“They were not given any oxygen, nothing. They were working with the support of just a rope,” says Arvind Kumar, family member of Dinesh Pashwan and Vikas Kumar, two manual scavengers who died while cleaning a sewer in Choukaghat, Varanasi, as part of the cleaning drive prep to receive Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this month. Workers present at the scene blamed the contractor and supervisor for not providing them with any safety equipment. The Natural Disaster Relief Force, which was called to the scene to retrieve the dead bodies, determined that the men died because of inhalation of toxic gases.

Manual scavenging is an age-old practice in India, deeply entrenched in the caste system. It refers to the practice of cleaning untreated human excreta from dry latrines, railways, sewers and septic tanks by hand.  This caste-based profession has been the responsibility of Dalits like Valmikis and tribals. Despite it being outlawed, the practice persists in both urban and rural areas all over the country. It was brought back in the spotlight by mainstream national media, when five workers died while cleaning a septic tank in Delhi earlier this year. According to Human Rights Watch, it is a prominent practice in states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.

This story, too, is just another statistic in the scores of deaths of manual scavengers in India.

“They were labourers working under the Ganga Pollution Control Unit,” says Mr. Madanmohan from the MDM. Pashwan and Kumar were sent into this particular sewer to “break a plug”, essentially clean it — a task that on an average takes two hours to complete, says Pankaj Srivastav, from the Ganga Pollution Control Unit. Satendra Prasad, also a member of the family of the victims, was on his way to work when he heard that two people had fallen into a sewer. He rushed to the scene and dialled 100, the police helpline. According to him, Pashwan and Kumar were in the sewers for around two hours, before their bodies were retrieved by NDRF.

The Socio, Economic and Caste Census, 2011 found that 17390 rural households in UP were registered as houses of manual scavengers. A more recent survey, conducted by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, has identified over 53,236 manual scavengers in India. Although the survey is still ongoing and has data from only 18 states, Uttar Pradesh has had the dubious distinction of topping this list with 28,796 identified manual scavengers. According to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK), there have been 123 sewer deaths in 2017, and a total of 612 since 1993. Manhar Valjibhai Zala, chairman of NCSK, confessed that this data is likely to be incomplete due to the data collection methodology — NCSK relies on reports from state governments and analysis of English and Hindi media. Out of 35 states and UTs, only 13 have sent in their data. State authorities also tend to undercount the number of workers present. Any deaths investigated or reported by regional language papers are also unaccounted for.

However, Safai Karamchari Andolan, a Delhi-based NGO which works to end manual scavenging, projects far higher numbers. According to their data, 1,760 people have died cleaning sewers and septic tanks since 1993, and at least 221 people have died since 2017. In UP alone, 37 deaths have been reported.

In the Varanasi episode, there was palpable confusion when Kumar and Prasad were interviewed; neither were present when the two men descended, nor they could say, for sure, what the purpose of their visit in the sewers was. But, both seem certain that it was the fault of the supervisor and the contractor. “The contractor just gave them a rope and left. It was only when the situation caused a commotion, did he come back running,” alleges Arvind Kumar. 

Srivastav seemed relaxed as he denied the allegations: “This incident did not happen during work. Who knows if they went back inside or if they slipped, it did not happen during work.” He says that the workers were inexperienced, insinuating that their death was their own fault.

Satendra Prasad acknowledges that Vikas had only started working the day of the incident, but Dinesh, their uncle, had been working as a sewage worker for three years. They belonged to the same village in Bihar, and had migrated to Varanasi.

“We provide masks, safety belts and oxygen,” says Srivastav, but insists that this location is a dry point, and work here did not require any equipment. When asked how the workers died, he says that they must have re-entered when “the flow started”.

This passing-the-buck affair is not a surprise; due process has largely not worked in the favour of manual scavengers. A study by Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a coalition of civil society organisations, found that FIRs are rarely filed in cases of deaths due to manual scavenging, arrests are almost never made, and convictions don’t stick. The mandatory post-death compensation of Rs 10 lakh has rarely been awarded. The RGA argues that this is the reality for two main reasons — denial of existence of a practice that had been outlawed in 1993, and caste oppression, where manual scavengers and their families are threatened by member of upper castes into silence.

In this case, the police have arrested both the contractor and the supervisor for the deaths of these workers. Chief Officer Bijendra Sinha says that they are investigating the deaths. When asked when the pump machines in the sewers had started, he says, “That I’m not aware of. But I do know that what has happened here today has never happened before.”

Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.

Updated Date: Nov 20, 2018 17:27 PM