Sewer Workers Risk their life and Die while Cleaning Sewer

This article has been written by Dr. Sushma Sharma who is a medical practitioner. We would like to thank her for joining us and sharing her thoughts with the world.


Today too, as a part of my daily routine, I was skimming the pages of newspaper and all of a sudden one of the newspaper head-line caught my attention.

The statement said, “39 dead in hundred days while cleaning sewers”.

The startling statistics had been given by Bezwada Wilson, one of the founder and national convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan. Owing to the mind of a science student (curious and keen), I started digging into the matter further.

I googled internet sites, and needless to say they revealed many astonishing facts. Navsarjan is an NGO, campaigning for safer working conditions and compensation of such people, has estimated 1000 deaths per year in India because of cleaning sewage, while many cases might have gone unreported.

We have an option to cover our nose or move away from any sewage producing foul odor, when came across it. But what about those poor people who have a job to go into the filth and clean it just to fetch few bucks.These workers not only bound to face social atrocities but are the most susceptible group to diseases.

True warriors of Swachh Bharat Mission

People cleaning sewage are the biggest warriors of Prime Minister’s “Swachh Bharat Mission”. But they are forced to strive under most deadly conditions and need not to mention here, constitute the highly neglected strata of the society.

Quite shocking to know, in the era when we are aiming for universe, people on grass-root level are still scummed to deaths because of lack of basic personnel protection equipments.

Sewer Cleaners Keep Working despite Ban as Per Law

Manual scavenging is prohibited  in many countries  and have been mechanized completely. However, under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, any human being is forbidden to go into sewers. It’s a grave crime to make people work in such unhygienic and unsafe conditions.Strict enforcement of law is still lacking.

Moreover, sewage workers are unaware of their rights owing to the illiteracy and belief that their caste has been assigned this  duty. Most of the people engaged in this work are from Dalit Balmiki samaj.

In Hong Kong, sewer worker needs to have 15 licenses before stepping into manhole. In our country sewage workers enter into hell  half clad, almost naked, bare handed or bare footed, and in the name of equipment they have only a spade and bucket.Those who get safety gears claim they are not user-friendly.

Various Risks Associated with Sewer Cleaning

Sewage ducts and tank have to be cleaned as a part of cleaning processes and it happens in all other countries too, but why in India only too many deaths happens because of this. There are many risks involved in this profession which are majorly overlooked and ignored at the cost of sewer worker like.

  1. Lack of basic facilities make them vulnerable to diseases and death, these workers are being bound to work under the most unsanitary and inhumane circumstances.
  2. Still crude methods are being followed. Workers gauge risk mere by lightning a match stick, prior to they step inside sewer, if it does not stop burning (oxygen present), it’s safe to go. Perhaps, they are oblivious of the fact that poisonous gases (methane, hydrogen sulphides, ammonia, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides) produced as a result of rotting of garbage sometimes buried deep inside the sewage, and are released while digging it.
  3. These gases may cause eye irritation,skin allergies, cough/sore throat, fluid retention in lungs, shortness of breath and unconsciousness due to oxygen insufficiency, coma or death
  4. There is always an associated risk of drowning under muck or fire explosion.
  5. In addition to it, temperature inside sewage is hot and humid that acts as a best medium for the micro-organisms growth and may cause  infections like hepatitis, leptospirosis and helicobacter pyroli.
  6. Many of the workers enter into sewage after drinking alcohol ,slowly become addicted.

This is indeed a very risky job and involves a great deal of danger to life, and has destroyed many families. The Supreme Court of India had given an order in 2014 of paying $15, 000 as compensation to the families whose any member died while working in a sewer, but many are still waiting for the payment yet to be released.

I am not in favour of any compensation for sewage workers. Compensation should not be a licence for manual scavenging. There should be complete prohibition of this practice and rehabilitation of workers involved. As, the aim should not be on reducing the death toll, while it should be  bringing down the death rates to zero.

Health experts say most sewer workers’ life expectancy is 10 years less than the national average.  And if any case it is not feasible then at least these workers should be provided adequate personnel protection equipment like  safety belts, gum boots,goggles ,waterproof/ abrasion-resistant gloves, face visors ,body suits, gas detection devices,oxygen cylinders and should be educated how to keep them safe through proper instruction, training and supervision.

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