THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: ‘‘We are subjected to severe conditions. We see worms, used sanitary napkins and human excreta inside septic tanks and drainage. We are not provided with appropriate gear, gloves or antiseptic disinfectant for work," said Ramesh (name changed), a worker with the Sewage Sub Division, Kerala Water Authority, Kuriyathi. "Work was extremely difficult initially. I hadn't eaten for days when I began working," he said.
Though manual scavenging is prohibited in the country according to the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, it continues to prevail."Despite the availability of technology, we have to work inside manholes and septic tanks," Ramesh said.
Nagendran, who retired from his service from the Sewage Section, Kerala Water Authority, in 2007, remembers the death of a contract cleaning staff at Mudavanmugal during the 1980s while cleaning a manhole. "He was trapped inside the manhole and died being exposed to poisonous gases.The government didn't take any initiative to help his family. A few contractors collected funds to help them. However, circumstances have become better now. Machines do serve the cause to a certain extent," he said. Nagendran had begun work when he was 35, through the Employment Exchange.
Sarath Narayanan, assistant executive engineer at Sewage, Kerala Water Authority, said: "We have given strict orders to the contractors regarding the safety measures. They are responsible for adhering to the rules regarding safety and hygiene."
There are 24 cleaning staff working under 12 contractors within the city limit in the department.
According to a source from the department, staff are provided with raincoats. "Suitable coats are not available even online," he said. The cleaning staff are reluctant to wear the coats or gloves-they feel inconvenient while wearing it," he said.
According to Sundararaj, state convenor, Safai Karmachari Andolan (a movement to eradicate manual scavenging in India), the situation is better in the capital city compared to other cities in the state.
"The arrival of machines has reduced the need for manpower. However, manual scavenging continues to exist on the outskirts of the district," he said.
In places such as railway stations, heavy-duty jet cleaners are used for the purpose. "The railway uses manual labour only when the drainage encounters a block. As many as 69 cleaning staff work here in the central railway station in two wings," said a staff associated with the railway station.