Physical agony, mental trauma, death: 4 accounts of what it means to work as a manual scavenger in Tamil Nadu

  • Over the past three years alone, 88 deaths related to manual scavenging have been recorded in India — despite a ban on the practice.

  • Among Indian states, Tamil Nadu has recorded the highest number of manual scavenging deaths in India.

In April this year, four men died while cleaning a septic tank at a dye factory in Chennai. Those present at the scene said the workers had not been wearing any safety gear at the time.

Over the past three years alone, 88 deaths related to manual scavenging have been recorded in India — despite a ban on the practice. Among Indian states, Tamil Nadu has recorded the highest number of manual scavenging deaths in India.

***

It was a July day in 2018. Manikandan, Thangaraj and Ravindranath — dressed in the bare minimum of clothing, no safety gear, and armed with iron rods — climbed down a manhole and into a drain at Vyarsarpadi, Chennai. They worked as manual scavengers.

A journalist, hoping to broadcast their plight, took photos of them as they emerged from the drain. Two days after the photos were published, all three men were asked to leave work by the Vyasarpadi Slum Clearance Board, where they were employed. No explanations were provided, and neither were dismissal letters.

The irony was that Manikandan and Thangaraj were two of the three ‘identified’ manual scavengers in the area. Along with Kathiravan (who has now passed away), only Manikandan and Thangaraj have the requisite paperwork/identity proof to show they are manual scavengers.

 Physical agony, mental trauma, death: 4 accounts of what it means to work as a manual scavenger in Tamil Nadu

Representational image. Reuters

***

Manikandan, 33, is a resident of KM Colony in Chennai. Having been removed from his job, Manikandan and his wife are now struggling to raise their four children in their 14 ft by 8 ft home, and make ends meet. After working as a manual scavenger under the Vyasarpadi Slum Clearance Board for eight years, Mani has a battery of scars on his body — the ‘legacy’ of his job. Here’s a brief timeline of his struggles:

2011 —

Manikandan requests the Chennai Corporation for employment as a sanitation worker. Instead, he is assigned to clean a slaughterhouse in Division 72, Pulianthope. With no safety gear in noxious work conditions, and exposure to health hazards, Manikandan suffers severe headaches and throws up blood. He is given a week-long break to recuperate, only to be shifted to the Vyasarpadi Slum Clearance Board.

A Gazette Notification issued by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules 2013, mandates a set of 44 protective gear equipment and 14 cleaning devices be provided by employers to ensure the safety of their workers. However, Manikandan and his colleagues are given nothing other than iron rods to carry out their work. All this for a daily wage of Rs 360 in 2018-19 (up from Rs 225 a day in 2011).

Mani's family

Mani's family

2014 —

Manikandan and 10 other Dalit men write to Tamil Nadu government chief secretary Sheela Balakrishnan, drawing attention to their employment as manual scavengers under the Slum Board. They also write to several media houses, hoping to draw some attention to their conditions, in addition to the National Human Rights Commission, New Delhi, and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

2019 —

After his dismissal, Manikandan’s request for a job is answered in February 2019 by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board which has conducted an inquiry into his case; however, he isn’t offered new employment.

Mani’s complaint is placed before the Human Rights Commission in May 2019, which in turn orders that a probe be undertaken by the State government within a period of eight weeks. The Commission also directs the Tamil Nadu chief secretary to submit a report mentioning the action taken on a fresh complaint lodged in April 2019 by Mani.

At the time of publishing this report, Manikandan is jobless. He is yet to receive a response from the authorities.

***

(L) Manikandan's ID that states he is occupied as a manual scavenger; (R) Mariyo's death certificate

(L) Manikandan's ID that states he is occupied as a manual scavenger; (R) Mariyo's death certificate

Mariyo’s mother received a phone call on the evening of 20 August 2018. Her son, Bernard Mary was informed, had died.

