Narrator: Mumbai is one of the richest cities in India. With its gleaming skyscrapers overlooking the coast, real estate here is among the costliest in the world. But the city's basic services and infrastructure, like garbage collection and maintenance of sewer lines, continues to depend on archaic methods. For thousands of sewer workers, working conditions have remained virtually unchanged for over a century. Armed with little more than a helmet, and some coconut oil, these workers enter the manholes to unclog the waste.
Eknath Kadam: [foreign language, subtitled] Urine often falls on our heads and backs. The only protection is the helmet. Even with the helmet, the shit sometimes falls on our face. We complain about the conditions, but no one pays attention to this.
Narrator: Each day, Mumbai generates enough sewage to fill 4.5 thousand Olympic sized swimming pools.
Sitaram Majalkar: [foreign language, subtitled] We clean each manhole once a year. The manholes are closed for the rest of the 364 days.
Narrator: Mumbai has more than 50,000 manholes. With each one these workers open, there are potential dangers. Toxic and deadly fumes of methane, nitrogen, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, have been building up over time, generated by a hazardous cocktail of human and industrial waste. Suresh Magar has been a sewer worker since 1987. He always says a small prayer before he enters the manhole.
Suresh Magar: [foreign language, subtitled] I do that before the start of my shift, when I am entering the manhole. I pray I don't get affected by gas or anything else, and that I come out safe.
Narrator: Before they enter, the workers perform a candle test. If the candle goes out, that means there is little or no oxygen, and the worker won't be able to breathe. Not exactly state of the art. And, even if the manhole passes the test at first, gasses often get trapped within pockets in the sediment and sludge. If a worker disturbes one of these pockets, the gas is released, and can cause a sudden loss of consciousness, and even death.
Sitaram Majalkar: [foreign language, subtitled] I was inside the manhole and had begun my work. I started feeling claustrophobic, and began breathing heavily. I realized the gas had attacked me. It was the pocket gas inside the silt which had risen. I started blacking out. I looked up and told the other workers to pull me up. As soon as I came out from the manhole, I passed out on the street. I was unconscious for 10 minutes.
Narrator: Inhalation of toxic gases can also have a serious effect on the long-term health of manhole workers.
Eknath Kadam: [foreign language, subtitled] I was infected with tuberculosis. The doctors gave me a strict warning, that if I continue this work, it can greatly affect my health.
Narrator: And if the fumes don't get you, there are other hazards.
Eknath Kadam: [foreign language, subtitled] The work which we do of entering manholes is like a death well. Hospitals connected to the sewer dump blades, syringes. . .sanitary waste from maternity hospitals.
Narrator: According to a recent study, about 80% of sewer workers die before the age of 60. And sewer workers' unions report that around 25 workers die every month.
Shailesh Daokar: Politicians, the bureaucrats, the policy makers, all of them actually do not have any kind of a first hand experience, as to what kind of agonic life, pathetic life, that these kind of people undergo.
Narrator: A caste-based occupation, sewer workers are among the lowest. They are ostracized from society. Workers say the foul smell they carry makes them "the shit people".
Shailesh Daokar: Their social status, in a given society, is the lowest. In villages, their houses are segregated. There is a clear-cut physical segregation.
Narrator: The stigma is so strong, that many workers hide their occupation from family and neighbors.
Sitaram Majalkar: [foreign language, subtitled] If I tell my neighbors about my job, then I will be vilified. They will tell four other people and say that this man works in shit. I had not even told my wife in the beginning of our marriage, what exactly I work as.
Narrator: For a majority of these workers, the need to escape from this reality often results in some form of addiction.
Suresh Magar: [foreign language, subtitled] I drink alcohol before entering the manhole, because the conditions are [as you see].
Shailesh Daokar: They say they cannot perform this kind of poor occupation, unless they close all their senses.
Wilson Bezwada: You may give the wages, you may give a safety gauge, you may give a suit, and whatever. But you cannot allow, it is non-negotiable. Because it is an inhuman, and it is a caste-based occupation, and it is hazardous, and people are dying.
Narrator: But, given the dynamics of India's caste system, the practice is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Male Voice: [foreign language, subtitled] We have constantly thought that this is a life threatening and hazardous job. It has taken many workers' lives and should be done away with. If there are any machines which can be used for cleaning, we can save the lives of many human beings. There may be small errors in this transcript.