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Why death continues to stalk Mumbai’s sewer workers

Sewage ducts and septic tanks have to be cleaned in other countries too, but why do so many people die in India doing this work?

mumbai Updated: Feb 20, 2017 00:13 IST
Manoj R Nair
On Thursday three people died while cleaning a sewage tank in Malad, poisoned by toxic gases generated by rotting sewage.
On Thursday three people died while cleaning a sewage tank in Malad, poisoned by toxic gases generated by rotting sewage.(Representational photo)

On Thursday three people died while cleaning a sewage tank in Malad, poisoned by toxic gases generated by rotting sewage. Groups working with sewer workers estimate that, since 2014, over 30 people have died in Mumbai after entering dangerous sewers without any safety equipment.

There are no nation-wide data on such deaths. Navsarjan, a group campaigning for safer working conditions and compensation for such workers, estimates that there were six such deaths in Karnataka last year. Ahmedabad reported an average of 20 deaths every year. Many more cases go unreported.

Sewage ducts and septic tanks have to be cleaned in other countries too, but why do so many people die in India doing this work? “People do not die in other countries because they provide safety equipment,” said Martin Macwan of Navsarjan Gujarat. “Here it is a caste-based occupation (most workers are members of castes that traditionally cleaned dry latrines), so the deaths do not matter.”

India has rules that mandate safe working conditions for these workers. A law, revised in 2013, makes it a criminal offence to make people work in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Some workers who die are employees of municipal corporations or other local bodies, but many, like those who died in Malad, were casual labourers. The law protects both municipal employees and casual workers. Workers who do the dangerous work have to be given gas masks, safety harness belts and helmets. Municipal bodies are to provide mechanised equipment at dangerous sites like clogged underground sewers, but the safety measures are non-existent or at its best, rudimentary. Usually, the worker’s only tool to gauge risk levels at the site is a box of safety matches. “A match stick is lit at the mouth of the sewer to find out the presence of poisonous gases and the absence of oxygen,” said Macwan. “The workers go in if the match does not get extinguished, but the gases (like methane) are trapped under the sediments and are released when workers enter the sewage duct and start removing the debris.”

Though the law lays down a prison term and fine for those who hire workers to the dangerous work without safety equipment, there have no reports of criminal cases having been registered against offenders. “The government enacts the law and the state governments deny that the law is violated in their areas,” said Manjula Pradeep of Navsarjan Gujarat. “Government agencies (like municipal corporations) are not providing safety gear and mechanised equipment for this work. This is a caste-based occupation.”

According to Neeta Sane, who did a doctorate in 2008-9 on the subject, around 25 conservancy workers die every month in Mumbai from health complications caused by unsanitary and unsafe work conditions. “This was the figure given by the municipal corporation to the court,” said Sane. “The law also covers contract workers who have to be compensated in case of accidents, but the law is so tricky that contractors can escape criminal cases.”

“Nobody uses the law,” said Macwan. “Until there is punitive action the situation will not change.”

Dinesh Berdia of Sangharsh, a group working with conservancy workers in Mumbai, said there are statutory bodies like the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis that looks at the implementation of the law. The Commission, in its annual reports, has recommended that the work of handling filth and garbage should be totally mechanised, but this and other recommendations have been ignored. “Even though these are not judicial bodies, they can persuade authorities to take action, but it has rarely happened, said Berdia. “These rules are there only on paper; the people responsible for getting that kind of work done do not care for the rules. That is why these accidents happen. Mumbai has one of the richest and well managed municipal corporations. If workers die in this city, just imagine the condition in poorer and badly managed districts.”

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