At risk of death and paid a pittance: India’s sewer cleaners

At least 221 people have died since 2017 despite a ban on ‘manual scavenging’, with salaries of less than $200 a month.

Rani, 37, mourns her partner Anil, a 'manual scavenger' whose death has caught the world's attention [Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]
Rani, 37, mourns her partner Anil, a 'manual scavenger' whose death has caught the world's attention [Bilal Kuchay/Al Jazeera]

New Delhi, India: In a small lane in west Delhi’s Dabri village, journalists and activists ask local residents for Anil’s address.

The villagers guide them to a door surrounded by people. Inside, 37-year-old Rani lies on a bed in the dimly-lit room.

An old lady consoles her, friends bring her food. 

On September 14, Rani’s partner Anil died while he was cleaning the sewer of a building in his village.

“Anil will not come back,” says Birender, Anil’s friend. “Please eat something for these kids,” he adds, pointing to her daughters, aged three and seven, on the edge of her bed.

Working as a daily wage labourer, Anil slipped. The rope around his waist broke and he fell 20 feet deep into the sewer.

“I spoke to him just 15 minutes before the incident happened and told him that I’m coming to see him. By the time I arrived, a large crowd had gathered,” Rani, who was also Anil’s aunt, told Al Jazeera.

“People said that a labourer had fallen into the sewer and died,” she said. “I pushed through and I saw my husband’s shoes. I broke down because I knew it was him.”

Anil was rushed to a nearby hospital where he was declared dead.

These are not deaths, these are murders. The government should take responsibility and issue an official apology to all of the families of those who have died in sewer work to date.

Bezwada Wilson, activist with Safai Karamchari Andolan

The family did not have enough money to pay for Anil’s funeral.

“It was a neighbour who had paid the money for the cremation,” said Birender, who also worked as a sanitation worker.

Two days before he died, Anil had promised his 11-year-old son Gaurav that he would give him a bicycle for his birthday.

He was not Gaurav’s biological father. He had adopted Rani’s three children and the family of five had been living together for several years.

A week before his death, Anil and Rani’s four-month-old son had died after catching pneumonia.

Photos of Gaurav weeping at the crematorium as he removed a sheet from Anil’s face were shared widely around the world on social media.

An online fundraising campaign for the grieving family has raised more than $75,000.

Hundreds of people including activists and students protested against the exploitation of ‘manual scavengers’ organised by Safai Karamchari Andolan in New Delhi on September 25 [Nasir Kachroo/Al Jazeera]

Anil used to clean drains, latrines and sewers manually, without safety protection.

His death took place less than a week after five people died inhaling toxic fumes while cleaning a sewage treatment plant in the Indian capital.

Among them was 19-year-old Vishal, the breadwinner for his family of five, who live in a one-bedroom house in Nangloi.

Early on September 9, Vishal and his childhood friend Pradeep Sharma cycled to DLF Capital Greens, a residential complex in New Delhi, where they worked as “pump operators” with a maintenance company.

It was a Sunday and they had wanted to return home quickly after work to play cricket, their weekly ritual.

But in the afternoon, the friends and four other workers were asked to clean three sewage tanks in the basement of the complex, without being provided with any protective gear.

“It was not our job. We refused to go into the tank but the management pressured us. Even when we told them that we had no experience of cleaning sewage tanks, they didn’t listen,” Sharma told Al Jazeera. “We were not given any protective gear to do the job.”

Vishal’s brother shows a photograph of his sibling on his mobile phone. Vishal died on September 9 while cleaning a septic tank in West Delhi [Nasir Kachroo/Al Jazeera]

Vishal and Sharma were the first to go into the septic tank, 15 feet deep.

The sewage reached up to their knees. 

After half an hour, they were thirsty and Vishal told Sharma to bring water.

“There was only one ladder. After we went into the tank, the other workers had pulled it out. So I shouted at them to lower down the ladder for me so that I can come out. Fortunately, they were yet to go into their tanks,” he said.

Sharma came back after 10 minutes still thirsty – he couldn’t find any water. 

