Dirty Jobs-Part 2: Sewage Cleaners

Close your eyes and picture being in a dark hole surrounded by stinking muck, wading through it, trying to clean it. This is how a regular day, like every other day, passes in the lives of men who clean sewage pipes to earn a living.


Close your eyes and picture being in a dark hole surrounded by stinking muck, wading through it, trying to clean it. This is how a regular day, like every other day, passes in the lives of men who clean sewage pipes to earn a living.

At 9 a.m. on a busy working weekday, the Domlur BWSSB service station near the overhead tank opposite Shantisagar hotel is an oasis of quiet and greenery. Untouched by the frenzy of belching buses, scurrying office-goers and plying auto rickshaws, the place shuffles to life with the unhurried pace of a government office. The single cleaning woman sweeps out the leaves, a BWSSB truck waits outside, and one by one, the employees turn up, some wearing khakhis, some on motorcycles. A lone man signs in a file in one of the offices there.

The BWSSB is the body that is responsible for sewerage services. At this service station, there are three regular workers and about seven contract workers. The regular workers are older men, called maistries. Narayana, one of the first to arrive, has been a regular sanitary worker since 1974 and is due to retire in a few years. Peddana is another regular, he has married off his four daughters, and owns a small house purchased on loan.

BWSSB Drain Cleaner

What lies beneath. Workers fixing a drain at Kumara Park. Pic courtesy: Praveen (photoyogi) through CC,

Mr. Lakshmaiah , head of the BWSSB Sanitary Board Workers Union, says there are about 200 odd regular sanitary workers. The number has dwindled from 300 to 206 due to death (mostly through disease) and retirement. He attributes the “death due to disease” to the nature of the work. The 46 sanitary jetting machines available to help clean up, can only be used in areas that allow these big machines to roll in, but not in slums or narrow lanes where people have to work manually.

The regular workers’ pay, depending on seniority and service, may go up to Rs. 15000-30000 a month. The regular workers are entitled to a 2-bedroom govt. quarter. They get a festival advance of Rs. 5000 for Ugadi and Dussehra; overtime pay. and holiday wages are separate. They have access to 45 hi-tech hospitals (including Manipal, Hosmat and other well-known hospitals) through an I.D. card – medical is also included for parents and dependents (children, wife). On retirement, they get a pension of Rs. 10000 a month; on death, their family gets 10 lakhs and a member of the family can get their job on compassionate grounds. Additionally, they are given toiletries, footwear and clothes.

As per Mr. Lakshmaiah, not only dalits, but people from other castes also apply for these jobs and a 5th grade pass, and good physical health are the only qualifications needed. Mr. Lakshmaiah is visibly proud of the pay and perks, and says that the sewage cleaners in Karnataka are much better off than those in many other states. The one negative he highlights: too few people and too much work.

So, why are there only 200 odd workers to service a population as large as Bangalore? Most of the work is farmed out to contractors (I am given an estimate of about 3000), especially in the new wards that came into BBMP from CMC. The difference between the contract and the regular workers is not trivial. The regular workers/ maistrys themselves completely agree that the lot of the contract workers is very pathetic.

At the Domlur service station, the contract workers take home may vary from Rs. 1600-2300 per month (as per the numbers mentioned by different individuals there). The maistry Pichaiah says, “It is difficult for them to get by on this amount. To get by in Bangalore, you need at least 20000 – to cover rent, food, schooling etc.” Narayana Maistry says, “We regulars don’t ask for tips, since we get “kai nariya sambalam (handfuls of money)”, but they do: can you blame them for wanting a tip?”

Penchilaya, a contract worker, also talks about tipping. “We come in every morning, check the list of complaints, and distribute the work among ourselves. Sometimes, folks we service pay a tip of 100 rupees, though they grumble about it. People ask us to do household work and throw in heavyweight political names if we refuse to comply.” He has been working for 8 years, and has managed to send his one son to college and another to school – his daughter dropped out to attend a tailoring course. If the contract workers fall sick, then they have to take care of themselves, which means they have to rely on government hospitals.

Yesuiah, a contract worker, has 2 boys and 1 girl – the girl and boy are married off – his wife, younger son and he live in a rented house in Ulsoor. He has not educated his children – “how can I with my earnings?” he says. He earns about Rs.1600 and his wife about Rs. 700 as a maid.

Skin diseases, infections are all part of the game. Pichaiah shows his feet, the skin split and cracked in several places –yes, they are given gloves, caps etc. but don’t use them at work. To clean, they need to get into the sewers and clean blockages with sticks. They need to pour water and wait for the sewage to settle; else they could faint from inhaling the noxious fumes. At times, they need to strip down to their underpants and get into the muck.

In spite of the hardships, there is camaraderie among the men.They also have spirit, perhaps partly due to the fact that none of them have taken to spirits. They tell me this with some pride.

And what do areas that do not have access or that are not covered by the BWSSB do? They resort to pit cleaners and STP operators. In a little urban slum in Mahadevapura, Srinivas runs his little pit cleaning service. Seenu and Gopal, his two pit cleaners use a small truck with a Sintex tank and a pipe, which they take to any place that needs their services. They remove the sewage water and clean the pit, load the tank using buckets, and dump the sewage in a site in Nekkundi. They have no gloves or protective clothing. Seenu is 20 and has been doing this work for 6 years and Gopal is about 40 and has been doing this work for 10 years. With their pitted, sallow skin and bleached hair, both Seenu and Gopal look older than their years.

Srinivas, the owner of the service and Narayanswamy, the pit cleaning truck driver and their spokesperson are pretty matter-of-fact about their lives. ”We work, eat our meals, get drunk, sing songs, and sleep under a tree, or near the truck.” When asked whether they find it difficult to work with sewage, Narayanswamy says they have no qualms or issues about doing their work. Besides, the drink helps mask the smell. As for the future, he says, it all depends on what destiny has in store for them. They earn about 150 rupees per job, and if they fall ill, have to use their earnings to take care of themselves. The two pit cleaners are not married, and do not have any children. The driver seems a little more grounded, has a wife and relatives nearby, and four children who live in a hostel and attend a school run by his church.

And at the other end of the spectrum, Venkatesh is the sewage treatment plant (STP) operator at one of the high-end complexes. He says he has a diploma in automotive engineering, but when the job offer from Ecotech (a private sewage treatment operations company) came up; he jumped at it and has stayed with it for nearly 15 years now. He works as part of a three-man team doing a 24 hour shift – and explains the process of how the sewage is separated from the water, and how the water is treated and recycled into the complex to be used for gardening and for the toilets. His job is quite different from the pit cleaners, but the sickly-sweet smell of sewage that pervades the STP is a reminder that this is the leitmotif common to the lives of all these men.

Also read:

Water Tariff: The true cost of water and the price we pay for it

Closing the tap on Bangalore’s leaky water


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
When not looking for software bugs in her day job,Kalpana enjoys: inventing dishes like 'zucchini mor-kolumbini', singing Geeta Dutt songs, running 5 miles every other day, and shaking a leg to Bollywood tunes. Her autobiography, coming soon to a store near you, is called a A Bellyful of Laughs. Disclosure: Er, the last part, like all good bios, is padded for effect. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
When not looking for software bugs in her day job,Kalpana enjoys: inventing dishes like 'zucchini mor-kolumbini', singing Geeta Dutt songs, running 5 miles every other day, and shaking a leg to Bollywood tunes. Her autobiography, coming soon to a store near you, is called a A Bellyful of Laughs. Disclosure: Er, the last part, like all good bios, is padded for effect. more

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