Page last updated at 13:01 GMT, Saturday, 7 February 2009

'My life cleaning Delhi's sewers'

India may be spending billions on its high tech space programme but its spending on sewers is decidedly low tech and deadly, reports the BBC's Rupa Jha.

Rewa Ram
I live smelling death, but it is fine.
Rewa Ram, sewer worker

I will never forget the sight of that thin short man, wearing nothing but cotton underpants, strapped into a harness arrangement, disappearing down into a dark manhole beneath the streets of my home city.

The diameter of the hole was so small that he bruised himself while slipping down.

Inside was a dark well, full of sewage, with giant cockroaches sticking to the wall.

Before he climbed in I asked him his name. I was really surprised when he answered flamboyantly, "Rewa Ram - Son of Khanjan."

I thought: "He must be educated, seems to speak some English." But when I asked him, he said: "No. I'm a complete illiterate."

When I looked down that hole into the drains of Delhi, the smell was overwhelming. Down below, he was coughing, trying hard to keep breathing.

He was struggling to clear a blockage with his bare hands.

Dizzying smell

All of a sudden, a pipe protruding into the drain above his head started spewing out water and human faeces that poured over his body.

I began to feel dizzy just looking down into this mess.

My nostrils were filled with that obnoxious smell, a bit like of rotten eggs. I wanted to vomit. I felt weak and wanted to run away from the smell.

I was born and brought up in India and for the past 15 years I have lived in Delhi, the capital city of one of the world's most rapidly growing economies. I am a member of the growing, upwardly mobile middle class.

I suppose I represent the "roaring Tiger" India, but I am regularly shocked and surprised when I see the struggle for dignity that so many face here.

Literally beneath the glitter of the big city lies a vast network of these dark drains, where so many Rewa Rams are struggling with toxic gases and human waste. They suffer disease and discrimination in return for cleaning the city's sewage system.

Deadly job

Rewa Ram is just one of thousands of sanitation workers in India who work hard to keep the cities, towns and villages clean.

Most of them come from the community of lower caste Dalits as they are known, or untouchables.

Health experts working in the field told me most of these workers would die before their retirement because of the poor health and safety conditions they work in. Their life expectancy is thought to be around 10 years less than the national average.

Sewer worker, union official and family.
India's economy is growing rapidly, but not all are feeling the benefits

Dr Ashish Mittal, an occupational health consultant, did a survey of the working conditions of sewage workers.

He told me most of the workers suffer from chronic diseases, respiratory problems, skin disorders and allergies. He said they are constantly troubled by headaches and eye infections. I am not surprised.

Rewa Ram was pulled out when he started feeling dizzy from the toxic fumes in the manhole.

They were thick with a mixture of methane and hydrogen sulphide, both considered potentially fatal by the health experts.

He needed water to clean himself, just a splash on his face could have made him feel better.

His colleagues started banging on doors of the rich neighbourhood where he was working. Nobody opened their gate.

Ancient sewers

Human rights activists and trade unionists I have talked to ask a simple question. If the government of India can spend billions on its space programme, if Delhi can reach all its targets for the beautification of the city in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, including an underground train system, then why can't the sewage system be modernised?

Why does it still rely on sending practically naked men down below the streets to clear the drains with their bare hands, being exposed to noxious gases which could take them to a premature grave?

India"s maiden lunar mission Chandrayaan
Activists ask why India spends so much on space and so little on sewers

I put these questions to the authorities.

The reply? "We are trying our best."

It did not really feel good enough after what I had seen.

The law courts have passed several orders banning human beings from going into the sewage system unless it is an emergency.

In Delhi it looks as if every day is an emergency in the sewers.

Smell of death

I asked Rewa Ram, still breathless and covered with the sewage from the drain: "How do you feel about having to do this work?"

With folded arms, he replied: "I am not educated, I come from a very poor family of untouchables. What else can I expect?

"At least I have a government job and I am able to feed my children. I get into this hell everyday but then this is my job.

"I live smelling death, but it is fine."

But is it fine? Why should he expect so little just because he comes from a lower caste and is not educated?

How can our so-called civil society be so indifferent to the millions like him? I, for one, am left feeling guilty.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 7 February, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Rupa Jha's report on India's sewage cleaners can be heard on the One Planet programme on BBC World Service on Thursday 12 February 2009 to Saturday 14 February. After broadcast you can download the podcast from here.

If you would like to comment on this story please use the form below. Here is a selection of your comments so far.

