Children of a lesser God

Death of sanitation worker
Workers look inside a sewage treatment facility Sunday in a posh neighborhood in New Delhi. Five of their colleagues died of toxic gases that while cleaning facility’s tanks. (Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)

Anil, Vishal, Sarfaraz, Pankaj, Raja, Kiran Pal and Umesh……………..Who are these people? They were all young men with a dream and a family to look after but they are all dead. They were sanitation workers and went inside sewer to clean but never came back.

Last week in Delhi, a photograph of an 11-year-old child crying next to the body of his father went viral on the social media. The pictures, tweeted by a New Delhi-based journalist early this week, showed the child sobbing next to his father Anil at a local crematorium, who died while cleaning a sewer last week in New Delhi prompted social media users to raise nearly 55 lakh rupees to support the family.

To step into a manhole to clean the sewer lines in urban India is as dangerous as fighting insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir. In last eight years at least, the death toll among sewer workers has started to converge with that of security forces killed in the beleaguered state. Statistically speaking, it is safer to be a soldier in the army serving in Kashmir than a sewer worker in India.

The Supreme Court has passed strictures against both central and state governments for sending people into manholes without even basic protective gear, and ordered Rs10 lakh to be paid to the survivors of each of those who died in the line of duty. Unfortunately, we don’t recall even a single instance where this compensation was awarded to the family members of dead sewer worker.

Nobody gives a second thought to a man who dies while cleaning the gutter. The best he can hope is just a casual description in the city pages of newspapers unless his death has a horrendous novelty, like in a recent case in Delhi when Anil, a 37-year-old man died of asphyxiation while cleaning a Delhi Jal Board (DJB) sewer in west Delhi’s Dabri last week on Friday.

Police said that Anil, a labourer was lowered in a 20 foot deep sewer by a weak rope tied to his waist which snapped midway. It was a double tragedy for the family as Anil had lost his four-month-old son only six days back. A week back three labourers were asphyxiated while a fourth is battling for life after reportedly inhaling poisonous gases inside a manhole they were cleaning in Lajpat Nagar.

This incident occurred less than a month after four men died while cleaning a septic tank in Ghitorni, Delhi. Joginder (32), Annu (28) and a 25-year-old unidentified man, were declared brought dead at AIIMS. Like in other similar cases reported earlier, the men weren’t wearing protective gear when they entered the sewer line.

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Sewage and septic tank workers, NCR, Delhi

According to reports, in all the death cases of the sewer cleaners recorded so far, none of the workers were equipped with protective gears like masks or any other safety equipment. Inspite of manual scavenging being banned by law, it continues nevertheless. Last month, the Delhi Govt had decided to fully mechanize the cleaning of sewers and provision of life imprisonment was suggested for those who failed to adhere to these new rules.

It is shocking that these sewer workers are forced to operate without bunny suites, masks, and oxygen cylinders. In fact, it was shocking to learn that the workers drink liquor before venturing into these death chambers to numb their senses. It is estimated that almost 90% of the workers are hooked to liquor. Many die young and there are few among those employed with municipalities who live till the retirement age.

Mumbai’s municipal corporation does not have data specifically for sewer workers, but last year, they acknowledged the death of 1386 conservancy workers since 2009. Another report released by the National Commission for Safai Karamacharis, a government agency, said on an average, one manual scavenger has died every five days in India since January 1, 2017.The report also said that if the amount of Hydrogen Sulphide in sewer is high, the death will be instant.

Bezwada Wilson, an activist who launched “Safai Karmachari Andolan” – a campaign against manual scavenging in 1995, told the press that the government numbers are a fraction of the data about sewer deaths as over 300 people were killed in the sewers in 2017 itself. He further added that there is no effort from the government to end this inhuman practice, which primarily employs the lowest rungs of our society, belonging to Dalit caste.

It’s getting difficult for the community of sewer workers to survive because they are already marginalised. If a person calls a worker to clean his sewer, he can neither refuse to work nor can he ask for the safety equipments to enter in the manhole. Though, there is a law in place but nobody gets punished. Law can take place only if there is a political will but unfortunately that is missing. If we look at the budget allocation, it clearly shows that sanitation workers are not a priority for this government.

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