“No manual entry into any sewerage system will be permitted. No human contact with sewerage will be allowed without prescribed protective gear.” These directives form part of an August 14, 2017 order issued by former Delhi Jal Board (DJB) CEO Keshav Chandra — following a spate of deaths of sewage cleaners in Lajpat Nagar.
Directives that appear to be only on paper. Just last week, two men died after they fell into a sewage treatment plant and inhaled toxic fumes at the Vivanta by Taj — Ambassador hotel near Khan Market.
The news hasn’t really changed life for Ramesh and his six-member team who, for Rs 400 a day, are ready if any manholes or sewage pits need cleaning. On Saturday afternoon, outside gate number 4 in south Delhi’s Gulmohar Enclave, they are unclogging a rainwater harvesting pit filled with coconut shells, broken bottles, and pieces of cloth.
They enter the 18-foot-deep pit wearing only vests, trousers and slippers. “The machine cannot enter a pit this deep. The only way to clean it is by getting in and digging out debris with spades and buckets,” said Ramesh, adding that in his 12 years of work, he has never used a desilting machine.
The men, who live in Trilokpuri and work on a contract basis, said the first thing they look for before entering a pit is an ‘acidic’ smell — an indicator of trapped gas. “We keep the manhole open for 10 minutes to let it escape,” said Tinku Singh (32), who used to be a helper at GB Pant hospital.
But the method is not foolproof. Over the last seven years, at least 31 deaths have been reported in the capital while cleaning sewers and pits, often after victims inhale “gaseous compounds” such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
In 2017, four people died in Ghitorni while working in a water harvesting pit in July; three died in Lajpat Nagar while cleaning a sewer in August; and one died while cleaning a sewer at LNJP Hospital the same month. Most were hired by private contractors.
After each incident, the government outlines the need for proper safety gear and to shift to mechanised cleaning. Moreover, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 prohibits employment of manual scavengers or manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment. On the ground, however, little has changed.
A DJB spokesperson said they have held sensitisation programmes with the New Delhi Municipal Council, Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and other agencies about using machines. “But these can’t be used if the pit is narrow,” she said.
Former Delhi Water Minister and DJB chairman Rajendra Pal Gautam said the Delhi government has strengthened the law and is in the process of procuring better machines. “IPC 304 (punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder) is invoked in such deaths. The punishment is more as compared to IPC 304A (causing death by negligence). Plus, 200 machines with three-in-one facility — jetting, desilting and suction — are being manufactured in Pune. Designed by DJB, these can go in narrow lanes,” he said.
Gautam added that despite the government issuing advertisements on approaching DJB for cleaning work, people prefer private contractors: “This makes it difficult to prevent deaths. We need to spread awareness aggressively.”
Harnam Singh, former chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Safai Karamcharis (DCSK) and member of the Delhi High Court’s monitoring committee on sewer deaths, said, “When you don’t have stringent punishment for erring persons — private owners, contractors and government officials — why will anyone stop?”
The commission was formed in 2006 to safeguard interests of safai karamcharis and has powers of a civil court.
Every death a whodunit
Data accessed by The Indian Express on the status of deaths reported since 2011 also points to a pattern of authorities passing the buck — and zero convictions so far. Consider this:
August 6, 2013: Prithvi died while cleaning a sewer near a hotel in east Delhi. An FIR under IPC Section 304A was lodged against the proprietor of the hotel. As per official records, the DJB said the sewer line comes under DDA, and that it “has no role”.
In a letter to the DCSK, Anush Finlease and Construction Private Limited, responsible for the work, said: “Prithvi was working on a temporary basis. He was cleaning the sewer, which is not our periphery. Our guard and sub-contractor’s labourers found somebody had fallen in the sewer… on humanitarian grounds, he was taken to the nearby hospital after informing police… The entire case has been settled with police by paying a compensation of Rs 2 lakh in favour of his father.”
Five years later, three people have been booked and the case is pending trial.
December 5, 2013: Rishi Vijay and Ratnesh Jha died while cleaning a sewer line at a toilet complex managed by Sulabh International in Narela. A passerby, Govind Paswan, who tried to help them, also died.
