“When we migrated to Hyderabad we took up almost any job we got. We wanted to make enough money to give our daughter a good education,” says Gudla Mangamma. She and her husband, Gudla Kotaiah, had left their village in Telangana's Mahbubnagar district in 2000 and come to Hyderabad, the state capital. This was soon after their first child, Kalpana, was born.

But the city was not generous to them. When he could find no work, Kotaiah was compelled to take up manual scavenging to earn. He started cleaning sewage drains.

In Hyderabad, there were no takers for Kotaiah’s traditional occupation of washing clothes – he belonged to the Chakali community (an Other Backward Class in Telangana). “Our ancestors washed and ironed clothes. But there is very little work for us now; everyone has their own washing machines and iron boxes,” points out Mangamma, explaining why they both found it hard to get work.

Kotaiah also tried daily wage work at construction sites. “The construction sites were always far away from home and he had to pay to travel there, so he felt that manual scavenging work was better as the work was closer home,” says Mangamma. She estimates that he did this work at least three times a week. It fetched him Rs. 250 a day.

Mangamma remembers that morning in May 2016 when Kotaiah had left home around 11 a.m. He had told his wife that he was going to clean a sewer, and asked her to place a bucket of water outside their home so that he could wash himself before entering. “My husband wasn't a safai karmikulu [municipal sanitation worker]. He did it because we needed the money,” says Mangamma.

PHOTO • Amrutha Kosuru
PHOTO • Amrutha Kosuru

Left: Gudlu Mangamma on the street where she lives in Koti area of Hyderabad. Right: On the wall in her home is a photo of her husband, Gudla Kotaiah, who died on May 1, 2016, after entering a manhole to save his coworker

That day Kotaiah was hired to work in Sultan Bazaar, a crowded area of the old city, where the drains are often clogged. When this happens, third party contractors for the Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board hire men to manually clean drains and remove sewage.

One of them was Bongu Veera Swamy, Kotaiah’s coworker and friend, who stepped into the manhole without any safety equipment and collapsed within a few minutes. Seeing him, Kotaiah, who was working with him, jumped in to save the unconscious man. A few minutes later, Kotaiah too collapsed.

Neither of the men had been provided any protective gear like a mask, gloves or other material. The two friends' deaths added to the death count of people who were killed cleaning sewers. According to the union Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment, 971 people died in the country between 1993 and April 2022 “due to accidents while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks.”

When Mangamma saw Kotaiah and Veera Swamy a few hours after their death, she recalls, “The foul stench of that manhole was still there.”

Gudla Kotaiah died on May 1, 2016. It was May Day, the day that promotes the rights of workers all over the world. Neither he nor his wife knew that it is illegal to hire someone to do manual scavenging; it has been against the law since 1993. The activity is now punishable under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 . Transgressions can lead to imprisonment for up to two years or a fine of up to one lakh rupees, or both.

“I did not know it [manual scavenging] was illegal. After his death, too, I did not know that there are laws for my family to receive compensation,” says Mangamma.

PHOTO • Amrutha Kosuru
PHOTO • Amrutha Kosuru

Left: The entrance to Mangamma’s current home, in the basement of an apartment building in Hyderabad's Koti area . Right: The late Kotaiah's family (from left): Vamsi, Mangamma and Akhila

She also did not know that their relatives would shun them after learning of the way Kotaiah died. “What hurts the most is how they have not even come to console me. They stopped talking to me and my children when they found out my husband died while cleaning a sewage drain,” she says.

In Telugu, manual scavengers are referred to as ‘paaki’ (scavenger) – a slur word. Perhaps fearing social ostracism, Veera Swamy hadn’t told his wife what he did for a living. “I did not know that he took up manual scavenging work. He never discussed it with me,” says his wife, Bongu Bhagyalakshmi. She was married to Veera Swamy for seven years and remembers her husband fondly, “I could always rely on him.”

Like Kotaiah, Veera Swamy was a migrant in Hyderabad. In 2007, he and Bhagyalakshmi had moved from Nagarkurnool, a town in Telangana, with their sons Madhav and Jagdish, 15 and 11, and Veera Swamy’s mother, Rajeshwari. The family belongs to the Madiga community, listed as Scheduled Caste in the state. “I disliked this work that our community does and I thought he had stopped it when we got married,” she says.

A few weeks after Kotaiah and Veera Swamy were killed by the toxic fumes in the manhole, Mangamma and Bhagyalakshmi were handed Rs. 2 lakhs each by the contractor who had hired them.

Some months later, members of Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), an organisation working to eradicate manual scavenging in India, contacted Mangamma. They told her that her family was eligible for a relief package of up to Rs. 10 lakhs. A Supreme Court judgment in 2014 had fixed the compensation, directing the state governments to pay the families of those who had died cleaning sewers or septic tanks since 1993. Further, through the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers, the government provides cash assistance, capital subsidies (up to Rs. 15 lakhs) and skill development training to people working as manual scavengers and their dependents.

After SKA filed a petition in Telangana High Court, the families of nine manual scavengers who had been killed received full compensation in 2020 – except Kotaiah's and Veera Swamy's families. The head of SKA's Telangana chapter, K. Saraswati, says that they are working with a lawyer to fight their cases in court.

PHOTO • Amrutha Kosuru
PHOTO • Amrutha Kosuru

Left: Bhagyalakshmi with her mother-in-law, Rajeshwari. Right: A photo of Bhagyalakshmi's late husband, Bongu Veera Swamy, whom Kotaiah had tried to save

But Mangamma is not happy. “I feel cheated,” she says. “I was given hope of receiving money and now that hope is nowhere.”

