Are these deaths or murders?

- November 8, 2018
| By : Shubham Bhatia |

Our drains, sewers and septic tanks need to be cleaned time and again. Some of these tanks have taken 612 lives since 1993, as per official data. In the one particular incident we investigated, four people died on July 15 last year while cleaning a septic tank. The incident proved that manual scavenging very much […]

Our drains, sewers and septic tanks need to be cleaned time and again. Some of these tanks have taken 612 lives since 1993, as per official data. In the one particular incident we investigated, four people died on July 15 last year while cleaning a septic tank. The incident proved that manual scavenging very much exists, despite reforms, and no amends have been made. These deaths speak of two things: discrimination and ostracism. Patriot met the family of a man who died on July 15, 2017, still fighting a court case for compensation and an allegation that the person who died was drunk. Alongside is the story of two women of Ghaziabad, who gave up scavenging for a better life, and are now running their own businesses.

It’s two in the afternoon but the sun is barely visible in the blanket of pollution that covers Delhi. Lane after lane reaches “that tank”, as the whole area knows about it. Each bystander on the way gives directions promptly, as if it leads to a temple.

After a four-storey under-construction building is a parking lot, and a few steps away in the corner is that infamous tank. It is now covered with an iron fence and is barely visible. This is the tank which took four lives and gave back one survivor last year.

The incident dates back to July 15 last year, when four people were lured into cleaning a septic tank on the pretext of cleaning a rainwater harvesting tank.

Death trap: The septic tank in Ghitorni where Swarn Singh and three other people died PHOTOS:  Shubham Bhatia

Patriot reached out to one of the families to know what exactly happened. What went wrong that day? Whose fault was it?

“They came to meet my husband (Swarn Singh) to offer him some work. They said they have to get a rainwater harvesting tank cleaned up. So he agreed to go,” says Gurmeet Kaur, 44, wife of Swarn Singh, 48, one of the four persons who died in the tank on July 15 last year.

Nothing in the history of Swarn Singh’s family suggested he would one day enter a tank full of sewage. They hail from Bhagatpura, Rajasthan and have been living in the Chhattarpur area for the last 40 years. Singh’s father has been in the business of cleaning water tanks, boring tubewells and fixing motors.

Sitting in one of the rooms of their home, her gaze keeps returning to late Swarn Singh’s picture hanging on the wall. Throughout the conversation, her voice breaks and is barely audible as she recalls the incident out of sheer sadness. She says poignantly, “Bol ke gaye the chaar-paanch din ka kaam hain aur shaam ko saade saat baje tak aa jaenge” (He told me that it’s four-five days of work and he will return back home by 7:30).

On the fateful day, Singh sent Jaspal to the site in Ghitorni, as the young man had by then learnt the trade. He had been helping his father since he left school after completing Class 10. Along with two-three other persons, he left home around 8 in the morning. After reaching the site, Jaspal was in a confused state as he examined the tank. He thought it would be another water tank, the type he and his father had cleaned before. Unfortunately, it was not.

Surviving together: Gurmeet Kaur with her sons Jaspal Singh and Jagjeet Singh PHOTOS: Shubham Bhatia

“First Anil went in. After stepping in and taking out his first bucket of water, he lost consciousness,” says Jaspal, 20.

Unsure about why Anil was not responding to what the other three persons standing on top were saying, they got worried. Shortly, Balwinder went in, and the moment he stepped in, he too fell unconscious. The other two persons started worrying, and the manager and the gardener who were at the site started nagging Jaspal and Dileep to go inside and find out. Jaspal refused, saying he was still a rookie at this.

Then the manager made a call to Swarn Singh to come and help the others stranded inside the tank.

“Not for a moment did they take it upon themselves. They kept asking me to go in,” says Jaspal. Swarn Singh reached the spot after 15 minutes, and decided to go inside the tank using the rope others used.

After he reached the bottom of the tank, Jaspal again didn’t hear anything. He was worried now for his father. He decided to step in, and the moment he did, he too like others got asphyxiated. Fortunately, he was still breathing while others were found to be dead inside the tank.

