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The menace survives, workers do not

Sanitation worker Ravi died after inhaling toxic fumes while another worker landed in the hospital. Neither had any protective gear

BARELY METRES away from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a campaign rally at Delhi’s CBD Ground on Monday, a sanitation worker had died while cleaning a sewer two days earlier.

Ravi, 24, was contracted at about 8 am on February 1st to clean an overflowing sewer in the parking lot of the CBD Ground in Karkardooma. He was hired along with four other men — Sanjay, Rajeev, Deepak and Monu — by Anil Garg and one Shanky, who in turn had been contracted to clean the ground by the Delhi Development Authority.

According to Rajeev, Garg told Ravi if he didn’t comply, his pending wages wouldn’t be paid. Ravi would receive his pending wages plus Rs 350 if he cleaned the sewer, the contractor added.

Ravi was instructed to climb down into the sewer, which is 15 feet deep. He had no safety gear and was armed only with a rope and a wooden stick. It was just shy of noon.

Brijmohan Ram, an attendant at the parking lot, witnessed the incident. “Ravi went inside the sewer,” Ram told Newslaundry. “After he went in, he stopped responding when people called out to him. After a few minutes, we sensed something was wrong. The contractor then asked Sanjay to go inside the sewer.”

Sanjay climbed down and stopped responding as well. Rajeev, one of the workers, called the police and the fire brigade to pull them out.

Amit Sharma, deputy commissioner of police, said the matter was reported to them at around 1 pm. The police used ropes to pull both Ravi and Sanjay out and took them to nearby hospitals.

Sanjay was unconscious. Ravi was declared dead.

A case has been registered at the Anand Vihar police station against the contractor, who is now absconding, and an investigation has been initiated, the police said.

Ravi and Sanjay both belong to Scheduled Caste communities. They live in the dingy lanes of New Sanjay Amar colony in Karkardooma.

Ravi’s mother died of cancer and a few years later, when he was 12, his father died as well. Ravi was raised by his older brother, Sonu, and his aunt.

Ravi and his brother never went to school. “We had to fill our bellies. Going to school was neither our priority nor could we afford it,” Sonu told Newslaundry. Ravi would contribute to household expenses, giving Rs 5,000-6,000 of his income to Sonu every month.

A few months ago, Ravi had a fight with Sonu. He left his brother’s apartment in Noida and moved in with his aunt in New Sanjay Amar Colony. His aunt’s is a tiny apartment with rickety doors. She said Ravi often wasn’t around: “Wo to apne mann ka malik tha.” He does whatever he wants.

On Saturday afternoon, it was Sonu who received the call informing him that Ravi had suffered an accident while cleaning a sewer. He had been taken to Hedgewar hospital, where he was declared dead.

As this correspondent was speaking to Ravi’s family at New Sanjay Amar Colony, his body was brought to the house at around 4 pm. Mourners had gathered and there was no space in the house to accommodate all of them. A carpet was laid out on the lane outside and Ravi’s body was placed on it. Incense sticks were lit next to the body.

Sanjay’s son, Gaurav, was there. Sanjay is currently at Lok Nayak hospital. Sanjay, 35, works as a rickshaw puller. His wife died eight years ago and he has two sons, Gaurav and Saurav. He also looks after his two brothers and their families; his brother’s hand was amputated after an accident a few years ago.

Sanjay is the sole breadwinner of the family. According to his neighbours, he would take whatever work he could find to supplement his income pulling a rickshaw that wasn’t enough to run such a large family. This is why he agreed to clean the sewer on Saturday, they said.

Saurav, who works in a bookstore, said he had asked his father not to work that morning, but Sanjay didn’t listen.

Like Ravi, Sanjay and his sons never went to school. Their bigger challenge is earning enough to fulfil their daily needs. The room Sanjay lives in is so small that it can only accommodate a bed, with no space to move around it.

Just outside the colony in mourning, workers from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Aam Aadmi Party were campaigning for the impending election. Loudspeakers blared AAP’s campaign song, “Lage raho Kejriwal”, while PM Modi addressed his first rally of the campaign at around 2 pm.

AAP responded to Ravi’s death by bringing up its election manifesto. Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said the manifesto promises financial assistance of Rs 1 crore to families of sanitation workers who die while performing their work. “Safai karamcharis play the most important role in keeping the city clean,” he said.

On February 3, during an interview, ScoopWhoop asked Manoj Tiwari, president of the Delhi BJP, to make an appeal for a documentary they made on manual scavenging. After telling viewers to watch the documentary, Tiwari made this outlandish claim: “Though they’re saying the ill practice still exists in society, I’m saying the BJP has almost eradicated the ill practice from society.”

As of July 2019, at least 88 sanitation workers had died in three years until then while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. In 2018, Modi had described manual scavenging as a “spiritual experience” for the Valmiki community.

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