Field Notes: The Suffering & Wisdom Of A Sanitation Worker 

VIDHEESHA KUNTAMALLA

It was a hot and sultry morning when I visited Medchal town in the suburbs of Hyderabad for a story about how global warming was worsening the health problems of sanitation workers engaged in manual scavenging.

A short drive from one of India’s biggest IT hubs, Hyderabad, Medchal’s rickety sanitation system made it appear far removed from the many pioneering advancements of the southern state.  

When I reached sanitation worker Yadayya’s house, Jayamma, his wife, greeted me with a warm smile at the entrance as she asked me to remove my shoes and sprinkled water on my legs.  

“It will keep evil away,” she said. 

As soon as I entered their house, Jayamma pointed to a pile of clothes next to a sewing machine and said that she did not get the time to finish because she spends all her time taking care of her husband, a thin man with paan-stained teeth who looked weak and struggled to sit upright. 

Offering me a biscuit with his hand blistered from handling cleaning supplies for much of his life, Yadayya, who cleans sewers and septic tanks, said, “The weather gods are getting angrier year by year.”

When I asked him whether he was falling sick more frequently due to the rising heat year after year, Yadayya said he was experiencing asthma attacks and liver pains at an increased frequency. “I have spoken to many reporters in my lifetime, but you are looking at our issues from an important angle,” he said. “More people must talk about this.” 

Jayamma joined us in the verandah, laying a sleeping mat on the floor and sprinkling a mug full of water. “You must be feeling hot. Please sit down on the mat. It will be cooler,” she said, apologising for not owning a cooler. 

I sat down with Jayamma while she went through family pictures in her photo album. She has two children, a daughter my age who married a couple of years ago and a son who works at a construction site in Hyderabad.

Yadayya said he sent his son to a different city so that he was not forced into manual scavenging. 

“We did not have enough money to educate our children, but we made sure they didn't go down the sewers as I did,” said Yadayya. “No one deserves a life like this.”

Jayamma said she had spent several nights on the streets searching for her husband over the last decade. “He would get drunk and fall unconscious,” she said. 

Yadayya said he drank because it helped numb his senses to bear the toxic smell while cleaning the sewers. 

Jayamma noted that the disease affected not only Yadayya’s physical health but her family’s mental health. 

“I don't remember the last time we laughed as a family together,” she said, bursting into tears. 

I spent an entire day at Jayamma and Yadayya’s house, hearing them reminiscing about the good and bad days.  

As I left,  Yadayya reminded me that it was vital to tell the story of global warming and what it was doing to sanitation workers doing manual scavenging. 

“This is an important story. Please write it well,” he said. 

I promised Yadayya I’d do my best and walked to the nearby local bus stop to catch a bus back to Hyderabad.

On my way back to the city, I realised that capturing this family’s pain was the most challenging story I have written. I thought I might not find the words to describe what people forced into manual scavenging go through in a single day. 

You can read Vidheesha Kuntamalla’s full story here.

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