Across Pakistan, sanitation workers operate under the most-hazardous conditions and Hyderabad is no exception.
In Sindh’s second largest city, sanitation workers are mostly employed in civic agencies such as the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation and Water and Sanitation Agency (Wasa). As is the case with their counterparts elsewhere, these men, mostly from the Hindu and Christian communities, are severely underpaid and forced to work without even the most basic protective gear — resulting in frequent fatal accidents.
The latest such incident in Hyderabad was in June when Aslam Masih, a Christian labourer, was killed when he fell into a manhole while cleaning it in the Mirza Para locality of the city. His colleague, Mustafa Sheikh, a Muslim, also died as he went in to save his friend.
“When Aslam fell inside, passersby started screaming and so Mustafa went in to rescue him,” recalled John Bhatti, Aslam’s elder brother. He added that despite Mustafa’s heroic attempt, they both perished from the fall. “It is tragic for both of our families.”
Narrating the incident, Mustafa’s nephew, Babu, shared that his uncle, who worked as a helper in Wasa, had opened a blocked sewerage line and was working on cleaning the last gutter when the incident occurred. He believed that when Aslam opened a sewer line the pressure of the sewage pushed him in and he fell. “They were both working without any safety gear,” he regretted.
Following the tragic incident, Wasa distributed some safety kits and oxygen masks to sanitary workers, confirmed Wasa Managing Director Muzaffar Shaikh. He added that owing to a shortage of manpower from lack of recruitment, Wasa uses ‘work charge’ or temporary employees for sanitation work. Shaikh clarified that Aslam and Mustafa were not hired by Wasa for the task which claimed their lives but they were employed through a private contractor by a local provincial lawmaker for clearing the choked sewerage line.
The director general of the Hyderabad Development Authority, which supervises Wasa, said he has provided some financial assistance to the heirs of the deceased from his own pocket.
Sewerage lines are no less than death traps as they carry all kind of waste — domestic, medical, chemical and industrial — which poses serious health risks without sufficient safety equipment.
Boota Imtiaz Masih, a rights activist vigorously pursuing sanitary workers’ issues with civic bodies, has submitted an application to the mayor in light of a recent Supreme Court order directing provincial governments to ensure provision of safety gear for sanitary workers in the background of the coronavirus pandemic. He regretted that the mayor is yet to respond to his request and feared that until then, the 1,600 or so sanitation workers under the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, along with private labourers, will keep paying with their lives to keep the city’s gutters clean and flowing.