The iconic New York City manhole cover: made in India

They are forged by barefoot workers 8,000 miles from Manhattan.
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Spotted in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

After a stop for mid-morning coffee on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill section, we happened upon a quintessential New York scene.

Five construction workers clad in hardhats and lime-green safety jackets, visible only from the waist up, wielded shovels in a neatly defined sidewalk trench. Small American flags adorned both front fenders of the Mack dump truck parked next to them.

At 4 that afternoon in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, I spotted another image that appeared to be iconically New York. Upon closer inspection, it was anything but.

It was a manhole cover, predictably marked N.Y.C. SEWER. But along the bottom it read: MADE IN INDIA

‘Prosaic pieces of urban puzzle’

Judging from the wear on the manhole cover, it wasn’t new. A quick Google search confirmed that importing the covers from India goes back many years. A 2007 New York Times article talked about it — and the dangerous conditions under which the covers are manufactured.

“Eight thousand miles from Manhattan, barefoot, shirtless, whip-thin men rippled with muscle were forging prosaic pieces of the urban jigsaw puzzle: manhole covers,” the story began.

The article noted that utility company Con Edison bought one-fourth of its manhole covers — some 2,750 per year — from India’s Shakti Industries.

“At Shakti, street grates, manhole covers and other castings were scattered across the dusty yard. Inside, men wearing sandals and shorts carried coke and iron ore piled high in baskets on their heads up stairs to the furnace feeding room.

“On the ground floor, other men, often shoeless and stripped to the waist, waited with giant ladles, ready to catch the molten metal that came pouring out of the furnace.”

The director of Shakti was quoted as saying, “We can’t maintain the luxury of Europe and the United States, with all the boots and all that.”

I imagine it’s pretty difficult for American manufacturers to compete against companies for whom footwear is considered a worker’s luxury.

Subject of documentary

A Con Edison spokesman, according to the Times story, said the company was “disturbed by the photos” and was rewriting international contracts to require overseas manufacturers to “take appropriate actions to provide a safe and healthy workplace,” and to follow local and federal guidelines in India.

I am not sure whether the Indian-made manhole cover I spotted (the one pictured at the top of this post) was purchased by Con Edison. The Times article noted that the practice also extended to New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection and departments in Syracuse and New Orleans.

It would be nice to think that the Times piece and intervening years resulted in fundamental improvements: the production came back to the United States, or the workers in India at least got got better wages and working conditions.

I don’t think that’s the case, however. In fact, manhole manufacturing in India is the subject of a recent documentary, “Cast in India.”

Take a look at this preview and try to find a worker wearing anything approaching footwear.

I couldn’t see the feet of those five guys in the trench on Atlantic Avenue, but I assume they had boots on.

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