The rescuers


July 31st, 2018

One of my (not-so-pleasant) vivid memories, is witnessing overflowing sludge from the septic tank at our home when I  was studying at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). My mother, one of the smartest ladies I have ever seen, just rushed to the nearby refugee camp, known as ‘Geneva camp’ in search of rescuers. It was getting dark, and we were desperately waiting for the arrival of the rescuers to salvage us from the mess and to relieve us from the sight of utter disgust at the entrance of our home.

Finally a troop of six people came with their ‘equipment’. Being a student of civil engineering, I was eagerly waiting to see the ‘operation’ with my own eyes. Despite my mother’s red-eyes and gesture of annoyance, I kept on observing with a hope of being a (devoted) engineer.

They brought with them the necessary equipment – some ropes and buckets together with a drum full of (so-called) chemical. They started by pouring the chemical from the mini drum which was simply kerosene. They mixed kerosene with water to dilute the sludge inside the septic tank to bring it to an optimum consistency. They tied the buckets to ropes and started collecting the semi-solid sludge from the septic tank by dipping the bucket into the tank, and then carried that to the nearby open drain and dumped it manually in the shadow of the darkness of the night. The operation continued for hours and finally shut down early in the morning at the cost of some few hundred Takas after some heavy haggling with my mother.

I had almost forgotten that memory in the midst of so many lovely and lively events of my life. When I entered my professional career, I discovered that many things have changed over time, in terms of technology, lifestyle and what not, but the story of the rescuers didn’t change much!

I started my development career after switching from hardcore civil engineering and devoted myself to work on the waste value chain. At some point of time, I wanted to know how septic tanks were emptied and came to know that the same practice prevailed even after two decades!

I continued my professional journey with the aim of turning ‘waste into resources.’ While working on the ‘waste value chain’, I found, people who are associated with managing waste as their day to day business, are the most neglected, deprived and vulnerable in society.

After two decades, my rusty memory again came to light. I noticed that we are using our toilets every day and our faecal waste is deposited into septic tanks. When these septic tanks are full and start overflowing creating nuisance, only then do we look for some untouchable sweeper communities to clean up the mess. And they appear as our ‘Rescuers’ to clean it manually using the same primitive technology – a rope and few buckets.

Unfortunately, even in the twenty-first century, people are cleaning human waste manually!

Every year at least 30-50 people die while cleaning septic tanks because of carbon monoxide and other poisonous gas generated inside the tanks. We really need to think of their lives, dignity and health and safety.

The stories of other ‘waste workers’ are not something rosy. Every day, no less than 20,000 tons of municipal waste are generated from our houses, offices, industries. The waste workers are putting their lives at risk for making our lives better.

Among the waste workers, women are even more deprived. Despite clear indication of the payment of equal wage for men and women in the National Labour Policy-2012, women are getting much less than men, and this is a common practice.

Nowadays, ‘waste’ is drawing the attention of many entrepreneurs. Some areas are booming like recycling plastic and mobile phones. But what is happening to the workers? What about their working environment? Wage parity? Dignity?

Sanitation and waste workers of all categories are lacking dignity and risking their lives, and surviving in an unhealthy and sub-human environment. We need to work to safeguard their dignity, realise their rights, minimise wage disparity and secure their health and safety.

I wish to continue my journey for my fellow brothers and sisters who are putting their best efforts towards making cities liveable. I want my memory to be replaced by a shiny new one.

 

 

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