Freelance Sewer Cleaners

In the Sewer

On August 1, the thin guy with a permanently amused look on his face and pregnant wife/girlfriend returned, in the pouring rain. He was ready to bargain. “You two houses pay INR 500 each and we’ll do the job, with a one-month guarantee.” He’d come down from INR 1,200 to INR 1,000. “OK” we both said. The people in the house next door had not stepped foot in their bathroom for a week, since the first flooding. Every time they needed to use the restroom, they opened up Cleopatra Beauty Salon for Ladies, next door to us and two doors down from them. (Late into the night, I would hear the metal shutter being opened and closed.)

“Bemused Smile” then called his buddy, a short guy who showed up with a pick axe and a long piece of metal wire. They went to work. Our sewer pipe was completely clogged with mud and dirt. The short one stripped to his “chuds” (short for “chuddie” – underwear) and got into the two-foot diameter pipe, causing the muck to rise up and inundate our bathroom floor. They worked for about 4 hours, before coming to ask for money to buy a longer piece of wire. Vandana, our neighbor, gave them INR 200. We left for a meeting.

It was late (and dark) by the time we got back, but the two were still at it. Now, both of them were in their chuds, and covered with sewer muck. They were not finished, but they were tired and hungry. Vandana’s Christian maid filled a bucket of rainwater for them to wash up, which they did not use. (She reported to me later that she had asked Sunil, our Hindu peon, to give them some tea because they were cold, but that he had refused to deal with them, so she went and got them tea.) We gave them INR 200 for dinner, and they promised to be back the next day. (I felt certain that they would drink away the money.) “Noon,” they said. “Nine,” we said. We finally settled on ten am.

The next day, while we were at another meeting, an employee of the BMC came and cleared the problem in 10 minutes. His unofficial “fee”: INR 600. Each of the four affected houses paid up this time – INR 150. True to her word, the recalcitrant neighbor, who had refused to pay our guys, had gone to complain at the BMC every day and got someone to come and deal with the problem. I don’t know how they did it, but I’m sure they had something more than a piece of wire and a pick axe.

“Bemused Smile” was no longer smiling when he and his buddy showed up to finish the work later in the afternoon. They hung around for quite some time trying to extract additional payment. I’m not sure if Rizwan, from our office, finally gave them something extra, but they eventually drifted off.

The day before, while we were commiserating with Vandana about our bathroom situation, John mentioned that he felt worse for the two guys cleaning the sewer. Vandana’s reply: “Well, they must be used to it by now.”


2 Responses to “Freelance Sewer Cleaners”

  1. 1 Franz Fardin June 10, 2010 at 9:23 am


    I wanted to know if you met again these “Free lance sewer cleaner” ?…

    I am studying wastewater treatment in south-east India, and so I’m very interesting in any kind of things about sewers… and manual scavengers…

    Do you have some more stories about that ?

    Chears for the photo !



  2. 2 yoomilee June 10, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Hi Franz,

    No, sorry, I am no longer in Bombay, so have not had anything more to do with these two “freelance” sewer cleaners. You may try to contact the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) sewage division. Or, since monsoon has started in many parts of India, you may wander the (flooded) streets and ask people whom they use to clear the sewers.

    All the best.

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