'BMC playing with lives of manhole cleaners,' claims workers union
Members of Municipal Workers Union allege that, despite several deaths taking place, the civic body has been flouting the 2006 HC directive asking it to provide staffers cleaning manholes with safety gear
Citing the 2006 Bombay High Court directive to the BMC on providing safety gear to its conservancy staff, especially the ones cleaning manholes, members of the Municipal Workers Union have accused the civic administration of gross negligence and of playing with the safety of the workers.
A cleaner being lowered into a manhole in Lalbaug on March 11. He had no safety gear and had to remain inside for a long time
A union member claimed that the high court had asked the BMC to provide manhole cleaners with earplugs, safety goggles, oxygen masks, gloves and gumboots for their safety, but the civic body has been flouting the directive despite several deaths taking place.
The Supreme Court had also issued a similar directive in 2011 and asked employers not to treat manhole workers as “mechanical robots” (see box). Mahabal Shetty, the working president of Municipal Workers Union, said, “As per the HC’s directive, the BMC is supposed to provide every worker who cleans manholes with the necessary safety gear. However, nothing has been done till date.”
When this mid-day correspondent passed a site in Lalbaug where the cleaning of a manhole was in progress last Wednesday, he observed that the worker had entered the manhole without any safety gear. He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and had been lowered into the manhole with the help of a rope held by his colleagues.
The cleaner passed out buckets filled with filth and muck to workers outside, who dumped it right next to the manhole. A conservancy staffer, who is also a member of the union, said cleaners have no choice but to risk their lives every time they enter a manhole as this job is their only source of income.
Supreme Court judgment
Upholding a Delhi High Court order on a PIL, the Supreme Court had said in 2011, “Given the option, no one would like to enter the manhole of a sewerage system for cleaning purposes, but there are people who are forced to undertake such hazardous jobs with the hope that at the end of the day they will be able to make some money and feed their family.”
“The State and its agencies/instrumentalities cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility to put in place an effective mechanism for ensuring the safety of the workers employed for maintaining and cleaning the sewerage system.
The human beings who are employed for doing the work in sewers cannot be treated as mechanical robots, who may not be affected by poisonous gases in manholes,” the court had said, highlighting the need for giving proper equipment to sewer workers.
Caught on camera
Court, a critically acclaimed film, which has won quite a few awards at international festivals and will be released this month, deals with the topic of a sewage worker who dies inside a manhole as he goes in without any protection. Chaitanya Tamhane, the director of the film, said, “While writing Court, I had figured out all the scenes outside of the courtroom, but I still hadn’t figured out the case that the film would revolve around.
One day, while researching, I came across two of S Anand’s disturbing articles for Tehelka, titled, ‘Dying in a black hole’ and ‘Life inside a black hole’. The articles mentioned that over 22,000 dalit sewage workers die every year because of lack of proper safety equipment and a general negligence towards their working conditions.”
“I was quite moved by what I read, and eventually I had a breakthrough; the story of a manhole worker’s suicide became the foundation of the court case in the film. Several details from the reports that I had read became important narrative elements in the script of Court,” he added.
>> Three cleaners working in a Mulund sewer died after inhaling poisonous gases in May 2014. The fire brigade managed to save the lives of four others who had entered the main sewer that runs along the Eastern Express Highway and ends at the Bhandup sewage pumping station.
>> Cleaners Uma Krishnan (25) and Pandian (22) died after inhaling toxic fumes, and another cleaner had a narrow escape, while cleaning a sewer line at Kalachowkie in May 2010.
>> Two railway employees died of asphyxiation in a sewer line near Matunga station in May 2010. The incident occurred days after the Kalachowkie deaths.
The other side
Vipinkumar Pandey, chief engineer, Sewerage Operations Department, said, “We are providing the workers with all the safety equipment”.
When mid-day visited the G-South (Lower Parel) ward office, however, workers there said that no safety equipment is made available to them. This reporter, too, did not see any safety equipment in the cleaners’ room or the ward office.
The union’s secretary, Ashok Jadhav, said, “The lack of safety equipment is not restricted to that one ward alone. Wards in the suburbs also don’t have safety equipment.
Most of the manhole cleaners don’t even live up to the age of 60. Due to the lack of safety equipment, the workers die of skin problems and cancer. Most of them die of tuberculosis.”
Number of manhole cleaners employed by the BMC