Rakesh sits in a low crouch at the bottom of a seven-foot-deep manhole, sloshing away in a swirl of human waste and sediment. Equipped with a hoe and a steel bar, and wearing only a pair of loose purple underpants, Rakesh (who uses only one name) empties the thick black sludge from a clogged sewer into a bucket that his fellow crew members hoist up and dump in the middle of a narrow road.
A small mountain of decaying excrement accumulates between the manhole and a rickety wooden vegetable cart. Two co-workers reach down and yank Rakesh out by his sore, extended arms, his body splattered with putrid muck. At 27, with a wife, three young daughters and a monthly income of about $100, he has been a sewage worker for the Delhi Jal (Water) Board for the past 10 years.
Rakesh stumbles out into the midday light, too dazed to speak. "The first thing you notice is the unbearable smell," explains his co-worker Rajender Kumar. "Next are the cockroaches, and then the rats—big rats." He complains of skin rashes and eye soreness, respiratory and liver problems.
By birth, Rajender, Rakesh and their colleagues are members of the Valmiki community, the bottom wrung of the social hierarchy in India, which dates back thousands of years, a subcategory of "untouchable" Dalits. Because of discrimination and lack of opportunities, they work one of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs in the subcontinent, if not the world.
Their homes are both down the road and centuries removed from India's gleaming technology parks and buoyantly youthful call centers. Some 800 million Indians scrape by on less than $2 a day.
New Delhi was not built to accommodate its current population of about 16 million. With hundreds of thousands pouring in from rural areas annually, its sewers—about 3,700 miles of them—are a mess, and the workers tasked with keeping the waste flowing unobstructed (half of it empties into the nearby Yamuna River) regularly put their lives on the line. "The whole system is going to collapse in the next two years if it continues as it is now," says Mahendra Kumar, a junior engineer for Delhi Jal.
All of which makes New Delhi the perfect setting for the World Toilet Summit, which opened this week. The four-day event is exploring ways to bring sewage systems to the estimated 2.6 billion people in the world who don't have proper toilets, including 700 million in India alone.
According to Santram Pradhan, president of the union representing the 8,000 Delhi Jal sewage workers, around 1,000 sewage workers have died in the past seven years. He says 200 have died from asphyxiating on the noxious gasses and drowning in excreta, and about 800 others have died from tuberculosis, hepatitis and other diseases. "Half die, half retire," Pradhan says, ascribing many of the safety lapses to the lack of concern for low-caste Valmiki workers shown by Delhi Jal Board officials. Numerous requests to interview Delhi Jal Board officials in charge of sewer workers went unanswered.
Safety equipment is available, Pradhan adds. The money has been appropriated, and the masks, boots, gloves, pumps and other gear have been procured. But either through neglect, discrimination or disregard, when the calls go out, the sewer workers wield little more than a pick, a hoe and a bucket.
"I won't deny it—no safety equipment is used," says a junior engineer, Mahendra Kumar. "The attitude is strongly caste-biased, and there is tremendous insecurity in this job. Lower-caste people are looked upon as tools."
The supervisor working with Rajender and Rakesh, Rattan Singh, also a member of the Valmiki community, says the equipment is available, but due to carelessness or disregard from the officers they don't have access to it. "There is no willingness to provide safety equipment. Call it what you want."
Singh points to another problem: many of New Delhi's inhabitants live in crowded, unauthorized colonies or neighborhoods. The few trucks available and capable of pumping out a blocked sewage drain cannot fit down the narrow lanes. "The machines are huge, and it is an old, very small sewer line," he says.
A 2005 report by the Centre for Education and Communication, a New Delhi think tank, found that half the city's sewage workers were malnourished and suffered from chronic illnesses. Ashish Mittal, author of the report, says little has changed since then. "The main thing is a lack of accountability and responsibility," he says. "This is a hazardous job. If they followed basic safety norms, these acute deaths wouldn't happen. Because these people have no voice they are sent inside [the sewers]."
Because of caste discrimination, cleaning New Delhi's sewers is something of a family affair. And it seems that every sewage worker has a story of a friend or relative who has died on the job. Hard numbers are difficult to come by because so many of New Delhi's sewage workers are day laborers employed on an ad hoc basis by contractors.
A lawsuit was filed this past July in the Delhi High Court by a Dalit rights group, the National Campaign for the Dignity and Rights of Sewage and Allied Workers, against four separate New Delhi municipal agencies, each with its own small army of sewage workers (the Delhi Jal Board has the largest). Hemlata Kansotia, a veteran social activist who heads the campaign, argues that use of the Valmiki community as sewage workers is part of a perpetual system of caste discrimination, even though India's constitution officially abolished caste in 1950. "If you see the engineers and officers, they are all from the upper castes of Indian society. The Valmiki are the poorest of the poor of Indian society."
The suit aims to abolish the system of contractors (thereby making the officials at the municipality directly responsible for the labor conditions of sewage workers) and enforce the use of safety equipment and procedures. Ultimately, if guidelines are in place and are still being ignored, the court could cite municipal officials with contempt charges, and they could face jail time.
In September, Kansotia's group won a victory when a New Delhi High Court judge ordered the eventual phasing out of sewer cleaners. But the court did not state a time frame, and activists are hoping for a firm timeline they can hold the municipality to. The next hearing is scheduled for Dec. 1. Lawyers representing the sewage workers will argue for further reforms; the municipal authorities will likely argue that sufficient measures are in place, or shift the blame to other municipal agencies. "There should be an order like this in every state," says Surekha Rahal, a lawyer with the Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network, which is taking affidavits from the widows of dead sewage workers who have yet to see compensation for their husbands' deaths.
Although India's judiciary has a reputation for impartiality and independence, it has a backlog of about 25 million cases. So even if the judge hands down a favorable judgment, the sewer workers could still be toiling away for some time in what is perhaps the most unpleasant working environment imaginable.