“There was a smell of some weird gas. When I saw my father, his stomach was visibly bloated, bigger than it was before,” says Jaspal, in a voice which still reflects the horror of the situation.

Framed memories: Swarn Singh with his wife Gurmeet Kaur and son Jaspal Singh PHOTO: Shubham Bhatia

Though he was finding it difficult to breathe, Jaspal tried to take a hold of his father and hugged him, thinking it was his last moment and everyone would die. After a while, he sensed a gushing stream of water on his body and face and regained consciousness.

Jaspal’s mother says there must have been almost 200 people on the site when the accident happened. One of them decided to call the police. The police arrived and took the men to Fortis hospital in the area. On the way, Jaspal came to his sense and somehow managed to call his mother.

“Maine Mummy ko bola ki Papa bol nahi rahe hain aur unko hospital aane ko bola,” tells Jaspal. (I told my mother that dad is not speaking and told her to reach hospital).

Kaur, along with her youngest son, 18-year-old Jagjeet, was rushing to the site since someone told her about the incident. After his call, she changed the route and went straight to the hospital. “Wahan woh stretcher pe pade thhe par bilkul hi khatm thhe,” explains Kaur about the time she reached the hospital. (He was lying on the stretcher but he was gone).

Soon many ministers along with other police officials landed up at the hospital, as the incident started gaining publicity. The doctors told the family that Swarn Singh had already died before reaching the hospital. Kaur still remembers the time she heard this news and says “Unka toh ye kaam bhi nahi tha. Bola thha shaam tak waapis aa jaenge.” (It was not even his profession. He said he’d back by the evening).

Today, the family is filing a court case against the property owner JK Mehta in the Patiala House court in Delhi. As the court proceedings started, the family was hit with another shocker: an accusation about Swarn Singh and the other persons.

“Now they say that all of us were drunk,” says Jaspal. “If we were drunk then why did they put us to work,” he questions.

Kaur tells that right on the day of the incident, BJP politician Manoj Tiwari came to their residence in Chhattarpur and promised them three things: compensation, a new flat and a job. The family is still waiting for that to happen.

After the incident, Jaspal started refusing any work related to tanks. “There’s this fear in my head and flashbacks of that tank which stops me from accepting the work,” says Jaspal.

He is back to the original business of motor repairing and earns around Rs 9,000 a month, while two other elder brothers contribute to the household expenses from their work as drivers.

“Pehle bhi ghar chal hi jaata tha aur ab bhi chal hi jaata hai par humein chote bete ke liye kaam chahiye,” says Kaur. (The home was somehow running earlier also and today too. But we need employment for my youngest son).

The family reached out to Arvind Kejrival, CM of Delhi to ask for employment for the youngest son. “He promised us to give a job in civil defence for the youngest son but for that we need to go to the SDM office with papers,” says Kaur.

The family is still in a dilemma about applying for the job because the promised pay is only Rs 13,000 per month. “After running around if we only get a Rs 13,000 job then what’s the point of going to the government,” says Jaspal, though they’re still thinking of going and checking out whether there’s really a job on offer.

Amid all this, Kaur still has fears about the kind of work Jaspal gets every day and concludes, “Woh darr abhi bhi jaata nahi hain.” (That fear still doesn’t leave me).

Damning numbers

  • No. of deaths according to SKA- 1790
  • No. of deaths as per
  • NSCK – 612
  • Toal number of sewer cleaners – 770000
  • Deaths in Delhi since 2017- 26
  • Funds released for rehabilitation since 2014: 0
  • 365 scavengers got cash assistance of Rs 40,000 in 2018
    ( The above data is as per the data in media reports )

Deep-rooted social problems such as non-inclusion in societal structures have created a plethora of problems for the Valmikis, a Dalit community. Whether it is denial of employment or basic respect in society, deprivation has been its lot since ages. In general, the irrational, absurd prejudice against the community continues.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. In this dreary scenario Patriot found a story of two women from the community who are crossing social barriers each day to live a clean and happy life. That too amid the heaps of dirt and narrow lanes in an area called Farukh Nagar in Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pradesh.

