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Would a person living in a manhole make news in India? If he did, would he be offered a job with a house? The difference between India and China was brought home, once again, in a recent report that made headlines here. A man was found to be living in a manhole in a posh Beijing neighbourhood. Wang Xiuqing, 52 years old, had been living there for the last 10 years to save on rent. The manhole wasn’t a gutter; it led to dry, underground heating pipelines. After Wang’s story was published, it was found that he wasn’t the only one to have chosen this accommodation — it was the choice of many self-employed migrants.

These manhole ‘homes’ are tiny, but in Beijing’s deadly winter wonderfully warm. Wang used candles sparingly for light and kept a bottle in which he could pee. A radio was his only indulgence. The smelly, probably toxic, air didn’t bother him; what he dreaded was rain leaking in through the manhole cover. In summer, he slept in the open on the grass — a common practice all over China.

Interestingly, Wang had a family — wife and three children — who lived in a proper house on the outskirts of Beijing. It was the 60,000 yuan fine he had had to pay for having broken the one-child norm that had made Wang permanently in debt. His wife had already had a child when he met her; they lived together and had two children before they registered their marriage.

Since migrants have no rights to subsidized education, living in a manhole had helped Wang, who earned 2,000 yuan a month washing cars, educate his children, who were “good kids, studying well”. They made him feel “positive and happy,’’ Wang told the New Beijing News. Rent would have set him back by at least 300 yuan a month.

New life

Quan Youzhi had a family too: two sons, whom she didn’t want to live with and a husband who lived in another manhole. The 66-year-old had come to the capital after her home in her hometown had collapsed. Every night for the last 20 years, she would lift the 10-kilo manhole lid to descend three metres underground, occasionally sawing it open after urban security men welded it to the ground. She earned 20 yuan a day collecting used plastic bottles; all of it went on food and medicines for her high blood pressure and gallstones. Beijing’s residents were kind to her, she told reporters: a stranger had once paid her hospital bill of 10,000 yuan; she felt she must repay her.

Even as readers responded with sympathy to these stories, the authorities did what authorities always do — they cemented the manhole covers, closing down these homes forever. China Daily supported this act “for safety reasons”— what if a pipeline leak had killed one of these manhole-dwellers, asked a columnist — but the public outcry forced Beijing’s officials to get their counterparts from Quan’s hometown to take her back, send her for a medical check-up, and offer her a job as a cook in a nursing home there.

Wang was luckier; his story prompted the Beijing City University to give him a job as handy man at a salary of 3,600 yuan, plus food and, most importantly, accommodation on the campus. Pictures of him in his new home showed a bunk bed with a quilt and a side table; a palace compared to the manhole.

Asked about the general perception that his life was without dignity, Wang replied: “Dignity? It’s not for everyone. For someone like me who lives like a beggar, dignity means nothing. In 2008, I was washing a car on the roadside. An urban law enforcement official took me away. He released his dog from its cage and put me in. I want to have dignity. But what dignity was left to me at that moment?”