“My son did not want to go in, but they told him to enter the manhole. He’s gone now, and I am left alone. What will I do with this ‘compensation’ of Rs 10 lakh?” said Santosh Kumari. Her son, 25-year-old Jitender Kumar, died when he inhaled poisonous gases inside a sewer in Behlana, Chandigarh, on May 28 this year. He was not wearing any safety gear. And her story is not an aberration.
In violation of the law — latest being the Prohibition of Manual Scavenging Act, 2013 — against “hazardous cleaning”, municipal bodies across Punjab, Haryana and their shared capital, union territory Chandigarh, have sewer cleaners working without safety gear.
Though reliable data is not available on the number of deaths in the past five years, estimates for Punjab alone vary from 20, according to some union leaders, to 300, as says National Commission for Scheduled Castes vice-chairman Raj Kumar Verka. Chandan Grewal, president of Punjab Safai Mazdoor Federation, puts the number at “around 100, from data of various towns and also counting those working under private contractors”.
“Working without safety gear is actually manual scavenging, which is banned (since 1993), but the states do not count such workers. Punjab, for instance, said it has around 50 manual scavengers. Who is cleaning the gutters then in your streets? Or the open drains, or railway tracks?” Verka said. “Since almost all the workers are Dalits (SCs), there is historical negligence.” Grewal said Punjab has about 3,000 sewer men, while as many are awaiting regular jobs, having been working as daily wagers for years.
Where’s the gear?
It is mandatory to provide masks, gum boots, gloves and oxygen cylinders besides overalls and other tools to sewer men, who get between Rs 6,000 and Rs 7,500 a month on contract; those employed on regular posts get Rs 20,000 or more.
In Chandigarh, after three decades, and two days after Jitender’s death, the MC floated tenders worth Rs 26 lakh to buy the equipment, but has bought nothing a year later. In Jalandhar, plans to buy safety kits worth Rs 1 crore were announced, “but nothing has been done yet,” said union leader Grewal.
“No safety gear is provided when we go down the manholes,” said Avtar, a sewer man in SAS Nagar (Mohali). His colleague Tinku said, “When we refuse to work without the gear, the contractor hires daily wagers who agree.”
In Chandigarh’s other satellite, Panchkula, sewerage workers are paid the lowest salaries (Rs 7,000 a month) among all staff by the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA), but the conditions are a shade better. “We do not allow our workers to enter gutters. We use machines,” HUDA superintending engineer NK Verma said. Panchkula has not witnessed a sewer worker’s death in at least the past five years. But Dilbag Singh, a Dalit leader who supports HUDA Sanitation Workers’ Union, said that protective gear should be available in case a machine fails. Ram Avtar, a sewer man, said, “It is dirty work. But I have to do it to make a living. Gloves and boots will make it easier.”
In Punjab’s heartland, Bathinda, though, “we get nothing except a dress every two years,” said union leader Shyam Lal. Here, sewerage has been expanded but the worker strength is the same for years. Of the 148 workers, 15 women are not made to do manual work, neither are the 15 head sewer men. Another 54 are deputed at suction pump stations, thereby reducing the number of workers in the field to 64, said Lal. “We need at least 200.” He added, “It is wrong to say that workers don’t use safety gear. The fact is we have been given nothing.”
“Has any awareness and training drive been conducted among workers? Do they want to die?” asked union leader Grewal.
4 kits for 185 workers
Patiala has equipment. Four gas kits for 185 workers! A proposal to buy 10 more is pending for six months. The last time sewers claimed lives here was around four years ago, when two workers died. The MC should not wait for a tragedy, said Puspinder Pathak, a union leader.
In the industrial hub, Ludhiana, MC officials say they have 30 kits. The number of sewer men here is 774 on regular jobs, and 859 on contract. Also, here the MC’s claims of providing safety gear fell flat when HT did a check on the ground. In some areas, no supervisor or engineer was present. At least one worker here said it’s not possible to wear safety gear in the manholes of small sewer lines in the internal areas. “If we wear a safety kit, we cannot turn inside the manhole. If we refuse to enter the manhole, the officers threaten to sack us,” he said.
Working under a contractor, he added, “My salary is only around Rs 6,500, so I remove my clothes before entering a manhole as I can’t afford to purchase new ones often. I get skin infections and also cuts from sharp particles in the sewage,” he added.
