Deaths due to manual scavenging: CBO gets 24 hrs to respond to show cause notice | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Deaths due to manual scavenging: CBO gets 24 hrs to respond to show cause notice

Mar 23, 2024 09:07 AM IST

The tight-knit community at Ambujwadi – which has a populous slum settlement – is seething with anger

MUMBAI: A day after two brothers died while their father lies in a critical state in a hospital, after all three fell into a septic tank of a public toilet in Ambujwadi, Malad, while cleaning it, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) issued a show cause notice to the community-based organisation (CBO), responsible for the toilet’s upkeep.

Mumbai, India - March 22, 2024: Kavat 3 male persons were fallen in the chember of the underground sewer drain about 15 feet deep of public toilet at Ambujwadi, malad west in Mumbai, India, on Friday, March 22, 2024. (Photo by Satish Bate/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)
Mumbai, India - March 22, 2024: Kavat 3 male persons were fallen in the chember of the underground sewer drain about 15 feet deep of public toilet at Ambujwadi, malad west in Mumbai, India, on Friday, March 22, 2024. (Photo by Satish Bate/ Hindustan Times) (Hindustan Times)

While the CBO, Om Jai Durga Seva Society, has been given 24 hours to justify why police should not act against it, holding it responsible for the deaths, on Friday, the tight-knit community at Ambujwadi – which has a populous slum settlement – was seething with anger.

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“This toilet was constructed around eight years ago, but BMC has not visited it even once to clean it. We have heard that the family had called BMC to clean the septic tank, but they demanded a hefty sum of over 5,000 from them, which they could not afford. So they set about cleaning it themselves,” said Rekha Gupta, a neighbour.

At 5pm on Thursday, while cleaning around the tank, 18-year-old Suraj Kevat fell 15-feet deep. Seeing this, his 20-year-old brother Vikas, jumped in to help. Their father 45-year-old Ramlagan, followed in to save his sons. Neighbours rushed in to pull them out. However, by then Suraj died, while his brother and father were pulled out with critical injuries. Vikas died on the way to Shatabdi Hospital, Kandivali, while their father is still critical.

BMC in a letter issued on Friday said: “Due to the presence of obnoxious gases inside septic tank, the three suffocated and were found unconscious.”

Neighbourhood in grief

Reliving the previous day’s course of events, Junaid Khan, who has a shop in direct view of the toilet, said, “We shone in a torch, and could see them struggling inside. One of the neighbours, Ateem was brave enough to fix a scarf around his face, tied a rope around himself and dived in to fish them out. He passed each onto us, who were waiting outside.”

All three were covered in sludge, with blood oozing from their noses and mouths. “We cleaned their faces as best we could,” said Gupta, who has seen the boys grow up for over a decade. “We then loaded them in rickshaws and took them to Shatabdi Hospital.” The hospital is approximately at a 30-minute distance from the area.

Suraj was declared dead on arrival, while Vikas was declared dead at 10:15pm. Their bodies were sent to Bhagwati Hospital, Borivili, for post mortem. Till Friday evening, their father Ramlagan was in a critical condition in the ICU. “He is on ventilator due to respiratory issues,” said Dr Susheel Mantri, the medical officer on duty.

Locals alleged that a fourth person, Ameen Shaikh, 17, had also fallen into the tank while helping with the cleaning. As he was not hurt, he was first taken to the police station for questioning. On seeing his bloody eyes and swollen face, his mother Fatima took him to Shatabdi Hospital at around 3am. His condition was stable, said Dr Mantri.

Another neighbour Sahil Ansari, said the family was managing the toilet by collecting between 2 and 5 for each visit and 100 for a monthly pass. They were also overseeing the cleaning. The family also runs a shack selling fried snacks. “Suraj had just taken his class 12 board exams,” said a grieving relative Rajendra Chaurasia, while waiting at the hospital. The brothers have two other siblings – Kusum, 19, and Krishna, 9.

Reports from residents in the area suggest that the toilet block, built in 2017-18 was in poor condition. The toilets were part of the BMC construction of public toilets of lot 9, all over the city. The NGO YUVA had conducted a year-long study on public toilets and presented it to BMC in September 2023, said senior community organiser of YUVA, Ansari Shahensha. “We had highlighted how it was crumbling and in need of repairs and structural audit. The assistant commissioner had promised to have it done, but nothing came of it,” said Shahensha.

Residents of the area had more than one complaint -- heaps of garbage sitting unattended with smoke emanating from within, sewage water flowing in shallow parts and the air thick with flies. Dogs and goats would rummage through the trash for food.

“The BMC van does not come here, so people are compelled to throw their trash here. Either they choke from the smell of garbage, or from the smoke from burning it,” said Sahil Ansari, a neighbour.

What authorities say

“The CBO has 24 hours to give us an explanation, following which further action will be taken, be it an inquiry or FIR,” said Kiran Dighavkar, assistant commissioner of the P North ward.

A BMC official said, “Some people are trying to say it was death by falling in the septic tank, but that is the matter of investigation. There was toxic gas, and the septic tank was also open when fire brigade reached there.”

Shailendra Dhivar, assistant commissioner of police (Malwani) said that the father and sons were given the maintenance contract of the septic tank built for the public toilet by the CBO. Dhivar however contradicted the claim that it was a septic tank, saying the tank was used to store tanker and sea water.

The trio had emptied the water with the help of a pump and went inside the tank with just one foot of water left. A few locals in the area also illustrated the point.

“It is possible that the men suffocated from the fumes of the septic tank beside. We are awaiting the post mortem report of the two deceased to find out the exact cause of their deaths,” said Dhivar, adding cops have registered a case of accidental death (ADR).

Anand Jagtap, retired OSD, slum sanitation programme, BMC, said, “We need to understand the role of CBOs first. CBOs are only supposed to clean and maintain it daily. They are not supported by BMC. They have to pay water and electricity at commercial rate. We need to find out who built the septic tank and whether it was built correctly. BMC charges commercial rates from CBOs for cleaning the septic tank. CBOs have been made scapegoat in the past, and the same is taking place again.”

(With inputs from Megha Sood)

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