New Delhi: With a spade in his right hand, 30-year-old Sudesh enters a big drain clogged with human faeces, animal corpses and industrial waste. He wades through the waist-deep stinking black water and takes out the nauseating floating muck from Delhi's many open drains.
"It does not matter how many times I bathe. The stink lingers for three days," Sudesh, who goes only by his first name, told IANS.
Sudesh, an asthma patient, has been cleaning a filth of the national capital for the past 15 years and has developed skin diseases. He is one among many sanitation workers who enter drains and manholes with only one piece of clothing - his underwear - every day to keep the drains running.
Ironically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pet project Swachh Bharat Mission, launched Oct 2, which aims to clean up this country that has been notoriously callous about its public environment, has nothing to offer to these daily wage sanitation workers who are living a life of utter neglect.
Their work is as good as of a manual scavenger against which the Indian parliament enacted a stringent law in 2013.
Delhi's three municipal corporations alone (of five) have a total of 30,000 sanitation workers, including those on contract basis, on their rolls. But it is the daily wage workers and substitutes like Sudesh and Harish who face more problems, not just in Delhi - conditions in other cities are probably worse - but in the rest of the country.
"Many a time I have been rescued by my colleagues from drowning in deep drains. Entering into a 5-6 feet drain with the entire city's filth without a safety belt and other gears is like inviting death," Sudesh told IANS.
When IANS visited him, he was busy cleaning an open drain at Indraprasta Metro station in the heart of the capital with just a spade in his right hand while holding on to a rope tied to a tree. The rope was his safety belt.
"This is what we are compelled to do. We are not paid if we refuse to clean these drains. But we are not given the safety gears," Harish, another daily wage worker, stated.
According to the standards of safety, these workers should be wearing water-proof uniforms, rubber gloves and masks while entering drains.
Asked the reason for not providing safety gears, the mayor of South Delhi Municipal Corporation Khushi Ram said typically: I am not aware of this. I will look into it."
Though the suction machines have to be deployed for taking out filth from the open drains and manholes, Sudesh said these machines cannot enter the narrow lanes of Delhi's many neighbourhoods.
Harish told IANS that many a time they don't even get their salaries on time.
"We don't get our salaries on time as we are at the mercy of contractors," said Harish whose two months' salary has been pending. He gets Rs. 6,000 per month.
Rajendra Mewati, president of the Delhi Pradesh Safai Karamchari Union, said : "These sanitation workers need the medical facilities the most."
"However, according to the provisions of the municipal corporation, even the regular sanitation workers are not eligible for the cashless medical facilities," Mewati told IANS.
"All the manholes have noxious gases, the presence of snakes, broken pieces of glass make the working condition worse," he added.
The condition of sweepers is no better.
Many who spoke to IANS had a common grouse: not getting brooms to sweep.
"Modi wants India to be free of garbage and litter but probably is not aware that sometimes we have to spend our own money for brooms," Bhagwat, a sweeper, said.
Mewati said that the sanitation workers are deprived of medical facilities and are not even given government accommodation.
"These workers are not living a dignified life. They are looked down upon. They should be given vocational training so that they can pursue a better profession and the work of cleaning drains and manhole should be completely done by machines," said Rajesh Upadhaya, convener, Right to Sanitation Campaign, an NGO that works for the rights of sanitation workers' living condition.
He said it was important to improve the condition of the sanitation workers to make India filth-free.
"The Clean India campaign is a good initiative, but it is not going to make India litter-free until the condition of the sanitation workers too are improved," Upadhaya said.
(Rupesh Dutta can be contacted on email@example.com. Gaurav Sharma can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)