Deaths of manual scavengers while cleaning drains have become part of the urban reality of Karnataka. What is of tragic consequence is that despite of the Karnataka High Court-led monitoring of the conditions of sewage workers, these deaths continue to occur on a regular basis.
Manual scavenging was banned in the state in 1993. But data made available to TEHELKA by social activists shows that at least 30 manual scavengers have died while cleaning drains in the past three years. The deaths are mostly brushed aside as accidental. But activists say that negligence by civic bodies are to blame for the deaths.
To make matters worse, the families of the victims don’t get any compensation in most cases because the state refuses to acknowledge that such a practice exists.
On 3 March, 29-year-old Kumar died in Mysore while working inside an 8-ft-deep manhole. The owner of a private lodge offered Kumar and his father Subramanya 300 to clean a blocked manhole in front of his building. While Kumar went down, his father stayed outside. But Kumar never came out. His post-mortem report indicated that he died due to asphyxiation arising from gas and entrapment in the solid waste.
While the local police immediately arrested the lodge owner, Mysore City police commissioner PG Ramesh denied that Kumar was a sanitation worker employed by the local civic body.
“The father-son duo had been doing this job for quite some time. As usual, they got a call which led to this tragedy,” says KB Oblesh of the Safai Karamchari Kaval Samiti, a watchdog organisation. “Even though Kumar’s family is entitled to Rs 5 lakh as compensation, the state government has agreed to pay only Rs 3 lakh. It has not announced any measures for rehabilitating Kumar’s wife.”
Even though the civic body has machines for the job, people are reluctant to use them. “When people call the authorities, the machines usually don’t arrive on time,” says Oblesh. “There is always a long waiting period. By that time, the drains are blocked and people don’t want to wait. Sometimes, the drains are in narrow alleys and it’s impossible for the machines to enter. But in this incident, the lodge was located on the main road.”
On 25 October 2013, two workers died due to the negligence of the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board. Less than three months later, 60-year-old Chenchiah died while cleaning an underground drain.
As per eyewitness accounts and the police complaint filed on 18 January, Bengaluru civic body contractor Ramesh Naidu hired Chenchiah and four other workers to clean the stormwater drain opposite the KP Agrahara Police Station in the city. The drain was being cleaned and the water had been diverted to another smaller drain. The portion of the smaller drain that Chenchiah was cleaning was 6-ft deep and 2-ft wide and covered with stones, garbage and feces. He was asked to wade through all this waste without any safety equipment. The water that was entering the storm water drain had been blocked.
According to eyewitnesses, while Chenchiah was cleaning the drain, suddenly the water that had been blocked gushed out and pushed him further into the drain. The labourer got stuck in a pipe below the stones and eventually died.
Local residents said that the stormwater drain just outside the KP Agrahara Police Station had been under repair for about two months as the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) had given a contract for the replacement of the drain. The police have registered an FIR (No. 9/2014) for offences under Section 304-A (causing death by negligence) of the Indian Penal Code.
“However, no case has been filed against the contractor or the BBMP engineer who was responsible for ensuring that the work is carried out in a safe manner,” says Maitreyi Krishnan of the Alternative Lawyers’ Forum. “In fact, neither of them was present at the time of such dangerous work being done. The police have failed to invoke the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act in this case.”
Section 58 of the Karnataka Municipal Corporation Act prescribes the obligatory function of the corporation including, “the construction, maintenance and cleaning of drains and drainage works and of public privies, water closets, urinals and similar conveniences”.
“The contracting out of this extremely dangerous work allows for the contractors to act with extreme negligence and further allows the BBMP to escape responsibility,” says Krishnan. “This leaves the lives of workers in great peril, causing entirely avoidable ‘accidents’ such as this where workers have lost their lives.”
Chenchiah is survived by his wife, Chinamma, and two children (a daughter and a son). The couple hailed from Bangapalya, a village in Chitoor district of Andhra Pradesh. Just like several others from her village, they had to migrate to Bengaluru due to severe water scarcity.
“I am the sole bread-winner and I have to bear all the expenses of my children,” says Chinamma. “We are yet to receive any compensation from the government.” When asked why her husband took up such work, she says, “The dredging and sucking machine costs around Rs 2,000 to hire. The contractor promised my husband Rs 700 for a day’s work. That’s why he went for it.”
In the past three years, many such deaths have occurred where for little more than the usual daily wage, people have lost their lives while doing manual scavenging. Bengaluru, Kolar, Mysore, Mandya and Hassan are the districts where such deaths have been reported the most. Bengaluru, the state capital, tops the hall of shame.
“In 1993, an Act was passed against manual scavenging but people are still involved in it,” says MY Rajendra, a member of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, who filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court in 2009 to prevent deaths due to manual scavenging. “Most of the workers involved in this act are Madiga Dalits, except in Gulbarga, where some low-caste Muslims are also involved. Since 2009, we have submitted many reports. We have got some favourable decisions. But still a lot more needs to be done to completely stop this act.”
According to the 2011 census data prepared by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, there are more than 360 manual scavengers in the state. And it identifies more than 57,000 places in Karnataka where manual scavenging takes place where labourers regularly clean open defecation and remove night soil.
However, the state government refuses to acknowledge the reality. In a petition before the Supreme Court in 2009, all the district commissioners from the state presented signed affidavits claiming that there was no manual scavenging happening in their districts.
“After our PIL, the high court directed the government to compensate all the victims who died during manual scavenging,” says Rajendra. “Half of the victims have received compensation. The other half is yet to get it.”
But the HC has not said anything about the rehabilitation of communities that are involved in manual scavenging.
Despite repeated attempts, municipal administration commissioner P Manjula was unavailable for comment.