Sewage in storm water drains
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When sewage flows in the storm water drain

Storm water drains (aka storm sewers, surface water drains) flank almost every street in urban India. They facilitate drainage of rainwater.  In the absence of sewer lines, some households connect the outlet of their toilets directly to these drains, and some households with septic tanks connect the outflow of the septic tank to the drain instead of a soak pit. This introduces pathogenic human waste into the drains and that hazard traverses the city’s natural drainage. These drains may or may not be fully covered. Therefore, all kinds of solid waste and debris enter the drains and sometimes block the flow. This is one of the primary causes of flooding of streets during the monsoon season in India. Large cities hire contract laborers to clean the storm water drains during pre-monsoon months. The following photographs were taken during one such cleanup operation in Lodi Colony, an upscale neighborhood in New Delhi, in May 2019

The first step in the process of desilting the storm water drains is to create an access to the drains. Some sidewalks have slabs with hooks, as in this case, and can be removed with pickaxe. Others have granite slabs patched to one another using cement. Concrete seal is broken (sometimes even breaking the slab in the process) and the slabs are slid to the side. This job is more difficult and prone to higher rates of injury than opening concrete slabs with hooks. Storm water drains need not be covered in all the places. In such cases, cleaning them is easy and needs to happen more frequently as solid waste, particularly plastic, flies into these open drains and clogs them often.

The water inside the storm water drain is black and smells like sewage. This is because of the decomposition of organic matter entering the drain from the streets, kitchens, and toilets. The drain is full and the flow of the water is very slow, almost stagnant. Any inflow of the water upstream into the drain causes it to overflow into the streets. The rainwater cannot enter such drains and floods the streets during heavy monsoon rains

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As grit is heavier than water, it settles at the bottom. The slow movement of water increases the accumulation rate and increased accumulation reduces the carrying capacity of the drain. A worker needs to submerge his hands into the sewage like water to shovel the silt out.

The texture of the silt depends on its contents

Workers do not use any kind of protective gear and some of the workers do this job with bare hands and feet. Technically these workers are handling diluted toilet waste and this work should be considered as manual scavenging.

Most of the sanitation workers in India belong to Dalit castes. Cleaning toilets, septic tanks and sewers is their full time occupation. However, cleaning storm water drains is a seasonal job and is not categorized clearly as sanitation work. When this job is complete, these workers will go in search of other manual labor intensive jobs such as construction.

Workers work for almost 8-10 hours every day. Delhi’s hot weather makes everyone thirsty, particularly people who do manual labor. Though the job of these workers is to clear drains to ensure flow of water, they rarely have access to water to clean up before drinking water on the job.

While all of this work is happening, the street food vendor continues to make parathas next to the exposed drain and people continue to eat, as if the work and the workers are invisible.

It takes four workers about half an hour to clean a 30 feet section of the drain. The silt is deposited on the curbside for it to be picked up by another set of sanitation workers. Once it is done, the slabs are closed and the workers move on to the next section.