Being an Indian myself who was brought up in the streets of Delhi, I feel equally guilty for being part of the system which cannot be changed to improve the lives of millions of Indians like Rewa Ram. It is an excellent article by Rupa Jha showing the realities of so called 'Modern India', a true dedication to the profession of journalism.
Preet Singh, United Kingdom

Rewa Ram has more dignity and integrity than those of a so called higher class have and his story moved me. We are all interdependent on each other and need to sweep away discrimination because of class or religion and treat each other with compassion. If not as a planet or species we have had it
Graham , haywards heath uk

This is just like 1st half of the movie Slumdog Millionaire. Poverty at its worst...We Indians have learnt to turn a blind eye to the plight of our fellow countrymen who are struggling everyday and everyone is just busy leading their own selfish lives including me. It's high time that educated middle class people like us make an effort to make the government accountable for their actions and decisions.
Dimple, UK

It will be a good idea for Rupa Jha to follow up on this story with authorities asking them for the work safety rules If they exist. If they do, see to what extent they are followed. Should also follow up with the court to see what they consider emergency and what safety provisions starting from clothes, boots, gloves, respirators, hazardous gas detectors etc are to be provided for such emergency work. Does his employer provide adequate insurance in case he dies performing his work? If he belongs to union, what are they doing to protect him? Do they lobby the legislators to write laws for his safety and if not followed hold his employers liable for his death? Perhaps an investigative reporting may shake up the authorities and something good may happen for these workers.
Bharat Shah, USA

It is a pathetic state of affairs, indeed. However, the change has to come from the top. For instance, in the state of Tamil Nadu, humans have been replaced by special machines to go down into sewers. Sustained pressure from the media forced the authorities to do this. Change takes time and such changes need to be done fast and everywhere.
Raju, Saudi Arabia

I really got the shock of my life after reading this. Being such a great nation, India surely MUST look into these issues and take the necessary actions immediately.
Harshula, Sri Lanka

This is a national disgrace.....
Karan Kharyal, India

Very interesting and investigative report.
Thomas Kallachil, Scotland

It is indeed a good attempt by Rupa to bring out the helplessness of the sewer workers. These kinds of things are often downplayed by the Government and people tend to forget them. This will be a harsh reminder for the people of India. A Chandrayaan does bring joy to the nation but the basics have to be set right first.
Rahul Nair, India

This man, Mr. Rewa Ram is wearing rubber gloves. I live in East Delhi, and I've never seen a sewage worker wearing these gloves. They only have their pants on when they go into the sewage. I appreciate articles like this, but this article doesn't even begin to describe what these 'people' go through. Newspapers around here often talk about Human Rights abuse in countries like China, but I ask myself, "What Human Rights are they talking about???" Words like 'appalling' cannot portray so many things going on here.
Anonymous Foreigner, India

Poverty in Africa is a tragedy, whereas in India it is a scandal. The Indian state and society have the means and wealth to remove extreme want, but refuse to engage with the issue. The gap between intentions and actions has always been a problem in this country, and it only seems to be getting worse.
James whewell, UK

A friend of mine pointed me to this story. We started discussing this, and he suggested that may be we can try raise money to give masks and clothing to these hard working citizens. These are some of the questions that came up during over conversation. Hoping that the author of the article and/or readers can provide some answers. 1) What are the number of people who do this kind of work? 2) What is the body that employs them? 3) Is there any local organization that would be interested in delivering these guys at least basic safety gear?
Manish, USA

Rewa Ram and millions like him, have been stripped naked by the centuries of apathy dealt out to them by the Hindu caste system. They have but existed, inspite of all odds. They do not owe anyone anything, yet they feel obliged. They are not inferior yet they feel it. A mass psychosis of this scale can only begin to hint at the atrocities and isolation they have had to sustain. Today modern India lives off them, in sewers, in construction sites, in filthy sweat shops, taking advantage of their 'lowly' temperaments. Its true, if he was not working with the government, he would have been bonded to a labour agent for a few grains of rice. But to his credit, everyday he goes deep down into the sewer risking his life, he breaks away a little bit from his 'destiny' and social confinement. The question I would ask him would be if his children go to school, only because only then will they surface above the drain (underground) and see the sky. I appreciate your piece and the analogy intended, but I wish for you to bridge Rewa Ram and the space programme, only then can you hit anything.
Gaurav Roy Choudhury, India

I totally agree with the feelings of Rupa, this gentleman and people like him deserves far better treatment and this case study could serve as an example of still persisting cast based societal bias in India, as it were a century ago. India is the only poor country in the world that spends too disproportionally for space programs and for a billion of its poverty stricken citizens like Rewa Ram.
Felix Bast, Japan

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