Despite suffering from respiratory, skin and eye problems, workers such as Babul and Sumon prefer working on their own terms, without using masks or goggles
When 17-year old Babul Sarder came to Dhaka from Magura in the 80s, he thought his life was going to change forever. He dreamt of becoming a famous singer.
Forty years down the line, Babul still sings, but only when he is not cleaning sewage holes or drains.
"After a while the smell doesn't bother you, gradually you stop caring at all. But the way people look at us when we are slathered in the dirt, that never changes," said the cleaner.
When he was talking to The Business Standard, his team of four was getting ready to clean manholes at Shiyalbari graveyard. They were going to clean four of them today.
For a task that requires intense physical and mental strength, the equipment they use is simple; these include a dirty crowbar, a bottle of kerosene, two bin baskets and two bricks.
Babul Sarder was leading the team, and he managed to get an advance of 2000 Taka for the job. This made him quite happy because getting advances in his profession is rare.
Over the years, he switched jobs, married more than once and tried to change his family's luck, but all he ended up getting were, bloodshot eyes and respiratory problems from constant exposure to toxic sewer gases.
The others working with him were Sumon Mondol (33), Helal Chakroborti(30), and Md. Motaleb (35). Each of them earns Tk 12-14 thousand per month, and such an amount hardly makes up for jobs as hazardous as theirs.
In June of this year, two men died in a septic tank accident in Shariatpur. Six people died in July while cleaning a septic tank in Jaipurhat. Both of these incidents happened from exposure to toxic gas, a risk that every cleaner has to face while working.
Looking at Babul Sarder and his team prepare to clean manholes, it was easy to see why fatality such as the ones mentioned above happen. None of them were carrying any safety equipment.
"Goggles and mask suffocate us, we can work better without them," said Sumon Mondol, the reluctance to use safety gear evident in his voice.
Sumon also informed TBS team that the sweepers who work under the city corporations are better paid. But even their safety is never ensured.
Despite suffering from respiratory, skin and eye problems, workers such as Babul and Sumon prefer working on their own terms, without using masks or goggles. The few precautions they take include using kerosene and not smoking while entering a manhole.
Helal Chakroborti, the youngest member of the team, was excited to start working and barely paid any attention to Babul's instructions on safety.
When asked the reason for his elation, he said, "I have a wife, three children and an ailing mother at home. The sooner I finish work, the sooner I might get paid. In our line of work, we rarely get paid on time."
Motaleb approached the first manhole and pried it open with a crowbar. Babul Sarder sniffed the air and told his men to wait for a few minutes before getting in.
They then sprayed kerosene which is used to neutralize the gases, and that takes around 10 minutes to work. Babul decided to take a tea break while waiting.
He sipped on a glass of milk-tea while his men smoked cigarettes. Their discussion revolved around government jobs and how it seemed impossible to get one these days.
"You cannot get a government job without lobbying or giving bribes. The officials want Tk 40 thousand to Tk 2 lakh for a sweeper post. Where will we get such an amount?" exclaimed a visibly frustrated Motaleb.
The break soon finished and the team prepared to enter the manhole. Sumon went in first and Helal and Motaleb followed him to clear the sewerage.
Babul suffered a heart attack three years ago, so he can no longer enter manholes as the other does. His job is to supervise from ground level and make sure no one gets hurt.
All of a sudden he asks, "I hear that in foreign countries there are machines that clean sewers. It's only in our country that we have to handle waste with our bare hands."
As soon as they enter a manhole, they have a time slot of 15 minutes to finish their work and get out. Otherwise, the gas starts affecting them physically.
The TBS team followed these men to their homes in a nearby slum. When the others went to the bathing space to scrub-off the dirt from their bodies, Babul ushered us to his two-roomed home.
He proudly showed off his harmonium, a thing he holds close to his heart. He was about to finish a song but Sumon, Helal, and Motaleb barged in to calculate the cost of kerosene, tea, and cigarettes with their leader.
Before Babul left with a smile, he told us, "Next time I will surely sing more songs for you, but now I have to go back to work."