours to get stable again. Or else you would not be in peace."

Manikandan enrolled in the contract nine years ago, along with two other friends from KM Garden, Kathiravan M, 23 and Thangaraj A, 35.

Incidentally these three were the only identified manual scavengers out of ten individuals working with the Vyasarpadi Slum Clearance board.

Kathiravan committed suicide due to ill health related to manual scavenging 
Kathiravan committed suicide due to ill health related to manual scavenging Pic by special arrangement

After years in the sewer, Kathiravan started feeling its impact. Though doctors advised him to stay away from sewers, Kathiravan continued to work.

"He used to hold his head often complaining of a headache. Being the breadwinner in the family, after his father’s demise in the aftermath of the Chennai floods, Kathiravan decided to work until he was rehabilitated," Kathiravan's mother M Kamala told The Lede.

"But one day when no one was around, unable to withstand the pain, he committed suicide by hanging," his mother said.

Kathiravan died in January 2017. Pulianthope police station, which handled the case, told The Lede that the deceased was said to have been ailing from mental disorder and hallucination, making him to commit suicide (as stated in the complaint).

Continuous exposure to the gas had taken the life of Kathiravan. And now his younger brother Dhinesh M, 24, has enrolled in the contract in his brother’s stead.

The other senior colleagues do not allow him to enter the sewer. He tries to avail of the rehabilitation meant for his brother.

Interestingly the Corporation and TAHDCO send all letter correspondence regarding rehabilitation in Kathiravan's name.

While rehabilitation is meant for the household of the manual scavenger and not just the individual, other manual scavengers have advised Dhinesh to continue his brother's contract so that the government does not skip its dues meant for Kathiravan. They are afraid that the family will, like them, also be cheated of their dues by the government.

Thangaraj A, 35, Mani's colleague says he was careless once with the sewage that entered his ear canals and he is partly deaf.

Thangaraj is the son of a government servant himself. His father Arockiasamy worked at the Directorate of Medical and Rural Health Services as an office assistant for over 25 years, before he died in an accident last year.

But Thangaraj has been going down sewers for the last 13 years and has only one request - "Engalukku pani nirandharam pannanum." (We want the government to make our jobs permanent.)

"The 2013 Act was not implemented properly. The rehabilitation schemes are yet to be completed. Proper survey has also not been carried out. People still die in sewers and septic tanks. Nothing has been done to prevent these deaths," Samuel Velankanni said.

"Jaathi thaan, jaathiya thavirthu vera onnum irukarathu illa." It is all about caste. There is no other reason except caste, he told The Lede.

The Managing Director, TAHDCO could not comment on the slow pace of rehabilitation, as the Assembly proceedings are on, with TAHDCO schemes yet to be tabled later this month.

Meanwhile the deaths continue.

Three manual scavengers died of asphyxiation in gas emission while cleaning septic tanks in Coimbatore district on 26 June.

Rajappan (38), Vediappan Perumal (29) and Vediappan Ponmalai (26) were the deceased.

To check if they were Identified Manual Scavengers, The Lede tried to access to the list of IMS in Coimbatore district.

Unlike the Chennai Corporation, which released the list online, the Coimbatore Corporation is yet to publish the list. The list has been requested from the Corporation.

An official at the Commissionerate of Municipal Administration said that the three were originally construction workers and chose to get down into the septic tank on their day off.

Of the four known families in manual scavenging, two have already lost their breadwinners.

Time and poverty will test Manikandan's determination not to enter the sewers again.

Justice for manual scavengers appears arbitrary and rare.

The Lede