ANWITI SINGH | 18 MARCH, 2019
Finally, Mechanical Scavenging
Asia’s largest unauthorised colony, Sangam Vihar, has very narrow streets. One side of the road is filled with garbage thrown from houses, shops, and passers-by, the other side is dug up, making the streets narrower still. Motorcycles, e-rickshaws, cows and pedestrians all fight for space. Fighting the same battle is a tanker-walla, driving his vehicle, which is a behemoth for a road this tiny, and getting curses by everyone on the way.
Unauthorised or not, the houses in Sangam Vihar are a part of India’s political hub and national capital Delhi. For water, the residents have the option of setting-up motor pumps or wait for the water tankers. However, since these houses are either not connected to drains or exist without drains, the sewage finds no escape. The entire colony of SangamVihar is not connected to the city’s main sewer line.
Huge puddles of waste and water can be spotted every few metres in the localities. This problem is most evident in the monsoon-months when it’s hard to distinguish between a road and a nalla. Although, people have learned to live with the filth on the road, the sewage from houses continues to be a major issue. The houses in Sangam Vihar are not archaic, each is equipped with its own toilet, which is then connected to its septic tank. Ideally, the septic tank should flow into the city’s sewage, but where does it go when the houses have no connection to the sewage system?
Remember the tanker-walla mentioned earlier? This is where he comes into play. The tanker-wallas run a very unique business in Sangam Vihar. From Jamia Hamdard to Batra Hospital, a number of tankers can be spotted standing on the sides of the road. The tankers have huge plastic pipes hanging from their sides and usually have two or more men seated inside or around it, waiting for the next client.
And finding clients is not difficult.
Kuldeep Kumar, who has been in the business for more than ten years, says, “There are more than 20 of us. Some of us have one tanker. Some own more than two or three, but it’s still not that competitive. Everyone manages to find a customer.” While clients are easy to find, setting a foot in the business challenging. “The main problem is in the starting of the business, the modern tanker with the motor pump costs between 15-20 lakhs, that is a big investment for anyone.”
How it works-
The operation is very simple- if your septic tank starts filling up or leaking, call any of these tanker-wallas, and they will be at your doorstep at the earliest. But this isn’t such an easy task. The unplanned and unprecedented growth of the area hasn’t left much space for roads or traffic. “Some lanes are too narrow for anything more than a cycle-rickshaw to go in. In such cases, we use pipes up to 300-350 feet long to reach the house,” says Prabhat Kumar, who owns two cleaning tankers.
The tanker-wallas have one principle though- no manual scavenging. All their work is done with the help of machines. In the earlier stages, around two decades ago, the tanker-wallas owned tractors which had something called a “tillu-pump” to complete the task. But now, they have modern motor-pumps which make the work much easier and faster.
Just like the clients, employees are also not that hard to find. Sangam Vihar itself is a home to 10-12 lakh residents, many of them are migrants from economically weaker sections of the society. Sunil, who moved from Badayu, UP, to Delhi and settled in Sangam Vihar around a decade ago, first worked as a day labourer in the nearby posh colonies of South Delhi. “It was hard work. I had to pick-up bricks and load them in the truck and unload them. Then also drive the truck on some occasions back to the boss. My back hurt all the time,” says Sunil. “This work is easy, I just drive up to a house with Vinay (his partner) and the pump does all the work. It’s also more money than before.” Sunil is now 31, and has two kids and a wife to support.
Vinay Kumar, who migrated six years ago from Bihar, is more pressed for money. “I have a wife, a son, and a mother. We get only nine thousand a month, it’s not enough.” Before this, Vinay worked two shifts as a cook; at a house and then a dhaba. He, like Sunil, joined this line of work because it was easier than his previous job and pays more than being a day-labourer.
They say while work itself is easy, explaining it to their families or villagers isn’t. This job welcomes everyone- age no bar (they range from twenty to fifty years old), and caste no bar. But our society has prejudiced notions of people working in sanitation, and expects them all to be from certain castes and classes they see as “lower”. One of the cleaners is a Brahmin, while another is Bhumiar. They both cannot tell anyone from their village that they earn their living by cleaning out septic-tanks or else their families will get shamed. Kuldeep Kumar, their boss, who himself is a Brahmin, rubbishes this. “We are cleaning, isn’t cleanliness next to Godliness? It’s all in your karam,” he says. While he says this, he still uses the surname of Kumar, instead of his family name. In fact, when it comes to revealing family names, all the tanker-wallas become immensely shy.
The social standing of the workers isn’t the only problem of this occupation. These individuals are running an un-licensed business which often results in scuffles with the police, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) or Public Works Department (PWD) authorities. But this may change soon. On January 24, 2019, a meeting was held by Delhi Jal Board with the tanker owners. “We are trying to find a solution which helps both of us. If they licence us, we will be free to run our business without the fear of police or anyone else, and they will benefit because we will be cleaning up their mess,” says Kuldeep. The meeting was evidently successful and the tanker-wallas are hopeful. If the licencing comes through, they would be working on contract basis and will have fixed rate for the services they provide, unlike now where the prices are subjected to bargain.
“Currently, each job can fetch between 600 Rs to 1500 Rs. We are working for very low charges, but if the licensing is passed, we will get a minimum of 2000rs per job,” says Prabhat.
But the residents may not be too happy about the price raise. Many often complain that the tankers are brought to their house already half-filled, because of which they don’t get their own septic tanks cleaned properly.
The Delhi Jal Board has also been in the process of laying down the foundations of a sewer system in the area. But neither are the tanker-wallas worried about a possible loss in their business, nor are the residents too hopeful. “I was 18 when I got married and moved to Sangam Vihar, now it’s been 32 years since I’ve been living here. Governments have come and gone, promises have been made, but I doubt I will see a sewage or a water pipe-line connected to my house in this lifetime,” says Shammi, 51, a resident of Gali no. 5.