“More than half the sewer men and safai karamacharis (sanitation workers) die before 60, of diseases they get while working in unhealthy conditions in the absence of safety gear,” said Lovely Pal Disawar, chairman of a workers’ group. Surinder Kalyan of the Rashtriya Safai Karamchari Sangh said, “Machines are being used at only some places but sewer men enter gutters commonly,” he added. Even Chandigarh does not have a sewage suction machine; so the work is done manually. MC superintending engineer NP Sharma said, “We have floated the tender to buy one for Rs 2.25 crore.”
Mohali, Chandigarh’s satellite and Punjab’s trophy town, is not very different. It started mechanised cleaning but is yet to do away with manual work. After HT highlighted the matter, the MC on June 1 issued notices to all nine contractors to use kits. MC commissioner Uma Shankar Gupta said, “There are directions that no one will be deployed without the equipment. Violation will invite action.” No action has been taken against any contractor or worker.
Who’s to blame?
Verka underlined, “The law says a team led by the SDO has to prepare a report before manual sewage-cleaning is done; listing reasons, the safety gear being used, and other details. If that’s not done, there is provision for mandatory criminal action. But things appear to be happening only when there is a death.” There is also provision for Rs 10-lakh compensation and insurance cover for all such workers, he said.
In Jalandhar, families of the four sewage workers who died on duty in the past five years have still not received compensation as the MC says formalities are left to be completed.
Activist-lawyer Pankaj Chandgothia, who has filed a case with the National Human Rights Commission over the deaths in Chandigarh, said, “The MC is equally responsible for the deaths, because it is the principal contractor. And those responsible must be booked under Indian Penal Code (IPC) section 304 that deals with ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’, not under 304A for merely ‘causing death by negligence’.”
Haryana any better?
In Rohtak, 40-year-old Ashok Kumar died of asphyxiation on June 29 while repairing a sewage line. He was stuck inside the pipe and six hours later his body was retrieved. According to people working with Ashok, the negligence where he died was on for the past month.
Workers had been going down the 35 feet deep manhole on the Rohtak-Gohana road without safety equipment. The workers said they didn’t have rubber gloves, helmets and oxygen masks. Family members of Ashok have also alleged that rescue operation began four hours after he was stuck inside the pipeline. “The contractor went into hiding and he was nabbed by police when people started protesting,” Ashok’s father Ratan Lal said.
Superintending engineer SK Bhatia claimed the department had “all the equipment required”; but he was busy to give more details.
A month before that, in Sonepat, four workers died while cleaning a sewage treatment plant without safety equipment. In their case, too, the contractor absconded. In Jind, five Dalit daily wagers died of asphyxiation the same month when they tried reviving a borewell. However, the public health department said they weren’t professionals.
In Hisar, which has 300 sewerage workers, regular and on-contract, the public health department claimed that no worker died in the past five years while cleaning a sewage line. In Karnal, safety gear is provided but workers rue the fact that there are only 11 regular sewer men. “Most of the cleaning is done with machines and we adopt manual ways only when required; but we follow the safety guidelines,” said SDO Ashok Taneja. Subhash Barocha, president of the Karnal MC employees’ union, said, “Though we get all the required equipment for safety, problems related to salaries of contractual employees remain.”
Amritsar presents a classic example of how the sewage worker’s life is a statistic. A man died working on a gutter line here barely a week ago, and officials insist that “only two-three” sewer men died while working in the past five years. Union leaders say more than 10 have died.
Sonali Giri, MC commissioner, said, “Sewer men are provided safety kits; almost all deaths in recent years were purely accidental. We strictly ask them not to take any chance while working.”
Executive engineer Tilak Raj added, “In old times, workers did manual scavenging with sticks. Besides, sewers were opened after long times, due to which poisonous gases caused deaths. Now, manual work has been stopped. Sometimes, sewage workers do negligence which causes accidents.”
But Vinod Bitta of the Safai Workers and Mazdoor Union said the MC is responsible since it is not sincere in taking safety measures. “Claims of the MC officials that they provide safety equipment are totally false.”
(By Aarish Chhabra, Hillary Victor, Shailee Dogra, Harvinder Kaur, Vivek Gupta, Surjit Singh, Sachin Sharma, Harshraj Singh, Hardik Anand, Bhartesh S Thakur, Neeraj Mohan, Bhaskar Mukherjee)