Christian Shahzad Masih worked as a sewer cleaner in Karachi (World Watch Monitor)
Shahzad Masih worked as a sewer cleaner in Karachi (World Watch Monitor)

A Pakistani Christian, who fell ill after inhaling poisonous gasses at work, died on Saturday (20 January) after three days on a life-support machine.

Shahzad Masih, 24, who leaves a wife and two young children, worked as a sewer cleaner in the Korangi area of the southern city of Karachi, as an irregular employee (so not entitled to any compensation or privileges) of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board.

Masih’s cousin, Yousuf Masih, who is also a sewer cleaner, told World Watch Monitor that on 17 January their supervisor had sent Shahzad to help unblock a gutter in a nearby area.

“Only a little later we came to know that he became unconscious after he was sent down in the gutter,” Yousuf said. “We took him to the nearby Indus Hospital, but they told us that he had been placed on a ventilator and then was sent by ambulance to the Creek General Hospital, where he died on Saturday.”

Shahzad’s father, Mansha, told World Watch Monitor that his family moved to Karachi three years ago from Gujranwala in the Punjab region.

They live in Nasir Colony, where there are a good number of Christians. “The street where we live is known as Church Street because there is a church,” Mansha said, explaining how local Christians carved out a neighbourhood for themselves in the Muslim-majority area.

“Shahzad started working as a sewer man about ten months ago,” his father said. “Before that, he was working in a factory, but that work was on and off. Here it was continuous, though he had still not been made an official employee.”

Dangerous gasses

Mansha, in his sixties, also worked as a cleaner, but his health suffered and he is no longer able to work. Those who work as cleaners or sweepers in Pakistan are everyday exposed to dust, disease and dangerous gasses.

“I was working as a sewer man in the Cantonment Board Karachi, but now I am suffering asthma so I cannot work anymore,” Mansha explained.

After Shahzad’s death, his family say they don’t know how they will be able to take care of his three-year-old son, Michael, and 18-month-old daughter, Neha, because their mother is a stay-at-home mum and illiterate.

“The Karachi Water and Sewerage Board Executive Engineer, Akhtar Jaleel Bajwa, has promised that Masih’s wife will be provided a job as a janitor in lieu of her husband,” Mansha said. However, such promises in the past haven’t been always been met with action.

The data collected by World Watch Monitor in 2013 showed that, despite Pakistani Christians comprising only 1.5 per cent of the total population, they account for more than 80 per cent of the janitorial workforce.

The reason for this has its history in India’s caste system, under which only the so-called “untouchables”, now called “scheduled castes”, were forced to work in occupations considered to be degrading. Historically this meant picking up dead animals, removing animal and human excrement, and hanging criminals by order of the king.

The British introduced a system to help people belonging to this category be given admission to educational institutions or jobs to improve their socioeconomic status. In the late 19th century, a good number of them converted to Christianity, particularly in the Punjab region, and today most of Pakistan’s Christians come from this downtrodden caste, with Punjabi as their mother tongue.

Even though Pakistan is an Islamic country, India’s caste system has continued to influence society and still forces a large number of Christians to work as sweepers, janitors and sewer cleaners.

Hundreds have died

As these people work in this hazardous profession, without protective gear, they suffer many chronic illnesses. Hundreds have died while cleaning clogged gutters because, once the blockage is removed, the stored gas in underground pipelines rushes to the manhole, which attacks the nervous system and causes paralysis.

In June last year, a Christian cleaner died after falling unconscious in a gutter, and then, after he was taken to hospital, doctors refused to touch him because they were fasting and were not willing to touch a man smeared with sewage.

After the incident hit international headlines, Pakistan People’s Party, which is the ruling party in Sindh province (of which Karachi is the capital), announced one million rupees (roughly $10,000) in compensation for the man’s family, though they haven’t yet received it.

“I have worked hard on it and now the cheque has been prepared and sent to the Umar Kot District Coordination Officer for disbursement,” PPP Sindh Minority Wing Information Secretary, Naveed Anthony, told World Watch Monitor. “I will go myself to ensure the disbursement arrives, though, yes, it is a lamentable fact that the family could not be provided the promised compensation for these all long months.”