Sewage workers dying in Delhi shows how little we value human lives

10 deaths in about a month, latest in a national capital hospital, are nothing but institutional murder.

 |  6-minute read |   21-08-2017
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Over the last month, 10 people in Delhi have died cleaning our shit. That’s the one-line gist of this death by apathy, this unpardonable institutional murder of citizens of India, who are too poor and are coerced into doing a job that has been banned for years in the country – manual scavenging.

But in this caste-ridden country, what are a few deaths if the system remains untouched?

On Sunday, August 20, a man, Rishi Pal, died while cleaning a sewer at New Delhi’s Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital. Three others were taken ill, are undergoing treatment. They inhaled toxic gases from inside the sewer.

Institutional murders

This is the 10th such death in Delhi alone. As reports have cited, on August 6, three men died after inhaling toxic gases while cleaning a sewage water pipe in southeast Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar. What happened then? Delhi Jal Board quipped it had not hired the labourers. Privatisation and sub-contracting of manual scavenging – a banned activity – means there are no takers when the cookie crumbles and humiliation gives in to being choked to death.

That’s why the DJB official saying the dead sewage workers were “not (their) staff” is both harrowing and perhaps true. An inquiry has been ordered, but what would it try to find? A worthwhile scapegoat to pin the blame on?

sewage-reuters_082117020150.jpgCredit: Reuters photo for representational purpose.

On August 12, two brothers died inhaling poisonous gases while cleaning a sewer in a shopping mall in Anand Vihar. On July 15, four men died while cleaning a water-harvesting tank in Ghitorni, south Delhi. Who killed these men? What are these if not “institutional murders”, as activist Bezwada Wilson rightly describes them as?

Wilson, the national convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, and a petitioner in the privacy case that’s ongoing in Supreme Court, told The Hindu in a searing interview that he found “complete lack of concern and (absolute) apathy from the authorities. Everybody was busy passing the blame. This is a crime. A murder that has been committed by the government and they need to take responsibility.”

It’s appalling that those who died – the daily wagers risking their lives every day to earn a paltry Rs 500/600 – had to go through the humiliation in life and eventually face such a brutal death. But their families, Wilson says, are “afraid to even name the contractor/s”.

Banned, but prevalent

Manual scavenging is banned in India under the Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993, which in 2013 was bolstered with the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act.

But despite laws against it, this despicable, caste-infested tendency to push the poor to cleaning our collective good and dying of toxic waste, goes on unabated. In fact, not just in Delhi, there have been a number of such deaths in Bengaluru, Vijaywada, and other places.

The workings of caste oppression is such that some caste-framed occupations such as manual scavenging involves walking with ones life in their hands, subjecting oneself to the most disgusting pulmonary and respiratory infections, diseases and essentially taking in the society’s sickness so that others don’t have to.

This is institutional discrimination built into the very fabric of society, which now is getting justified as a great example of division labour since the Vedic Age.

While vigilance committees to check sewer deaths are reportedly being formed at district level, the Delhi government needs to explain why the DJB, MCD or PWD would allow private contractors to hire at will labourers and force them to work in inhumane conditions at a paltry pay?

Will the deaths become a tug of war over blames between warring political parties? Most likely, and shamefully so.

According to a Hindustan Times report, the water minister Rajendra Pal Gautam has assured: "The vigilance committee will be headed by the district magistrate and will include two MLAs, police officials, deputy commissioner of municipal corporations and four social workers, among others. The notification regarding the committees will be issued in a day or two."

But implementing the provisions of the Manual Scavenging Act would mean a sea change in the attitudes of public officials and contractors, who consider life of the poor and Dalits to be utterly cheap and dispensable.

Caste in death

As Bezwada Wilson says: “The situation can only be improved if there is complete ban on manual scavenging. The law states that no human being should step into a sewer or a drain to clean it. Why should the underprivileged suffer because you do not have a proper mechanism to flush down your waste.”

In fact, a recent The Times of India report cites the figures, saying there have been 77 deaths in Delhi since the 1993 ban on manual scavenging, and of course, the actual figures are far greater given there’s very little reporting on the deaths of the poor and unwashed. Even though agencies like the PWD, DJB etc., claim that their drains are cleared “mechanically”, what we really is the deregulated deaths as a result of sub-contracting, which results in a chain of commands where there’s zero accountability and zero awareness of laws in place.

A life and death that particularly affects people from backward castes and Dalits – how’s it that in India in the 21st century such lives and deaths are increasingly routine?

Wilson has been sending letters and memos to MPs and bureaucrats, but the plight of the sanitation workers remains mired in filth. In fact, the deaths are clear case of discrimination under the SC/ST Act, as only Dalits are used to clean drains and septic tanks.

How Swachh is Bharat?

Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet scheme Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, there’s neither swachhata/cleanliness, nor is there a relief from cleanliness at the expense of Dalit lives.

Why should the poor and the caste-othered pay with their lives to keep the country and the city clean? Not just that, the sickness and hypocrisy of our caste-infested social fabric commits murder not only by sending the Dalit to his/her death when entering a sewer, the worker is subjected to brutal violence if s/he dares to drink from the same well, or exist in any form but as a sewage worker in the very site they clean.

As per the 2011 Census, almost 1,82,505 rural households continue to exist in unbearable conditions earning a meager earning as manual scavengers. Most city corporations don’t provide any decent work to sanitation workers, don’t provide masks, oxygen cylinders, mechanised equipment to clean those chambers of noxious gases.

As shown in the documentary Kakkoos, it’s public apathy that keeps manual scavengers away from the gaze of a society that doesn’t want to see its ugly face.

This constant marginalisation, this subjection of people to the most degrading human experience ever, is often given a halo of Gandhi-fication, saying if the Mahatma could clean toilets, why not others? That’s just twisting the very message Gandhi tried his best to give out.

Also read: Why India still waits for manual scavengers to clean up its shit

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