“How can I help?!”: My recent experience with an unexpected collaborator

By Nakul Heble

Manoeuvring our car through the narrow lanes of east Bangalore, Chandan, a water quality expert at ATREE, and I reached the apartment. It was a few minutes before sunset. We walked down into the basement and towards the room at the far corner of the apartment complex. The room housed a sewage treatment plant (STP). We were greeted by a few men assembled near its entrance. They seemed to be discussing what had happened inside. Leaving the rest behind, I stepped into the room with caution, the light from my mobile phone guiding my path. Despite the bright light, I stepped into a pool of tepid waste that soaked my sandals. Broken glass crunched under my foot.

As I entered the dimly lit room I imagined three limp figures float out of a hole in the floor, their slender bodies cutting and dispersing the air around them. I imagined them leaving the dark room through the broken window that the firefighters had smashed a few hours earlier to get inside. All the worldly possessions they had left behind stood as a reminder of their hope for a good life in a big city. Nothing had prepared us for this.

I decided to turn off the torch and let my eyes settle to the dwindling light. The STP room was filled with muck, debris and an eerie silence. As the room slowly revealed itself to me, I saw a large motor in the centre, a ladder jutting through the broken window, a large water pipe, more sewage on the floor, some complicated switches on a wall and a mattress perched on a table along with some personal possessions. Someone seemed to have been living inside. On the far left, I saw two square manholes. Both about 20 feet deep, led into individual underground treatment tanks. One was where the sewage was to be treated and the other was for the clarified water to be collected. A single black slipper was lying next to the first manhole.

Credit: Sudhakar Jain, The Hindu

That morning, three men had asphyxiated to death as they descended into it. The first person was instructed to go in and clean the tank. The second, an electrician, followed to check on him when there was no response. The third, a manager of the STP, plunged inside in an attempt to save the two. The methane inside the tank had clogged their lungs and their brains had stopped receiving essential oxygen. It took several firemen a few hours to fish out their bodies from the tank.

A team consisting of folks from the Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samiti (SKKS) and two of us from ATREE, had reached the spot that evening to assess the reasons for the deaths. SKKS was there to look for possible violations of the Manual Scavenging Act and we were invited to give our opinion on the STP technology, its condition as well as the regulatory aspects of sewage treatment plants in Bangalore. As the SKKS folks questioned the association members, we began to assess the STP itself. What struck us right away was the badly planned layout of the STP. With little evidence of any operation and maintenance, there was no doubt about the glaring negligence on part of the builder in designing the STP, and on part of the apartment association for its operation and maintenance.

In the last two years, several deaths due to asphyxiation inside apartment STPs have been reported from Bangalore. Since 2008, upwards of 70 such cases were reported from Karnataka alone. On one hand, the trend of constructing badly designed STPs does not seem to abate and on the other, the lack of regulation of thousands of STPs across the city has only added to the risks. The end result is a system that is geared to run into disrepair, incur high losses or worse, claim lives. It is a vicious trend: badly managed STPs get clogged and people instead of machines are used to clean the blockage resulting in deaths. What is more appalling is the fact that despite having technology on our side, we have not been able to design better STPs that are able to move away from the practice of manual scavenging. Instead, such a dehumanising practice has been conveniently accommodated into urban design.

My focus in this article is not to list out the problems plaguing STPs in Bangalore. Rather, I want to focus on an aspect that is rarely talked about within researcher circles: how much of our work do we think helps people directly, and what can we do to make the best use of what we know.

Credit: CounterCurrents

Before this incident, I had only heard about STP deaths in the newspapers and wondered how this might have happened. After this experience, I was left asking myself – how can STPs be designed to completely remove the need for manual cleaning? Such a question can be answered in many ways. The answers could lie in modifying technologies and testing them. They could then be addressed by influencing policy makers to modify regulations and by pushing appropriate technologies.

Notwithstanding the various ways in which this question can be dealt with, it would not have occurred to me that I can actually be of immediate use in instances such as the one presented to us that morning. Chandan and I had been working on decentralised sewage treatment systems in apartments for a while. His work was mostly to understand how STPs function by testing its efficiency and efficacy while my work was mostly related to its regulation and its role within the larger sewerage system of a city.

Our previous association with SKKS was limited to providing some technical information about STPs in the city. We had never met them or worked with them. So when they called us to come along and inspect the location with them, we took the offer up without any hesitation. In fact we were glad that we could help SKKS gather more evidence and build a strong case. I believe the same applies to interdisciplinary research and to the researcher’s desire to disseminate her work. Whether we are accomplished scholars or budding PhD students, we need to engage with people from different backgrounds, with varied, even differing perspectives; an engagement that becomes important for better outcomes. Mutual respect towards each other’s work then becomes the core of our pursuit of developing socially relevant solutions. If I held negative views about activists and their activism or if they had been dismissive of our academic method, we wouldn’t have been able to work together.

There may be times in our careers where opportunities of unexpected collaborations present themselves. They may not lead us to any peer reviewed papers or academic accolades, but will strengthen our belief that the work we do is important and relevant. Especially in circumstances that may not be as apparent as we expect them to be. It becomes important for us, as researchers, to keep an eye out for places and problems where our work can mean something, something more than just churning out papers. There is much to gain from sharing our skills and knowledge and learning from people who work on the ground where the issues are. We need to find collaborations with not just action oriented research groups but also artists, filmmakers, activists among others, who we can work with to find successful solutions and outcomes. By doing so, we will not just be generating knowledge for knowledge’s sake but will be broadening the scope and reach of what we know, thus engaging in a debate that is of concern to a wider audience.

Although in this particular case, the protracted nature of the issue may need a longer association to be able to come up with scalable solutions, I am hopeful that, in the long run, we might contribute towards the larger cause of implementing the Manual Scavenging Act.

I will leave you with a thought that led me to write this piece. How do I know whether what I do makes a difference to anybody? Are we mere scientists with innovative questions and keepers of knowledge or is there more that we can do?

About the author:

Nakul has moved from being a researcher at ATREE to a student at ATREE. He joined the PhD programme in 2017. He loves food, so much so that he will pledge his allegiance to anyone who feeds him a good beef biryani. He expects his doctoral work to expand from the issues of water to other resources such as land, its transformations and potential impacts to communities.

Note: “The article has been corrected. The cases of deaths mentioned in para 6 were since 2008 and not 2017.”

One Comment Add yours

  1. Shashank says:

    This is a great article explaining the need for action research.


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