Three labourers suffocated to death in a municipal sewer in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar on Sunday. Four labourers lost their lives after inhaling toxic fumes in a water harvesting pit in Delhi 20 days ago. Three workers were asphyxiated to death in Cuddalore in March. Another three lost their lives while cleaning a manhole in Bengaluru, the same month. Three more died in Mumbai in February, poisoned by the toxic gases generated by rotting sewage. Manholes have been death traps for sewage workers for decades. The focus on sanitation projected by the Swachh Bharat Mission has not made their job any less perilous. What is even more outrageous is that despite the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, municipalities — or the agencies contracted to clear drains — do not provide protective equipment to workers when they enter these cesspools of carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide.
The Act makes it incumbent on local authorities to provide “protective gear and other cleaning devices and ensure observance of safety precautions of people employed in cleaning sewers “. It also enjoins “every local authority and other agency to use appropriate technological appliances for cleaning of sewers, septic tanks and other spaces within their control with a view to eliminating the need for the manual handling of excreta in the process of their cleaning”. Any contravention would be “punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to two lakh rupees or with both”. Given the hazardous nature of cleaning sewage drains, the punishment has been deemed too light by activists. But no one has been booked under the Act, even though nearly 100 people die every year, while working in sewers — four years after the manual scavenging law was enacted.
“Prima facie, it appears that the four who were working in Lajpat Nagar had no links to either the Delhi Jal Board or the contractor in the area,” the Delhi Jal Board has said. Most workers employed to clean sewers are casual labourers, and even though the Prevention of Manual Scavenging Act applies to such workers, it’s not difficult for the agency in question — the Delhi Jal Board, for example — to disclaim association with the deceased. The Delhi government has ordered an inquiry into Sunday’s incident. Whatever its findings, a system that exposes people to such lethal work conditions has to be overturned.