A thankless job

After spending a day with cleaners and sweepers of the capital, Sadiqur Rahman reveals the kind of danger these professionals face every day just to keep the city clean

Photos by Sadiqur Rahman

xtra001Since the early eighties, a public awareness message in the country asked everyone to ensure personal hygiene by washing hands with soap after using the latrine. Also, a prevailing sense of purity includes cleanliness of the body from dirt. As such, most people in the world try to avoid dirt and other forms of unclean items.
Ironically, there is a group of impoverished people in the country who regularly clean our towns and cities from dirt and human and other forms of waste. These are the sweepers and cleaners of municipalities and city corporations who clean alleys, streets, public-private establishments, remove household and commercial waste from bins, clear sewage (safety) tanks, pipelines and carry the waste to the dumping points.
These professionals work with little or no equipment. Usually, they can be seen sweeping the streets with bare hands. Others, who clean the drains and septic tanks, have even cruder equipment at their disposals for cleaning purposes.
Usually detested for their profession by people from other walks of life in the country, these professionals mostly ignore their own dignity for the sake of public comfort.

xtra002Last week, this correspondent from New Age Xtra met some sewage line cleaners in the Dhaka city while the group was extracting human excrement from a 15-feet deep manhole. Mostly wearing lungis along with flimsy shirt and T-shirts, the cleaners were found working in the manhole without any protective gears.
The waste, stuck in the pipeline, was being extracted with buckets that they passed from one person to the other. A few others were standing by with long pieces of bamboo that they were using to unclog the pipe. Their features were covered with the dark waste materials while a stench emanated from them.
Pedestrians and others, who were passing the ‘men at work’, held handkerchiefs on their faces to shield themselves from the odor. Some even shouted words at the group for carrying out the work around afternoon when the streets are busy.
Shanto, one of the five cleaners, was not even bothered by the rebukes being hurled at them. ‘We hear these comments every day. People think about their own interest but do not realise that we have to carry out these tasks during the day as it is our duty,’ he says to New Age Xtra.
xtra003The remaining four cleaners include Maruf, Rashed, Farid and Sumon. They share that they are now used to the odor. ‘This is waste of the worst kind. So it is going to smell,’ says Sumon.
‘We have to do this work as it helps us ensure food for our family at the end of the day,’ says Rashed. The men shares with New Age Xtra that their contractor pays them Tk 500 per day.
Sumon says, ‘We clean the lines from morning to evening. Around noon, we wash only our hands with water to have lunch. During our working hours, we smoke marijuana several times as it helps us forget the stench coming from our bodies and the nasty environment.’
The other cleaners share with New Age Xtra that they initially felt discomfort when they had to clean human waste. ‘We got used to the routine soon,’ says Farid.
He shares, ‘Sometimes we feel sick inside the suffocating sewage pipes. Sometimes we are hurt by sharp and poisonous objects floating over the sewage. In such cases, we have to take immediate medical treatment.’
Rashed adds, ‘Though the contractor does not provide us with protective guards, he bears all medical expenditure in case of accidents.’

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The maintenances of the sewage lines in the Dhaka and Chittagong cities are looked after by the two city chapters of the Water and Sewage Authority (WASA). During the dry season, sewage divisions of WASA clean the sewage line under contract basis.
A high official of the Dhaka WASA tells New Age Xtra that there is a direction to the contractors to provide all protective measures to the cleaners. According to him, usually the cleaners avoid protective measures to carry out their job easily.
Usually in Dhaka, the contractors hire cleaners from the floating groups of people ready to serve cheap labour, mostly impoverished Muslims living at different slums, streets and rail stations in the city.
In Chittagong and other city corporations and municipalities, cleaning of sewage lines is carried out by the sweepers where Horijan or Dalit communities dominate the sector.
According to sources from the Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement (BDERM) and Bangladesh Harijan Oikka Parishad (BHOP), over 90 per cent of the cleaners in the country are from Dalit communities like Harijan, a community of Hindus who face inhuman discrimination due to the menial job that they are involved in.

xtra005The health issues of the cleaners have been highlighted years ago. But there has been no significant improvement in the working conditions of the cleaners, observe many human rights activists. They think that more attention from government is needed to ensure that the occupational health issues and safety of workers is properly addressed.
BDERM organising secretary Bheempalli David Raju regrets, ‘City corporations and municipal authorities should provide protective equipments like hand gloves, footwear, apron, mask and modern cleaning tools rather than giving only brooms and buckets.’ He adds, ‘Even in many municipalities, sweepers are given free soap to wash their hands.’
ABM Anisuzzaman, coordinator of the Dalit rights project under the Nagorik Uddyog, a human rights promoting non-government organisation, says, ‘Health issues for the workers in the ready-made garments and tannery sectors are highlighted in policy tables nowadays. We appreciate this. But at the same time, we demand health safety for the sweepers and sewage cleaners as they carry out jobs that others do not want to do, willingly.’
According to Nirmal Chandra Das, the secretary general of BHOP, more than 20 Harijans have been killed across the country in recent years while cleaning septic tanks. He regrets, ‘Harijans continue in the same professions where their ancestors were involved while ignoring the dangers associated with this. In return, they receive nothing more than the wage.’
Captain Raquib Uddin, chief waste management officer of the Dhaka South City Corporation, informs New Age Xtra that the city corporation authority has been providing modern protective measures to the sweepers and cleaners.
He says, ‘Manual scavenging is indeed inhuman in this time. Modernising waste collection is taking time as the scavengers are not habituated with modern equipment. But the concerned authority is conducting training sessions with the employed scavengers to generate awareness among them on health issues.’
However, Anisuzzaman suggests, ‘The concerned authority should bear cost of health insurance for the sweepers and cleaners as they regularly carry out dangerous tasks.’ He concludes, ‘Scavengers in the developed world have been privileged through this scheme.’