NEW BEGINNING: Shanti Devi (middle) with her family PHOTOS: SHUBHAM BHATIA

As you try to reach the locality, you’re welcomed with lush farmlands on one side and abandoned cracker factories on the other. Mostly dominated by the Valmiki community, the area is witnessing the blossoming of aspirations of two women who every day are breaking barriers and side-stepping stereotypical bias against the Valmiki community.

Shanti Devi, 44, exudes confidence as she relates her story. The reason is her newfound business, a grocery shop. Being a Dalit woman, Devi has in the past faced social stigma, to the extent that she was asked to leave the neighbourhood.

Just last May, she was cleaning drains, a work imposed upon her by society. Just when she thought of relocating, a helping hand arrived in the form of a loan of Rs 25,000 provided by an activist organisation on a mission to eradicate manual scavenging in India.

With these funds, Devi opened up a grocery shop in the area, and gave up the work of cleaning drains, streets and toilets, which used to yield barely Rs 20-50 a day.

“Main khhush hoon. Ye dukaan ka kaam na mere liye ganda hai na samaj ke liye,” says Devi quite amicably. (I’m happy. The work of running a shop is neither dirty for me nor for the society).

She says had she not opened up the shop, she would have left the neighbourhood where she has spent almost 40 years of married life.

Her two daughters Sangeeta and Renu are excited about their mother being interviewed. She herself smiles throughout the conversation, even when asked uncomfortable questions about her previous work.

There’s another reason for her happiness — a new refrigerator which she bought in May, after the milk being sold in the shop started attracting more customers. “I bought it for Rs 16,500, and it’s really good,” says Devi.

For her shop, she rented out a small room in the main lane of the neighbourhood, where there’s vehicular movement throughout the day. “It’s good for the business and there’s little chance of discrimination from random customers,” she tells. Although today she’s happy, her current concern is that all the Rs 600 she earns from the shop goes into buying more provisions to fill it up.

“I don’t want to take any small loan to replenish the stock. I want it to grow on its own. Maybe it will soon,” says Devi. Her husband, a gardener, has little to do with the shop and Devi is not bothered by that. “My children are smart enough to do all the calculations and help me out,” she adds.

The couple has five children — three daughters and two sons. While one daughter completed Class 12 from the nearby government school, the eldest son is still doing what society expects from him — garbage cleaning. However, Devi is optimistic in every sense and only hopes for one thing – that the shop should flourish.

Shanti Devi is not the only woman in the area whose aspirations are taking wing. Santosh, 44, is another of the 19 women in the area, who have defied society. Like Devi, Santosh is running a shop, and is happy to see the business growing. “I feel clean. I feel happy about my work and that’s all that keeps me going,” says Santosh.

While Devi was more outspoken about her previous work and revealing her full name and background, Santosh felt nervous when she was asked the same questions. This painted a disturbing picture of discrimination and ostracism by the society.

Throughout the conversation she hesitated continuously while taking about herself and her previous work, answering in monosyllables, probably thinking there would be more probing questions.

However, she was happy to share that she’s earning about Rs 1,200 per day from the grocery shop. Though she too has to put all the earnings into buying supplies.

“I try to take out maximum Rs 100 from my daily earnings but that makes little difference to my life. What is good is that this is better, cleaner work,” says Santosh.

As she embarks on a new journey, her husband, a private sector employee, and two sons (both sweepers) run the household. Her husband earns about Rs 7,000 and two sons earn about Rs. 6,500 each.

After cleaning garbage and drains for 20 years, for Santosh her little shop means social inclusion and acceptance. “Chhattis qaum ke log aake samaan leke jakte hai. Achha lagta hain,” concludes Santosh, shyly. (People from 36 communities come and buy things from me. It’s a good feeling).