Mariyo had been fixing a broken sewage pipe near the Periamet police station, for which he had entered a 10 ft deep drain. The fumes from the sewage made him lose consciousness. When his body was pulled out of the hole, it was found that Mariyo had sustained several injuries. At the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital, he was declared dead. Though the original post mortem certificate is yet to be delivered to Mariyo’s family, a provisional one they were issued states that no external injuries were found on his body. Mariyo’s family, however, say that there were visible head injuries when they cremated their son’s mortal remains.

Mariyo

Mariyo

Mariyo, 32, was a Class Nine pass-out, and had been working as an unidentified manual scavenger with the Chennai Corporation for a decade. He experienced frequent headaches and eye pain while at work.

Mariyo’s family — Bernard Mary, his aunt Mala and sister Shayamali — were given compensation amounting to Rs 9 lakh by the contractor who had employed him. However, this was less than the compensation (Rs 10 lakh) the Supreme Court had ruled be paid to his family. Mary and the others contend that the balance of Rs 1 lakh was taken by the lawyers and police.

Until his death, Mariyo was an unrecognised manual scavenger.

***

On 5 January 2017, Kathiravan committed suicide by hanging, at his home in Pulianthope. He was 25.

Kathiravan’s death certificate states that he was brought dead to Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital. Like Manikandan and Thangaraj, Kathiravan was among the three manual scavengers who held valid ID proof of their occupation.

Kathiravan, a resident of KM Colony, had been employed by the Slum Clearance Board for eight years as a manual scavenger. His family says he put up a uniformly sunny exterior, but underneath, Kathiravan was in agony. His work was a nightmare he couldn’t shake off.

Kathiravan

Kathiravan

“He was jovial and happy over 30 December to 1 January December 30, 31 and January 1,” says Dinesh, Kathiravan’s brother. On 2 January, Kathiravan complained of a headache, for which he was taken to the hospital. There, he was prescribed reading glasses. Over the next two days, Kathiravan did go to work. But on the 5th, he took leave. That was when he ended his life.

“The mental pressure of the work killed him,” Dinesh says, holding a copy of his brother’s death certificate.

Kathiravan’s family did not receive any compensation. Dinesh continues to work as manual scavenger.

***

Thangaraj, 42, has been a manual scavenger for 13 years.

A while ago, he was working in Mallipoo Colony in Vyarsarpadi, cleaning a septic tank. No safety equipment was provided, so Thangaraj made do with cotton to block his ears. But this proved to be a flimsy safeguard; the water pressure inside the tank was so high that it entered Thangaraj’s ears, rendering him partially deaf.

Today, he struggles to hear what is being said to him. He still climbs into deep drains in the course of his work.

Apart from his hearing impairment, Thangaraj’s nervous system has also been adversely impacted. The men drink alcohol to numb their senses when entering sewage. “It (alcohol) is necessary for us to get past the gas that hits us while opening the drain,” Thangaraj explains. The alcoholism has brought its own health problems.

Many manual scavengers including Thangaraj face an array of physical and mental problems due to the nature of their work. The ignominy is that many are not even identified as manual scavengers. According to data presented by Ramdas Athawale, minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, in the Lok Sabha in July 2018, a total of 363 manual scavengers are identified in Tamil Nadu. Juxtapose this with the number 206 — which denotes the cases of manual scavenging related deaths between 1993 and July 2019, as per information received by the National Commission of Safai Karamcharis.

Despite a ban, local civic bodies continue to hire manual scavengers. Even when workers request safer jobs, they are continued to be employed as manual scavengers. The issue is further complicated by the aspect of caste — it is mostly Dalits who take up (or rather, are made to take up) this work. It’s yet another measure of the oppression faced by a people forced to be at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.

From our archives: Read Firstpost's seven-part series on manual scavenging in India.

Anusha Sundar is a (photo)journalist with an eye for environmental, cultural and human-centric stories. Follow her work on Instagram.

Updated Date: Sep 01, 2019 10:32:38 IST