Sewer workers deaths: Instead of blaming contractors, probe role of DJB officials
Three sewage workers died in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar area on August 6. After the deaths, much of the outrage has been directed at a contractor, who sent them to unclog the drains without safety gear, contravening the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. The Delhi Jal Board (DJB) distanced itself from the matter, saying: “The matter will be clearer after an inquiry. But prima facie it appears that the four who were working there had no links to either the DJB or the contractor in the area. It is quite strange, such a case has never happened before.” However, the matter would seem stranger if you consider that the deaths occurred in Jal Vihar, an area named after the DJB’s office located there, and in sewage pipes that are built and managed by the DJB. The workers were cleaning 21 sewage chambers, suggesting that there was a significant blockage in the lines.
Going by the DJB’s statement, perhaps residents engaged the contractor directly, or it is possible a DJB contractor sub-contracted his work? It is also possible that the lines could not be unclogged by suction machines because they were blocked with plastic waste, construction debris and other solid waste, which should never be in sewage lines.
According to the norms, storm water drainage networks and sewage lines should never be inter-connected as they are designed for different kinds of load. In a well planned and managed sewage system, mixing random loads of rain water and solid waste would throw the system out of balance. However, in the DJB’s world, natural water channels, storm water drains and sewage systems are inter-linked and supplement each other’s inadequacies – creating a deadly cocktail of solid and liquid waste, creating public health and environmental risks.
This sort of norm-less public engineering kills sewage workers. Perhaps with safety equipment and better training could have lessened the risks, but if your job is to hold your breath and swim in sewage water, what sort of training and “safety equipment” could prepare you for it?
Blocked sewers create situations that are dangerous and we need to hold accountable the people who create such situations. All the more so if people and institutions who hold the responsibility to provide essential public services are funded by us.
So if the DJB and the Delhi government is serious about an inquiry into the deaths, they should look into where the sewer line was flowing from, to where, and what were the reasons why the sewer line was blocked?
Such a panel must also look into whether the DJB has mechanisms to monitor when sewer lines become blocked, and their protocols to address such situations. It should also look into whether the DJB had received any complaints from the public about it and its response. This does not mean we neglect to pursue contraventions of the manual scavenging law, but if we are to end the practice of unsafe cleaning of sewer lines, we must shine a torch on the systemic malpractices that create conditions for unsafe cleaning.
Arkaja Singh is fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal