After hours of answering questions about their father Kishan Lal (37), who died cleaning a drain in Timarpur Sunday, Dinesh (14), Nandini (12) and Kamlesh (10) briefly found respite when six teenaged friends sat with them in silence inside their shanty.
The children from Shriram Basti, Gandhi Vihar, know how Lal died under a heap of garbage, how their fathers tried to pull him out, and how his three children now face an uncertain future.
“My father left for work with Kishan uncle at 9 am. When he was leaving today, I asked him if he was going back to the drain. I was relieved when he said no,” said Shamim (14), who is in the same class as Dinesh.
Lal, a daily wager, took up odd jobs to sustain his family — some days he was a wedding waiter, other days a drain cleaner.
He took up the job of cleaning Jharoda Majra Burari drain, which falls under the Delhi government’s Flood and Irrigation Department, for Rs 400.
The department, though, sought to dissociate itself from the death.
“He was probably drunk; wait for the post-mortem report. Plus, he was not supposed to go inside; he was supposed to stay on the banks and clean the garbage using a stick. There were no officials there on Sunday,” claimed a senior official of the department, who manages the North, Northwest and Central flood zone.
Lal’s five colleagues, though, claimed a contractor was present, and he had asked them to go inside and clean. “The day we joined, I asked the thekedaar to give us masks, but he refused. Even on Sunday, I asked him for safety gear but the junior engineer and the thekedaar didn’t listen to us,” claimed Manoj (35).
The department official, however, claimed that “since labourers are not supposed to go inside, there is no need for masks, gloves or safety gear”. He added that the family will be “compensated for the unfortunate incident”.
The official said the thekedaar is in Rohtak “as his wife is ill, and will return to Delhi Tuesday, while the JE is recording a statement today”. An FIR has been filed but no arrest has been made so far, police said.
Lal’s wife Indu Devi held back tears as journalists, social workers and officials gathered near the shanty. “He would leave at 9 am and return by 3 pm. I got a call from his colleague’s sister at 1.45 pm that I should rush to the site, a few kilometres from here. At 9.40 pm, they took out his body. He looked frigid,” said Devi.
Lal’s body is yet to be handed over to the family, with his parents yet to arrive from Chhattisgarh. He had moved to Delhi more than 20 years ago.
Sharing Lal’s constant preoccupation, Nandini said, “He told us to study hard so that we don’t become like him. It’s all he ever spoke to us about. That’s why Dinesh bhaiya is the brightest boy in school and in this neighbourhood.”
Hoping the setback won’t force him to quit school, Shamim told Dinesh: “No matter what happens, never quit studying, okay?”