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Men at work, dead

They were construction workers building a sewer line. Yet again, basic safety measures were not in place when noxious fumes made them fall unconscious

Five men died while constructing a sewage line in Ghaziabad. Patriot breaks down the incident with a blow-by-blow account given by key eyewitness and relatives of the deceased.

It was four years ago when Ram Narayan Rai (45) met up with his wife’s brother — Vijay Kumar (40). This was in Samastipur district of Bihar when Rai was home for a holiday. Kumar is the reason why Rai traveled from Delhi to Ghaziabad, after four years, to see Kumar again. Or rather, to identify his body.

“He was a hard-working person. No consumption of alcohol or cigarettes. Focused on his work. Used to provide well for his family,” recalls Rai as he reaches the spot of the incident.

The incident which happened on August 22 in Krishna Kunj colony, Nandgram, Ghaziabad — took lives of four contractual workers — Damodar (40), Horil (35), Sandeep Kumar (21) and Shiv Kumar (32) — while they were working in an under-construction manhole. A fifth person, a sub-contractor, was killed.

The construction work was part of a new sewage line in the colony. All of these workers hailed from Samastipur.

The deceased persons were working as part of a project under the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation Scheme through a private company, EMS Infracon. A case has been filed under IPC Section 304 for failure to provide safety equipment as per the guidelines of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013.

Speaking to Patriot, Shailendra Kumar Singh, additional district magistrate who is overseeing a magisterial probe in the case said, “Statements of staff from the private firm are getting registered now. Four officials of Jal Nigam have been suspended. An FIR has also been filed. We have been given two weeks time to conduct the probe, but we’re hopeful to complete within a week’s time.”

None of the workers were provided any protective gear, which a key eyewitness Patriot spoke to also confirmed. In just minutes, all the five persons died due to inhalation of poisonous gas.

“The gas accumulated in the manhole after it rained,” the eyewitness said. Since the manhole was opened after an interval, the toxicity of the gas kept increasing.

“They’ve been working here since July. The work was closed for some 15-20 days. They were trying to connect the sewer line with the manhole. The cement work from outside was done and the time had come to cement the inside of the manhole,” said Rajveer Singh (62), a grocery store owner.

The distance between Singh’s grocery store and the manhole, the spot of the incident, is merely 10-12 feet. Being one of the key eyewitnesses of the case, Singh was observing the construction in front of his store since days. Not only that, he also used to provide drinking water as and when required by the workers.

“They also used to charge their mobile phones at my store,” said Singh. Breaking down the incident, Singh continues, “Around 1:30 pm, one worker went little inside the manhole, not too deep, to put the cement.”

He says, that when the worker started putting the cement, he got little nauseous, and after a minute, fell inside the 18-20 feet deep manhole. Right after, the sub-contractor — Vijay Kumar — ordered the second worker at the spot to get him out.

The second person went inside, inhaled poisonous gas, and fell. Then, the third person and fourth. Singh who was in his shop says, “It was all so silent that I didn’t hear anything until the thekedar (contractor) shouted, when he went inside to save the other workers.”

“I heard him shouting and calling for a rope and screaming for help. I looked around, there was nobody else around. That was the time when I rushed,” says Singh. According to him, it was only Kumar among the five men who could scream for help in a muffled voice.

First thing Singh and other residents of the area did is they opened the lids of the two manholes situated at a distance of about 50 feet from Singh’s store. Right after this, Singh ordered his son to get a table fan from home, which they put near the manhole, which had taken the lives of these five persons.

A call for rope was shouted amongst those present at the shop. Singh also sayss that there was a shortage of people to help during those crucial minutes.

Soon after, three persons who were working at the other end came in, and got the bodies out of the manhole. As per Singh, within five minutes, all the men lost consciousness and fell inside the tank.

There was no ambulance, or a police vehicle, only a fire brigade which reached the spot 20 minutes later. Singh says that when a resident tried contacting the cops, he couldn’t.  And it was only when a local resident put the information on Twitter, and asked for help.

“There was a man in front and at back and the fainted person in the middle. Turn by turn, they were rushed to the hospital.” The bodies were rushed to Mariam Hospital in the locality. The bodies were declared brought dead.

The police has registered an FIR against the contractor, private firm (EMS Infracon) and four engineers of Jal Nigam.

Vijay’s brother-in-law Ram Narayan Rai regrets how he could not meet Vijay when he could. “We were always cordial and used to have brief chat over films.”

At Hindon Mortuary, Ram Prasad, who hailed from the same village as these men, said “I came all the way from Bulandshahr to see Vijay. We are not related but we used to walk around the village talking. These sewer lines have taken so many lives. It’s a fear in our minds. Safety is our utmost concern.”

“When the second person did not come out, the third person should not have gone inside. Two lives were already gone. At least three could’ve been saved. But your mind doesn’t work in these kinds of situations,” he said.

Prasad told us that he also cleans sewers and drains in Bulandshahr. He has been in this life-threatening profession for 45 years.

When he was asked if he is provided with gear, he replied “Yes, I have never gone in the tank without wearing proper safety gear. It’s stupid to go inside the tank without that. I’ve refused many times when there was no gear at hand.”

“Whenever I have to clean a tank. I keep the manhole open in the evening a day before going inside. So that the poisonous gas is out by the time we workers go in,” said Prasad. He says, the lapses by authorities keep happening, so it’s the workers who must safeguard their lives.

He adds, “While working even if we see some mud falling, we come out instantly. You have to keep your life intact in this profession.”

A farmer too, Prasad says, “Farm work is seasonal in our village. When there’s nothing going on in the fields, you need to look for work. So we take whatever work we get. We can’t afford to be choosy.”

Meanwhile, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh — Yogi Adityanath — has announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for families of the five deceased and has directed an enquiry.

The report has to be submitted within two weeks.

According to the data of Safai Karmchari Andolan, 37 deaths have so far been reported in Uttar Pradesh alone this year. Although tall claims have been made by the authorities across states to introduce automatic sewage cleaning machines, yet workers are still being sent inside the tanks, resulting in more and more deaths.