Bhagyalakshmi adds, “Many activists, lawyers, media persons came to us. For a while, I had hope. Now, I don’t think I will get that money.”


On a late October morning this year, Mangamma was building a kattela poyyi (makeshift stove) on the sloping entrance to a parking lot of an old apartment building in Hyderabad's Koti area. Armed with half a dozen bricks, she stacked them in pairs, one on top of the other, forming a triangle. “We ran out of gas [LPG] yesterday. A new cylinder will come in the first week of November. Until then, we will cook on the kattela poyyi,” she says. “Our condition has been like this since my husband passed away.”

Six years have gone by since Kotaiah died. Mangamma, who is in her late 30s now, says, “When my husband passed away, I felt lost for the longest time. I was heartbroken.”

She and her two younger children, Vamsi and Akhila, live in a dimly lit basement of the multi-storey building – in a small room next to the staircase. They moved here at the end of 2020 when they could no longer afford the Rs. 5,000-7,000 rent they were paying for a house in the same area. Mangamma guards the five-storied building and also cleans the premises. She is paid Rs. 5,000 a month and given the room to live in with her family.

“The space is hardly enough for the three of us,” she says. Their room is dark even on a bright morning. Kotaiah's photos are displayed on the worn-out walls; a fan hangs from the low ceiling. “I don’t call Kalpana [elder daughter] here anymore. Where would she stay or even sit?,” she asks.

PHOTO • Amrutha Kosuru
PHOTO • Amrutha Kosuru

Left: Inside Mangamma's home in the basement. Right: Making a stove with bricks in the building's parking area after gas had run out in the LPG cylinder

In 2020, when Kalpana was 20, Mangamma decided to get her married. She used the 2 lakh rupees she had received from the contractor to pay for the wedding. She also borrowed money from a private moneylender in Goshamahal. He charges her 3 per cent interest per month. Half of what she earns cleaning the constituency office goes towards repaying the loan.

The wedding bankrupted the family. “We have a debt of 6 lakh rupees now. [My earnings] are barely enough to cover our daily expenses,” she says. Besides what she gets for cleaning the apartment premises, she earns Rs. 13,000 a month as a cleaner in the office of Goshamahal assembly constituency, in Hyderabad's old city.

Vamsi and Akhila, 17 and 16, study in colleges nearby. The total fees for their education are Rs. 60,000 a year. Vamsi has managed to study working as an accountant part-time. He works six days a week, from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., for Rs. 150 a day. This helps with his fees.

Akhila dreams of studying medicine, but her mother isn't sure if she can. “I don't have the resources to continue her education. I can’t even buy her new clothes,” says Mangamma, sounding dejected.

Bhagyalakshmi’s children are younger. The fees for the private school they attend add up to a total of Rs. 25,000 a year. “They are good students. I am very proud of them," says their mother, beaming.

PHOTO • Amrutha Kosuru
PHOTO • Amrutha Kosuru

Left: Veera Swamy's family (from left): Bhagyalakshmi, Jagdish, Madhav and Rajeshwari. Right: Their home in the basement of an apartment complex in Hyderabad

PHOTO • Amrutha Kosuru
PHOTO • Amrutha Kosuru

Left: Some of Bhagyalakshmi's family's possessions lie outside in the parking area. Right: The kitchen, which is marked off by a plastic curtain

Bhagyalakshmi works as a cleaner too. She took up the job after Veera Swamy's death. She lives with her sons and mother-in-law in a room in the basement of another apartment complex in Koti. Veera Swamy's photo rests on a small table in the room filled with their possessions, many of which have been donated or discarded by others.

With a crush for space inside, some of the family's belongings lie outside their room, in a corner of the parking lot. A sewing machine placed outside is piled with blankets and clothes. Bhagyalakshmi explains its presence: “I enrolled in a tailoring course in 2014, and  stitched a few blouses and other items for a while.” Since there isn't enough space for everyone to sleep inside, the boys, Madhav and Jagdish, occupy the room. Bhagyalakshmi and Rajeshwari sleep outside on plastic sheets and mats. The kitchen is in another section of the building. It’s a small and poorly lit space, marked off by plastic sheets.

Bhagyalakshmi earns Rs. 5,000 cleaning the apartment complex. “I [also] take up work in the apartments so that I can help my sons with their school work.” She says she owes nearly Rs. 4 lakhs to moneylenders for loans she's taken over the years. “I pay 8,000 rupees each month towards my loans.”

The family shares a toilet with workers from the building's commercial section on the ground floor. “We rarely get to use it during the day. Men are constantly coming and going,” she says. On the days when she goes to clean the washroom, “all I can think about is the stench in the manhole that killed my husband,” she says. “I wish he had told me – I wouldn't have let him do that work. He would have been alive now, and I wouldn't be stuck in this basement.”

This story is supported by a grant from Rang De .

Amrutha Kosuru

Amrutha Kosuru is a 2022 PARI Fellow. She is a graduate of the Asian College of Journalism and lives in Visakhapatnam.

Other stories by Amrutha Kosuru
Editor : Priti David

Priti David is the Executive Editor of PARI. A journalist and teacher, she also heads the Education section of PARI and works with schools and colleges to bring rural issues into the classroom and curriculum, and with young people to document the issues of our times.

Other stories by Priti David