A one-room house amid a cluster of five houses in Harijanbasti in Thuvavi village of Dabhoi has been getting several vistiors for the past seven days. Inside the house, feeding her one-year-old daughter, Kajal Harijan (23), clad in a white saree, sits against a colorful wall imprint of her marriage to Mahesh Harijan two years ago, yet to come to terms with her loss. Mahesh was one of the seven people who suffocated to death while cleaning a septic tank outside a hotel in Dabhoi. Kajal is now expecting their second child.
The family received Rs 10.25 lakh in compensation so far of the Rs 12.5 lakh promised. “The money will be used for the children. I don’t want them to lead the kind of life we had. I want them to study, get jobs and if they can, to not let anyone else die like their father ever,” says Kajal.
Mahesh’s sister, Bhavna, is unable to sleep. Her eyes are swollen. Her brother was her only support after their parents passed away when they were young. “My parents died when we were young. I don’t even remember when they died and how they died. No one ever told us. We were young, my brother just a few months old. Our grandparents took care of us and soon they passed away, too. All my life it has been my brother and I. I studied till class 5 and would also work in the farms as a labourer and earn between Rs 50 to 100 a day. I wanted my brother to study more than I did so he studied till class 10 before he started working to help me,” Bhavna said.
Bhavna did not get married as she wanted to take care of her brother and wanted him to settle down. That night, he informed her that he was going for a regular cleaning work but was getting paid a little extra. “I did not know he was going to enter a septic tank to clean it. Had I known I would have never sent him, irrespective of whatever they were paying us. No one from our village goes to clean septic tanks anymore,” Bhavna said.
The sentiment is echoing in most houses who lost their family members to manual scavenging. Having given up the practice long ago, most of the deceased were doing it for the first time, most families unaware, until the news of their death arrived. After the implementation of the Prevention of Employment of Persons as Manual Scavengers Act in 2013, 50 such deaths have been reported from across the state.
On the night of June 14, seven people, including three hotel staff members, suffocated to death after entering a septic tank outside Darshan hotel in Dabhoi. The deceased — Mahesh Patanwadiya (47), Ashok Harijan (35), Hitesh Harijan (23), Mahesh Harijan (25) — all residents of Thuvavi in Dabhoi, who went to clean the tank, and three staff members of the hotel — Ajay Vasava (24), of Kadavali village in Netrang, Bharuch and Vijay Chauhan (22) and Sahdev Vasava (22), both residents of Velavi village in Umarapada, Surat. Mahesh Harijan is said to have first entered the tank, but when he did not return, others got in to look for him one after the other and died due to excessive toxic gas. All the four were said to be cleaning a septic tank for the first time for an additional income of Rs 500.
The owner of the hotel, Hassan Abbas was named as the main accused in the case and was booked for culpable homicide not amounting to murder and violation of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act and Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Four days after the incident, on June 18, Hassan who was on the run was arrested from outside his brother’s house in Fatehgunj area of Vadodara. His brother, Imdad Bohraniya, who was the manager of the hotel was also arrested the same day and named a co-accused. The district administration has also sealed the hotel. The hotel will remain sealed until the investigation is completed. The accused are in judicial custody.
Another accused, Abbas Yusuf Sunesara (47), an active partner in the hotel, was arrested on Sunday. “The hotel has 13 partners and four of them are actively involved in the business. We got a tip-off regarding Sunesara and arrested him from the Vadodara-Mumbai highway. The fourth accused is still on the run,” said Deputy Superintendent of Police Kalpesh Solanki, investigating officer in the case.
NOT A FIRST
On December 1, 2016, three people were killed while cleaning a septic tank in a private party plot in Vadodara. Harni police booked the contractor and the manager of the party plot under charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and for violation of the Prevention of Atrocities Act and the Prevention of Employment of Persons as Manual Scavengers Act. A chargesheet was filed in February 2017 and the case is still in court.
All the three lived with their families in the Kamdaarbasti of Swad quarters in Vadodara. “I was asleep when he left for work. Had I known what work he was going for, I would have never let him,” said Sonika Solanki who lost her husband Rahul Solanki in the incident. After her husband’s death, Sonika was given Rs 10 lakh in compensation and a temporary contractual work as a cleaner with the VMC and gets paid Rs 7,500 a month for an eight-hour per day job.
“I have a three-year-old daughter, Mahi. He had named her… he was a doting father. He wanted her to study and make a name for herself. We have blocked all the money for her studies and marriage. We show her pictures of her father. We want her to know him and remember him. We have not told her yet that her father died cleaning someone else’s filth, but at times when we talk, she overhears and questions. I do not even want her to know that it is a job that men do manually with bare hands when machines can do the work,” Sonika said.
She claims that no member of even their distant family has ever cleaned a septic tank. “Everybody here works as a cleaner but nobody even among our relatives had ever cleaned a septic tank. I do not know why he agreed to do it,” Sonika said.
FOR EXTRA Rs 400
A few houses away from Sonika’s house, three girls were left orphaned after their father’s death while cleaning a septic tank. Pradeep Solanki worked as a door-to-door waste collector under a contractor who worked for the Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC). On that fateful day, Pradeep was asked by his contractor for an additional work of cleaning a septic tank for Rs 400 extra, to which he agreed. Just six months before that Pradeep’s wife passed due to an illness before. The girls are now being taken care of by their uncles.
The VMC gave a contractual temporary job to Pradeep’s elder brother Rajubhai Solanki’s son. “We received a compensation of Rs 10 lakh after Pradeep’s death. Our family and the girls’ mother’s family unanimously decided that we will deposit the money for the girls. I am a rickshaw driver and have a family of four to take care of. Their maternal uncle is a farm labourer and does not earn enough as well. We know we can never financially support them the way they deserve and that is why we have decided to deposit the money in their name and give it to them when the need comes,” Rajubhai says. He lives in a small one room kitchen house with his family of four and his three nieces.
When The Indian Express visited their home, the three girls had gone to their maternal uncle’s house for summer break. Talking over the phone, the eldest daughter, Kumkum said, “I remember my parents, my sisters don’t. My mother died because she was ill and my father died because he was cleaning dirty water. I will never let my sisters go near dirty water…”
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