Manholes in India: Judging by the cover

By: |
March 11, 2021 5:00 AM

Can manhole covers sold be a surrogate indicator of new road construction activity, as opposed to widening existing roads?

That stamping is because of rules of origin requirements for imported manhole covers.That stamping is because of rules of origin requirements for imported manhole covers. (Representative image)

There is a delightful 2014 documentary by Natasha Raheja. It’s called “Cast in India” and is about manhole covers in New York and about how they are made in India (for the film, Howrah). Indeed, manhole covers in New York, and many parts of USA, have a “Made in India” stamp. (The word manhole sounds better than gender-neutral terms like maintenance hole.)

That stamping is because of rules of origin requirements for imported manhole covers. “Manhole rings or frames, covers, and assemblies thereof must be marked on the top surface by means of die stamping, cast-in-mould lettering, etching, engraving, or an equally permanent method of marking.”
There are different types of manhole covers, depending on end-use and material used. End-use might mean municipal authorities, commercial or industrial facilities, or utility pits. Material used might be cast iron, steel, other metals, concrete, or steel-fibre reinforced concrete.

Decades ago, when I used to work in Kolkata, a colleague and I were walking along College Street. He was a few feet ahead of me. It was raining heavily, and College Street was covered in water, ankle-deep. After it poured, it took a while for the water to drain off. Suddenly, ahead of me, my colleague vanished. There was an open manhole in front of us, with the cover stolen. Had the road not been submerged in water, we would have noticed it and stepped aside. Since we didn’t, he descended into the manhole, and it could very well have been me had he not opted to be the leader. I raised the alarm, and people came and rescued him, covered with filth and stinking. He was lucky to be alive. Every year, around 150 people die because of open manholes. Injuries from open manholes and deaths from other open pits are different. There have been court cases where municipal authorities have been asked to compensate for their negligence. My friend was fortunate, and the muck was cleaned up to the best of our ability. We lived close to each other, and every day, on the way home from work, we used to return together by bus. On a normal day, the bus would be crowded, and we had to push and jostle to get in. On that particular day, despite the cleaning, people sniffed in his general direction, and the crowd parted. We got comfortable seats.

Despite multiple end-uses and materials, we typically associate manhole covers with ones on municipal streets, hardly noticed, and usually made out of cast iron. (Roman excavations show manhole covers made out of limestone.) Typically, though not invariably, manhole covers are round, and there is a famous question, popularised by Microsoft, asking why manhole covers are round. Our manhole covers aren’t particularly pretty and we aren’t fascinated by them, unlike in Japan, where there are artistic manhole covers (6,000 are listed) and there is a “Japan Society of Manhole Covers”.

Remo Camerota wrote a book (“Drainspotting”) on Japan’s manhole covers. Mimi Melnick and Robert A Melnick have two books (one for Los Angeles, the second for all of the US) on manhole covers as a form of industrial art and their role in US culture. But Indian ones are staid stuff, cast iron or concrete. The shift towards concrete is driven by theft—stealing numbers strongly correlated with increase in metal prices. A few years ago, there was a media report that 10,000 manhole covers were stolen in Kolkata over a period of two months. A concrete manhole cover doesn’t completely eliminate theft, though, since there might be a little bit of iron in the handles.

There is a difference between casting and forging, and manhole covers aren’t sophisticated enough to require forging. Historically, India has had a tradition of casting. There are geographical clusters of modern foundries, with each cluster tending to specialise—Coimbatore for pump-sets, Kolhapur and Belgaum for automotive components, Rajkot for diesel engines, Howrah for sanitary equipment and so on. USA also has foundries, going back to the 19th century. They make cast iron manhole covers, but USA needs to import. A cursory look at US trade data suggests these are generally imported from India, China rendered uncompetitive because of anti-dumping duties. A cursory look at Indian trade data suggests India exports manhole covers to USA, Canada, Belgium, Spain, Germany, South Africa and the Middle East (Qatar, Oman, UAE). While some exports occur through JNPT and Agra ICD, most take place through Kolkata, by sea. As depicted in the documentary film, this pins it down to Howrah, not just for sanitary equipment but also cast-iron manhole covers. Catering initially to cotton and jute industries, foundries in Howrah originated in the 19th century.

There are probably around 300 now. But the peak has long been over. There is an assorted range of problems for the decline—non-availability of pig iron and coke, labour problems, infrastructure issues, availability and price of power, capital flight in general. To state the obvious, most are MSME and haven’t invested in modernisation of technology. With environmental norms tightening, they have been asked to move outside municipal limits, making land an issue too. Naturally, Howrah foundries don’t make only manhole covers. But more often than not, cast-iron Indian manhole covers originate in Howrah.

I think someone should write a book on Indian manhole covers. Can manhole covers sold be a surrogate indicator of new road construction activity, as opposed to widening existing roads?

The author is Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal

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