By the time he returned, the other workers had climbed down into their tanks. 

As he looked down a small opening at the roof, he saw Vishal choking.

“I immediately called the building’s technical staff for help and pulled Vishal up using ropes and straps,” he said. “I think he had fallen into the sewage tank due to the toxic gases, his whole body was smeared in mud.”

Vishal was rushed to a nearby hospital, but in an ambulance that had no oxygen system.

“The hospital he was taken to didn’t have an intensive care unit, so he was referred to another hospital,” Sharma said.

After changing his clothes and calling Vishal’s family, Sharma went to see his friend in hospital, but it was too late. Vishal had died.

Parents of Sarfaraz are pictured outside their one-room house in a transit camp in Delhi. Sarfaraz was among the five people who died after inhaling toxic fumes while cleaning sewage tanks in Delhi [Nasir Kachroo/Al Jazeera]

The other four workers – Sarfaraz, Pankaj, Raja and Umesh – had also succumbed inside the tanks after inhaling toxic fumes.

A spokesperson of the DLF Capital Greens, who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera: “We had outsourced the management and maintenance of the entire condominium to Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL). It is JLL, who was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the building.”

JLL, an international services firm, had subcontracted the operation and maintenance of the plant to Unnati Engineering and Contractors.

“We are committed to finding out the full details of what happened and continue to work in close cooperation with the investigating authorities,” a JLL spokesperson told Al Jazeera.

Police have registered a case into the incident and arrested five people so far, including Unnati’s director and supervisor.

Our financial condition was very bad so Sarfaraz decided to take a job and earn for the family. He was my life but he is gone now. I've left everything to God now.

Mohammad Hayul, father of Sarfaraz, who died while cleaning a sewer

Vishal’s father Birbal, 58, had stopped working because of his diabetic retinopathy, a complication stemming from diabetes affecting the eyes.

“It was not his job to clean the sewer. He was forced to do so,” said Vishal’s 26-year-old sister Satya, who has a master’s degree in commerce, but is unemployed.

“Both me and my brother older than Vishal, but he told us, ‘You study and I will work’. He would always say my wedding was his responsibility,” she said.

Vishal’s elder brother Angad, 24, has a chemistry degree and is preparing for a master’s. 

However, his further education may be put on hold.

“I have to look after my family now,” he said.

Sarfaraz, who died in the same incident, was also working to support his family.

His father Mohammad Hayul, mother, two brothers and sister live in a single-room house in a transit camp in Delhi’s Anand Parbat area.

Sarfaraz had been working at DLF Greens for almost a year for a monthly salary of $180.

Hayul, who is differently abled, told Al Jazeera: “Our financial condition was very bad so Sarfaraz decided to take a job and earn for the family.

“He was my life but he is gone now. I’ve left everything to God now.”

Families of people who died in sewer tanks participate in a protest organised by Safai Karamchari Andolan in New Delhi on September 25 [Nasir Kachroo/Al Jazeera]

Delhi authorities will compensate the victims’ families with $13,800, as required by law.

Manual scavenging – the practice of cleaning, carrying and disposing of human excrement from dry latrines or sewers – is ubiquitous in India despite laws against it, and is carried out by members of the lowest castes, such as Vishal, a Dalit.

An inter-ministerial task force, set up by the government earlier this year, said some 53,236 people were involved in the practice.

According to Safai Karamchari Andolan, which works to end manual scavenging, 1,790 people have died in sewers and septic tanks since 1993, with at least 221 people having died since 2017.

“These are not deaths, these are murders,” said Bezwada Wilson, of Safai Karamchari Andolan.

“The government should take responsibility and issue an official apology to all of the families of those who have died in sewer work to date.”

Hundreds of people, including students and activists, heeded a call by Safai Karamchari Andolan and rallied against the exploitation of workers as they remembered the dead in New Delhi on Tuesday.

They demanded strict implementation of the Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act, which not only bans manual scavenging completely but also directs states to rehabilitate workers.

Source : Al Jazeera

More from Features
Most Read