Delhi’s man-eating sewers claim two more lives, toll reaches 44 in five years

While Genrobotics emerges as a winner of the Swachata Startup Challenge because of their product Bandicoot – the innovation to eliminate manual scavenging – human beings are still dying in the process of cleaning Delhi’s manholes

Delhi’s man-eating sewers claim two more lives, toll reaches 44 in five years

CRIMINAL NEGLECT: When drains are blocked, a man is sent down bare-bodied

Since 2013, India has officially been free of manual scavenging. The Supreme Court of India, in a legendary decision, banned the degrading work of ‘manual scavenging’ and directed states to follow the guidelines as well to bring it to a complete end.

The Delhi Government brought in 200 machines to take care of the sewage problem in the territory. The Kejriwal-led government has also boasted about the complete elimination of manual scavenging in recent years.

Officials of the PWD (Public Works Department) and MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) told Patriot that they have stopped employing manual scavengers since the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, was passed.

Also read: Too young to die: Targeted killings of minors seems to be a disturbing trend in Delhi
However, as Patriot has repeatedly reported, private contractors continue to hire workers to enter manholes without any training or equipment. In September, two deaths occurred in a sewer, a reminder that the inhuman practice continues.

Where life loses its value

The two citizens of Delhi who lost their lives were the sole breadwinners of their respective families. Their bodies were pulled out of the sewer where they remained stuck and died as a result of inhaling the toxic gases.

Rohit Chandiliya, a sweeper in the DDA residential area at Bakkarwala and Ashok Kumar, a security guard for the past 10 years, were identified as the deceased.

A resident of the area, under the condition of anonymity, narrated the incident. He told Patriot that Rohit was asked to clean the sewer as something was stuck inside and was creating a lot of problems for the residents.

“When Rohit went inside the sewer everything was fine, he even came out and cleaned himself as well,” he narrated. “He again went inside the manhole but then after a while he stopped responding. It was a situation of panic and no one knew what to do next. Then Ashok, the security guard, jumped into the manhole as well. After a while, he too stopped responding. Only then the authorities were informed and the fire brigade and police were called to the spot.”

When Patriot approached a police officer who was investigating the case, it was revealed that the family members of the deceased had complained that the local pradhan had forced Rohit to go inside the manhole. “Members of his (Rohit’s) family have stated that he worked on a daily wage of Rs 200 as a sweeper and didn’t have any past experiences of going into a manhole. Ashok was working as a security guard”, stated the police official.

“We have been working on the case and since this happened inside the DDA, the DDA authorities are investigating the matter as well”, added the officer.

Further questions were dodged by the officer stating that this involves a long procedure and he can’t provide any further insights of the case.

Baseless statements

The Government of India in its statements has stated that no deaths have happened due to manual scavenging since the year 1993.

Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment Ram Das Athawale has stated on record that no deaths have been reported due to manual scavenging. “No deaths have been reported and no one is engaged in manual scavenging”, he stated in the Lok Sabha.

However, he admitted that in the past five years, around 330 people have died as a result of accidents while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. Delhi is the third highest on the list with 42 deaths followed by 36 in Haryana.

An insight

Amit Kannaujia and Shane Alam are two workers who are often involved in cleaning the tanks, sewer and open drains. Amit, who was very recently injured while cleaning a manhole during the last rains, told Patriot that usually both of them work as labourers but the work scarcity leads to the situation when there’s no option other than jumping in a sewer for their survival.

“During the monsoon and the rainy season, water blockage is very common in Delhi. This on one hand generates a lot of problems and on the other hand generates employment for a lot of us”, stated Alam.

“Whatever the work is, if it is an open nullah or a closed septic tank or sewer, whether in a big society or a small household, the work is done privately”, Alam added when he was asked about the nature of employment.

“It doesn’t have good money but the payment is quick, at least most of the time” told Amit.

They told Patriot that they were completely unaware of any rule or regulation regarding manual scavenging and the cleaning of sewer and manholes. They also stated that there are thousands of people working as manual scavengers, just in the city of Delhi.

Data and reality

Sanjeev Kumar, the secretary of Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch (DASAM), in a conversation with Patriot, stated that official authorities have always denied the casualties and deaths that happened and continue to happen in the field of manual scavenging.

“It is true that Manual Scavenging is banned in India but there are multiple layers in the law, and loopholes as well. So, the law states that the employment of manual scavengers is prohibited and thus all the workers involved in these jobs are either contractual or temporary. This removes the responsibility from the shoulders of the authorities whether its DDA, MCD, PWD or the Delhi Jal Board”, stated Sanjeev.

“The workers are never informed about the law or the regulations, and we can’t even expect them to know such technicalities, keeping their economic and social conditions in mind. Most of them are from the SC, ST and the other marginalised backgrounds and they continue to get more and more exploited. Their lives never mattered in the past and till date, they belong to the least important people in the eyes of the authorities”, he added.

“Just for an instance, the most recent case of the sewer deaths in Mundka, the police filed a case under section 304A which means that the death happened because of negligence. It is open. The people died during the act of manual scavenging, the death happened inside the sewer. These people who died while cleaning the sewer will never make it to the records, and that’s how the data is always kept clean”, he concluded.

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Ali Fraz Rezvi covers heritage, history, literature and current social issues for the Patriot.