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Death with indignity

It’s not just civic agencies which send untrained workers into septic tanks to clean them up. Gated communities are equally merciless

Five young men — Vishal, Sarfaraz, Pankaj, Raja and Umesh — died inside the sewage tank in an affluent colony in Delhi. They were untrained workers of 18 to 30 years of age and did not have any protective gear that could have saved them when they were assigned the job of cleaning the sewage tank of building ‘P’ in the DLF Capital Greens in West Delhi. The mishap occurred at around 3:30 pm on 8 September. All of them were staying near the apartment complex — so near and yet so far from a life of dignity.

DLF Capital Green is a West Delhi township of luxury apartments, with 23 highrise towers overlooking 100 acres of green area under DDA’s protection. These tall buildings are in contrast to the surroundings, which lie in a state of neglect. The developers claim the No. 1 rank among its competitors because of “several things which were accomplished in many sleepy and forgotten neighbourhood of Delhi NCR.”

The facilities are certainly impressive: ‘lavish club house, indoor games & cards room, reading lounge, swimming pool, rain water harvesting, landscapes & parks, round the clock multi-tiered security, secure and basement car parking.’


However, the best place can lack a heart and soul. Behind this impressive façade, a skyline of tall buildings that puts its surroundings to shame, hides a sordid reality. And that reality surfaced when these five untrained men were lowered into the 30-feet deep sewage tank in the basement of the building to clean it. Only their dead bodies emerged. Preliminary investigations suggest they died of inhaling toxic fumes — a known byproduct of sewage and a well-known hazard.

When Patriot reached there, the whole complex was guarded like army barracks. It required some deft maneuvering to reach building ‘P’ , which is about half a kilometre walk from the main gate. Outside the building were three sanitation workers, their mouths covered with surgical masks. A pipe was jutting out of the underground drainage. The work of cleaning the sewage tank was accomplished as per the three men present. A display of ruthless efficiency even in the face of tragedy. No signs of any police tape marking the scene of crime.

The guard at the entrance of the ‘P’ tower, a skinny man in his fifties, was bewildered when he came to know that a mediaperson had come this far defying security. He summoned his supervisor.

The supervisor, who identified himself as Kuldeep ‘with no surname’ was wearing a red t-shirt over blue trousers and sported a moustache. His cryptic ‘not allowed’ did not hide his concern that a reporter had reached so far, just a few yards away from the disaster venue. There was resistance to letting the reporter leave, but some of the residents present intervened to allow a safe passage out of the complex. “What is there to hide?” asked one resident.

Of course, the residents were told it’s a breach of security —and residents should feel completely secure. It’s a different matter that people die here for reasons that will even make a medieval society hang its head in shame: in a form of manual scavenging. The security arrangement is the first line of defence to ensure safe burial to the whole controversy.

Who says only bureacrats pass the buck? Housekeeping of the ‘best place to live in Delhi at very reasonable price points’ has been outsourced to JLL. DLF spokesperson was seen defending JLL —‘one of the largest facility management companies’ — rather than expressing dismay at what had happened. “JLL is known for its high quality safety standards and service. We are still awaiting a detailed report from JLL on the unfortunate incident.

We are sure that JLL will take all measures to take care of the families that have been affected,” goes the spiel.

One thing is clear: It’s not one of those freak accidents. Preliminary investigations by Delhi Police show that it may be a case of sheer negligence, as police has already established that the men were not wearing safety equipment. The cleaning staff, e-rickshaw drivers (who provide a free service to commute inside the campus) and some of the guards Patriot talked to outside the compound at a tea shop near the Satguru Ram Singh Marg Metro station, feel the same.
They talked about their salaries, which are Rs 12,000-15,000, harsh working conditions, lack of training, no protective gear, and constant pressure to perform more tasks. They confirm that they are ‘forced to do these menial works’, which came as a rude shock as they weren’t briefed about it at the time of recruitment.
These workers need the job badly and that’s why they even end up doing manual scavenging. They assured police of full cooperation in the investigations.
The residents are made to think this was an ‘unfortunate’ accident. Some tragedies just occur, no one is really guilty, circumstances are sometimes beyond human control. The workers, of course, don’t subscribe to this view.

“There’s lot of filth at the bosom of these tall white buildings,” says a 27-year-old man who has performed the task of cleaning septic tanks regularly, “It could be me tomorrow,” he says. His wife has told him to quit if they ask him to do it again as “It’s better to starve to death than die like this.”

“Will there be a coverup?” asks a 45-year-old electrician who is in touch with some of the families of the deceased. He connected the reporter on his phone to Sarfaraz’s family. “Leave us alone,” responded the hoarse voice on the phone without confirming his identity, “Our life and death is a pile of shit.”

Since five people have died, somebody has to be held responsible. Police probe is under way. DLF is a big fish and has anyway passed the buck to JLL.

JLL on their part maintained stoic silence for three days, till one of their engineers was arrested on charges of negligence. When the company finally issued a statement, it was just a string of inanities. ‘We are cooperating with all the relevant authorities and government agencies as they investigate this tragic case and have also launched our own comprehensive incident review.”

Delhi Government has ordered a probe and has announced Rs 10 lakh compensation to the next of kin. Inside DLF Capital Greens, life is back to normal, if it was ever disturbed. The only indication that a tragedy of this proportion occurred a few days ago is a constable sitting on a chair in the shade just inside the main gate, looking through his stack of papers.