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Stench of indignity: Sewer deaths in India

At the nadir of human dignity, rests the practice of manual scavenging. With over 600 reported deaths, it is beyond time that this shameful face of modern slavery is banished from civil society

The lurking evil of manual scavenging sustains as a threat only due to the absence of appropriate sanitation facilities in our society. Like food, clothing and shelter, sanitation is a basic human right. Poor sanitary conditions lead to water-borne diseases and children and women are particularly vulnerable. Sewer deaths, resulting from the absence of secure sanitation, is another fatal occupational hazard encountered by our servicemen.

According to the National Commission for Safai Karamchari (NCSK), several cases of sewer deaths go unreported as these workers are contracted across different Urban Local Bodies, defence and other government agencies. Owing to their working conditions, sewer and sanitation workers are exposed to extremely noxious gases including hydrogen sulfide, methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia alongside a wide variety of microorganisms and decaying organic matter that may lead to a rapid loss of consciousness – even resulting in death. In addition to clearing human excreta, sewer workers are forced to wade and swim in filth and waste to unclog sewerages and remove blockages in drains.

The Commission, collecting and compiling the data on sewer deaths since 1993, has repeatedly written letters to the state governments and UTs. The data up to March 31, 2018, noted 634 deaths reported across 19 states and union territories. In a few states – Tamil Nadu (194), Gujarat (122), Karnataka (68), Uttar Pradesh (51), Haryana (51) – the numbers are staggering. Narayan Das, secretary of the Commission, stated that the sewer death data was provided by the states after a letter was sent to them.

Families Destroyed

In April 2017, Rishipal died cleaning a manhole in a Delhi hospital. He was the lone breadwinner for his family.

Talking to Millennium Post, Rishipal's family said that to improve his income and support the education of his three children, Rishipal worked on his off days too. The deceased lived with his family of five including his three children in the Welcome area of the national capital.

Tragedy struck again when five persons died in a sewer incident recently in West Delhi's Moti Nagar. This incident, where an eight-month infant lost her father, raised questions on the survival of such families as the deceased are often the sole bread-winners too. In another case, Ravindra Kumar, 40, died inside the sewer treatment plant of a prominent hotel in New Delhi. The deceased was also the only earning member of his family.

In another incident in August, two labourers identified as Rajeev (37) and Bittu (27) went inside an empty tank to clean it, in North West Delhi's Model Town area. Police claimed that the labourers were dragged out unconscious with help from the fire brigade and then taken to BJRM hospital. They were declared brought dead. Both the families were helpless after losing their only support.

Negligence Revealed

In one instance, a Delhi Police investigation found that there was negligence in the death of two persons who fell inside a petrol tank in North West Delhi's Model Town area. They arrested a subcontractor. "Protocol was not followed in cleaning the tanks. The work should have been done with machines," said the DCP.

In Moti Nagar, where five persons died, the investigation revealed that the victims were forced to enter the sewer treatment plant for cleaning on orders of the supervisor. Police sources told Millennium Post that the investigation so far has revealed that the five deceased had spoken against entering the sewage plant but the supervisor forced them, threatening to oust them from their jobs. The family members also claimed that the job of the deceased was not to clean the sewers. Talking about sewer deaths, a senior police officer claimed that during the investigation, three persons including the director of a firm were nabbed.

In August 2017, Delhi Police arrested a 50-year-old storekeeper in a case where a person died after entering a sewer at a hospital in central Delhi. The arrested accused was present at the spot of the incident, who had asked the deceased to go inside the sewer.

Passing the Buck

In a number of sewerage death cases, the commission has found that the concerned authorities are reluctant in owning responsibility for the mishaps by stating that the deceased person is not employed with them. Resultantly, these deaths are not considered by the state administration while compiling the data of sewer deaths and, hence, they remain unreported and uncompensated. The authorities also try to evade paying compensation to the families of sewer deaths victims on flimsy grounds. One of the major hurdles in giving compensation to the family members of the victims is the multiplicity of agencies operating in the area where such accidents take place. While disowning the victims, there is a tendency among the authorities to pass on the responsibility to other heads. Another problem cited by the authorities in paying the compensation is the paucity of funds or non-earmarking of funds for this special purpose. As a result, the surviving family members have to run from pillar to post to get their dues.

In the absence of any clear-cut guidelines in this regard, there is a tendency among the authorities to pass on the buck. Unless and until a well-defined mechanism for compensation is put in place, the family members of victims will continue to face harassment when receiving their remuneration. The state government should notify the nodal officer that on the receipt of any information regarding sewer death, he/she should disburse the compensation to the victim's next of kin. This will protect the family members from undue harassment and delay.

Cleaning Mechanism

As far as possible, the cleaning of sewers and manholes should be mechanised, reducing human effort to the minimum. This will surely help in preventing accidents, claimed NCSK. Manhar Vajlibhai Zala, the chairperson of the Commission said that since last year, there have been several deaths related to sewer incidents from Delhi-NCR. "There is no mechanism and these deaths define the state of sorrow," said Manhar. He further claimed that despite organising meetings with the government regarding manual scavenging deaths, innocent lives are still being lost.

The chairperson further claimed that human beings should not be sent inside manholes as they are not robots and will be affected by the poisonous gases. "Before any person goes inside the sewer, he should be provided with proper safety gears, there should be a doctor, ambulance, police and complete paperwork regarding the liable authority, responsible for sending the men inside the sewer," said the chairperson.

According to the commission, a Supreme Court Bench had categorically said that if the practice of manual scavenging has to be brought to a close alongside preventing future generations from joining this inhuman practice, rehabilitation of manual scavengers must be carried out.

Prominent Incidents

Apart from the Ghitorni incident, most sewer cases were reported from prominent places where machines could have been used for cleaning instead of the men who lost their lives. In Moti Nagar, five men died after they went inside the sewer which was located in the P Tower of Capital Green DLF. The city police had served notices to the private companies asking them to submit documents regarding the contract details of the victims and also the management of the sewer plant. One of the companies named JLL, in their press statement, claimed that they have offered cooperation to the authorities and government agencies as they investigate this tragic case and have also initiated an internal investigation.

Another incident was reported from the sewage treatment plant of a prominent hotel in New Delhi. Police claimed that an FIR under section 308 IPC has been registered against persons and officials of the company under which the deceased was working, also holding the hotel responsible for the said incident. A statement released by the hotel claimed that they immediately responded to the incident by activating approved safety protocols to alert the authorities and provide full medical assistance to those affected.

In August 2017, toxic sewer gases killed two brothers cleaning a sewage tank without safety gear at a mall in east Delhi. The tragedy happened six days after three sanitation workers died inside a Delhi Jal Board-managed sewer line in Lajpat Nagar. Before that, four labourers were trapped to death in a sewage tank in south Delhi's Ghitorni in July.

Government Action

The Delhi Government has taken its action in sewer cases. It has imposed a complete ban on manual scavenging in the city. The Delhi government has suspended a junior engineer (JE) of Delhi Jal Board for his alleged involvement with the Lajpat Nagar incident, where three sewerage workers died. The Department alleged that if the JE had known about the work then he should have asked the workers to take precautions. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal directed the Delhi Jal Board's CEO to submit an interim report within 48 hours regarding the death of three sewage workers. The government had also planned to ensure a dignified life for manual scavengers in the city, starting the work to equip them with machines for cleaning sewage. The Social Welfare Department, in association with various NGOs and other organisations, will ensure funds for labourers with which they can purchase machines to clean the sewers.

Abhay Singh

Abhay Singh

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