'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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