When the Sewers Get Blocked: A Photo Essay on Sanitation Labour in Urban India

 

It is World Toilet Day on 19 November. India’s massive five-year all-hands-on-deck Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission) to construct latrines for all has just ended. The government reports that 100 million additional toilets have been constructed as part of this campaign. These are mostly not connected to waterborne sewer systems. Just over 30% of India’s urban population has access to sewers, though most city plans include elaborate plans for sewerage. Sewers are supposed to be underground and unseen, and are not supposed to need manual labour to dispose of the waste. But sewers get blocked and have to be unblocked, overflow and have to be cleaned out, break and have to be repaired. Several Indian cities have introduced mechanisation to fix major blockages and to avoid people having to jump into the sewer system when problems arise, but sewer management remains quite a challenge.

The sewers are often densely networked, the pipes are old, and the streets are narrow. Water and sewerage departments are overwhelmed with the number of demands and complaints they get on a daily basis, and they cannot be everywhere at once. Deaths of sewer workers continue to occur, and mechanisation is not always possible. Sewers are often unblocked with makeshift equipment such as bamboo poles and iron rods; accumulated silt often needs to be cleaned out by hand or a shovel. And so, human labour, which in this case is inevitably Dalit labour, keeps India’s sewers flowing. Technically, this is not “manual scavenging.” But what is it, then? 

On this World Toilet Day, we bring to light the labour of India’s sewer workers—those who do the unclean work that a “Clean India” relies on. We tell the story through the voice of Sharada Prasad, the photographer. 

It is August 2019. The afternoon in Hyderabad has not been tempered by the rains. I’m walking around, looking for sanitation workers. Narrow streets, dense settlements and old sewer lines are a recipe for sewer blockages. I see them: four men lifting a large slab of concrete to gain access to the drain underneath. The homeowner connected to the drain is with them, too. Once the slab is pried open, all four peer into the hole.

 

 

“Does not look like a lot of work,” says the homeowner, walking backwards to lean on his motorcycle.

“No, it is a lot of work. Look at all the dirt,” responds the man in the nice white shirt. “It is a lot of work. But we will get it done. Don’t worry.”

Sriramulu, in the green New York t-shirt, slurs his words a little. The other man, Govindu, says nothing, but looks at the homeowner. The men start scooping out the silt blocking the sewer.

 

 

I ask if the man in the white shirt has been a sanitation worker for long.

“No, no, I am not a sanitation worker. I am a carpenter,” the guy says proudly. “I find people to fix sewers as my business is not going great these days.”

 

 

I’m wondering where these men are to be found, and he tells me.

“I go to the nearest wine shop. There are people who will do this work just to get the money to drink. That’s how I found this guy.”

The carpenter points to Sriramulu, who is now just sitting there. I can’t tell if he’s already drunk, but I can see he is already tired. The carpenter opens a packet of gutkha[1] and pours it into Sriramulu’s hand. 

 

 

“Why can’t you call the sewerage board?” I ask. “They’ll send a truck and men, no?” 

“No,” he says. It seems that the homeowner’s toilet is illegally connected to the drains, and “the city won’t service such blockages.”

Sriramulu speaks: “The drain has a lot of silt, solid like concrete. I need to get a cable to clear the silt and also another guy who is willing to get into the opening.”

Drunk or not, Sriramulu is clearly not going to get into that opening.

The carpenter and Sriramulu collect ₹200 from the homeowner and leave. In two hours, they are back with Narasimhulu, hoisting a coil of cable over his shoulder while trying hard to balance himself.

“Same wine shop?” I ask, looking at the wobbly man.

“Yes! I bought him a quarter of OC[2] which he chugged in an instant. He’ll follow us around like a dog till he gets the money for his second quarter,” the carpenter assures me. 

 

 

Sriramulu and Govindu peer down the drain and insert the cable through all the rubble. Nothing happens. The silt block is just too hard.

“Look, get in and take out all that mud from the drain, the sewage will flow immediately and you can have your money,” the carpenter tells Narasimhulu.

Narasimhulu obeys; he strips to his underwear and climbs into the drain. 

 

 

He dips his right hand into the mud and sewage, scoops some out, and the water from the homeowner’s blocked toilet starts to flow out slowly. Narasimhulu keeps digging, but then he gets tired. There’s just too much silt. His once-glittering green rakhi is dirty. 

 

 

The carpenter tells him and Sriramulu to open up another drain cover, but that drain, too, is full of silt. Sriramulu is done.

“I don’t think this can be done without digging up a part of the street,” he tells the homeowner. “You need to call more workers. Your toilet is working now, but in a day or two it will be blocked again.”

The men close the drain covers, collect the money from the homeowner, and walk away from the house towards the wine shop. 

CS Sharada Prasad (sharadaprasad@gmail.com) teaches at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. Isha Ray (isharay@berkeley.edu) teaches at University of California, Berkeley. The workers gave their consent to having their names, photos, and stories being published. We are deeply grateful to them. We also thank the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board for helping us to understand how the system works; we saw first-hand how challenging its day-to-day work can be.

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