In the sewers of Pakistan, the horizonless universe of Christians

His body half-naked and smeared with a blackish and nauseating mire, Shafiq Masih struggles to extricate himself from the sewer he has just scoured by hand, with a hoe and a bucket, in an affluent district of Lahore. .

He then goes to beg water from local residents to wash in the street. One house refuses, another accepts after many entreaties.

Shafiq is Christian, like the vast majority of garbage collectors and sewer workers in Pakistan, where these professions are subject to strong social stigma, as they are considered impure by Muslims.

At 44, he risks his life every day, in the midst of toxic gases emitted by excrement, pollutants and various waste, to manually unclog the clogged pipes of the second largest city in the country (East).

"It's a tough job," he told AFP. “When someone goes down (into the sewer), he must first sacrifice all self-respect. »

“When I was inside, water mixed with detergent fell on me, because the people inside (the house) were washing their clothes. (Sometimes people go to the toilet, flush the toilet, and all the gunk gets thrown back at us,” he adds.

In 2017, the death of a Christian who had inhaled gas while cleaning a sewer in Umerkot (Southeast) aroused outrage. Muslim doctors had refused to treat him, arguing that they could not touch his soiled body because they had to remain pure during the Ramadan fast.

Many Christians in Pakistan are descendants of lower-caste Hindus who converted during British colonization to escape caste-based discrimination.

Christians, who make up just 1,6% of Pakistan's population, hold more than 80% of the jobs of garbage collectors, sewers and street sweepers, with the rest mostly Hindus, according to religious minority advocacy groups.

caste discrimination

They believe that even if the caste system does not officially exist in Pakistan, it persists for these professions. The word “Chuhra”, which traditionally qualifies the caste of garbage collectors/sweepers and is considered extremely pejorative, is today synonymous with Christian.

The few Muslims forced into these jobs refuse to engage in the most degrading tasks and are generally placed in supervisory positions.

“When they need the job, they say they'll do it and go down the drain. But once they get it, they don't work, saying they have to pray and their clothes might get impure,” Shafiq said.

Minority defense organizations denounce institutionalized discrimination, as evidenced by these recruitment announcements from public bodies which sometimes specify that jobs as garbage collectors, sewers or sweepers are reserved for “non-Muslims”.

One of them, the Center for Law and Justice (CLJ), has identified 290 such announcements over the past decade. The National Human Rights Commission (NCHR) has just launched a campaign to protest against this practice.

As in the rest of the country, the pipes of Lahore, a city of eleven million inhabitants, are unblocked using a long bamboo stick. If this technique does not work, you have to enter the sewer to unclog them manually.

For this work, with 22 years of seniority, Shafiq receives monthly 44,000 rupees (220 euros), nearly double that of sweepers or waste collection workers.

But the associated risks are immense. Various infections (tuberculosis, asthma, hepatitis, etc.), skin or eye diseases are frequent.

A dangerous job

Accidents at work too. At least ten people have died since 2019 in Pakistani sewers, according to a CLJ count based on press information and deemed, as such, very incomplete.

“When we go to work, we are never sure that we will return home,” admits Shahbaz Masih, 32, a sewer worker rendered unconscious once by gas before being revived in a hospital.

In October in Sargodha (Centre), two Christian sewer workers died while rescuing a colleague of the same faith, who had been forced by his Muslim supervisors into a sewer he knew was filled with toxic gas.

Their families have sued for criminal negligence, a first in Pakistan. But, under strong pressure, they finally accepted an amicable agreement.

Some garbage collectors and sewer workers are bound by 89-day contracts to the state companies that employ them. They take advantage of their illiteracy and disorganization to pay them monthly salaries of less than 10.000 rupees (50 euros), less than half the legal minimum.

“The state is directly responsible for this exploitation,” accuses Mary James Gill, a Pakistani lawyer and politician who heads the CLJ and who received the Human Rights Prize awarded by France in 2021 for her campaign “Sweepers are Superheroes” (sweepers are superheroes).

"From their recruitment to their death, we have clear and undeniable proof that they are discriminated against by society and by the State", she believes, denouncing a vicious circle where their poverty prevents them from giving an education to their children, who will have no choice but to turn to the same occupation.

Despite his experience, Shafiq knows he's nowhere near being promoted and leaving the sewers. But each day, he "thanks God for giving (him) an extra day to live".

The editorial staff (with AFP)

Image credit: Shutterstock / shahrukhphotoart

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