Sewer Cleaners Wanted in Pakistan: Only Christians Need Apply.

Jamshed Eric working in a sewer in Karachi last year. He feels it is only a matter of time before he dies on the job.
Credit…Zia ur-Rehman

Before Jamshed Eric plunges deep below Karachi’s streets to clean out clogged sewers with his bare hands, he says a little prayer to Jesus to keep him safe.

The work is grueling, and he wears no mask or gloves to protect him from the stinking sludge and toxic plumes of gas that lurk deep underground.

“It is a difficult job,” Mr. Eric said. “In the gutter, I am often surrounded by swarms of cockroaches.”

After a long day, the stench of his work lingers even at home, a constant reminder of his place in life. “When I raise my hand to my mouth to eat, it smells of sewage,” he said.

A recent spate of deaths among Christian sewer cleaners in Pakistan underscores how the caste discrimination that once governed the Indian subcontinent’s Hindus lingers, no matter the religion.

Like thousands of other lower-caste Hindus, Mr. Eric’s ancestors converted to Christianity centuries ago, hoping to escape a cycle of discrimination that ruled over every aspect of their lives: what wells of water they could drink from, what jobs they could hold. Manual sewer cleaners, known as sweepers, are at the bottom of that hierarchy, the most untouchable of the untouchable Hindu castes.

But when the Indian subcontinent broke up in 1947 and Pakistan was formed as a homeland for the region’s Muslims, a new, informal system of discrimination formed. In Pakistan, Muslims sit at the top of the hierarchy. And as one of Pakistan’s small Christian minority, Mr. Eric has now been forced into the same work his Hindu ancestors had tried to avoid through religious conversion.

Some areas of Karachi are plagued with sewage and trash. In the sewers, cleaners use their bare hands to unclog drainpipes of feces, plastic bags and hospital refuse.
Credit…Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times

Although India has outlawed caste-based discrimination with mixed success, in Pakistan it is almost encouraged by the state. In July, the Pakistani military placed newspaper advertisements for sewer sweepers with the caveat that only Christians should apply. After activists protested, the religious requirement was removed.

But municipalities across Pakistan rely on Christian sweepers like Mr. Eric. In the sprawling port city of Karachi, sweepers keep the sewer system flowing, using their bare hands to unclog crumbling drainpipes of feces, plastic bags and hazardous hospital refuse, part of the 1,750 million liters of waste the city’s 20 million residents produce daily.

On a recent day Mr. Eric, 40, had been hired to clean three sewers for $6.

Mr. Eric sends his son to school far from the crowded and segregated neighborhood the city’s sewer cleaners live in, hoping to free him of the discrimination that forced him into this work. Back home, the neighborhood lacks safe drinking water and schools. Swarms of mosquitoes, piles of garbage and overflowing gutters are the area’s only abundance.

While most sweepers like Mr. Eric are illiterate, his generation has been more determined to push their children to attend school to break the cycle of discrimination, just as their ancestors tried to do when they converted. But the children still find themselves discriminated against, forced to adopt the profession of their fathers.

Mary James Gill, a former parliamentarian who runs the Sweepers are Superheroes advocacy group, has lobbied for years to pressure the government to formally ban manual sewage cleaning work. But most of the sweepers are illiterate and unorganized, she said, making it easy for the authorities to pressure them to accept the jobs as their only means of income.

While Christians make up only 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s population of some 200 million, according to a 1998 government census, rights groups believe they fill about 80 percent of the sweeper jobs. Lower-caste Hindus mostly fill the rest of the slots.

When Karachi’s municipality tried to recruit Muslims to unclog gutters, they refused to get down into the sewers, instead sweeping the streets. The job was left to Christians like Mr. Eric, known derogatorily as “choora,” or dirty.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Zia ur-Rehman and Maria Abi-Habib