Vijay and Jha were Sulabh International volunteers and had allegedly been called in to clean the sewer. A report by Sulabh International said the responsibility to clean the sewer lines lay with government agencies. “Normally, if the main sewer line is choked, a complaint is lodged with authority concerned, which gets it cleaned departmentally… It is not clear… what made them go inside the manhole. Sulabh functionaries gave them no instructions — either oral or written — in this regard… On humanitarian grounds, we have disbursed Rs 10 lakh to the bereaved family.”
But a letter from the DDA’s engineering member, dated January 1, 2014, stated: “As reported by the chief engineer (Narela Zone), it appears sewer cleaning was being done by Sulabh and not by DDA.” Delhi Police filed a chargesheet on March 15, 2016 against Deputy Controller Sulabh International and a trial is pending.
July 14, 2013: Ashok Kumar, Rajeshwar and Satish died while cleaning a sewer line at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA).
The centre gave Rs 2 lakh each to the families, stating that “payment was made purely on humanitarian grounds”. In his letter to DCSK, director of administration (IGNCA) Jayanta Kumar Ray said, “IGNCA did not have any liability vis-a-vis the deceased as the said job was assigned to Gupta Engineering.”
The proprietor of Gupta Engineering, Ashok Kumar Gupta, in his letter to IGNCA, said he was “shocked” to hear people had fainted at the work site: “Neither my firm has started any work on the site nor any labourer has been sent… Claims that I failed to supervise the work and did not follow proper safety precautions for labourers are false, fabricated, frivolous and vague.”
Delhi Police registered an FIR under various IPC sections but five years on, they are yet to file a chargesheet. An officer cited problems with FSL reports for the delay.
May 15, 2013: An undertrial prisoner, Ramu Singh, died in Tihar Jail while cleaning a sewer. As the news was reported, jail authorities said Singh and other inmates had volunteered to maintain cleanliness inside the premises.
On May 15, they found a sewer line choked. Singh and another prisoner, Sunil, started cleaning the line using a bamboo stick. “None of the prisoners were assigned the job of manual sewer cleaning. They did not enter the sewer, but accidentally fell in after the iron support broke,” Tihar administration said.
A judge later decided to conduct inquest proceedings. And taking suo motu cognizance of the case, the DCSK asked why an FIR was not lodged. “This is a serious matter of negligence and lack of supervision on part of jail authorities,” DCSK noted. In November, Tihar paid Rs 2 lakh to Singh’s family. Police have registered an FIR. DCP West said he was unable to check the status of the case.
A safer option
Outside the DJB office in Mandawali, sanitation workers wait for complaints to be resolved. “I hope they don’t send us to a residential area; those are the worst,” said Akash (24). He and his six-member team are eventually assigned a sewer line in a residential colony in West Vinod Nagar. They are provided a desilting machine mounted atop a tractor.
Their supervisor, Ashu, a private contractor, got the machine via a private tender and rents it out for Rs 370 for six hours. Armed with a crane and mechanical clamp, the team heads to the manholes in lane 6.
First, the men use a bamboo stick to unclog the drain. Surender (26) starts rotating the stick and after several angry pokes, water starts to recede as empty bottle caps, used condoms and a surgical glove are removed.
The men work without masks or gloves — every time they open a manhole, they just turn their faces away. “Sometimes gas builds up in sewer lines, which is why residential areas are dangerous,” said Akash.
Akash then shows how a tractor reverses into manholes full of debris. The crane lowers the clamp into the manhole, while workers manoeuvre it. The clamp is then removed — it comes up with nothing. “It is like fishing. We keep sending the clamp till it comes back with garbage. Then we know it has hit the right manhole,” said Surender.
Earlier, they would spend hours cleaning the debris. Now, the machine does it in minutes. Plus, the workers manage to avoid health problems like rashes, eye infections, fever, nausea, cough and bloated stomach.
After opening three manholes, the problem is fixed. “We have a desilting machine; we don’t use our hands anymore,” said Akash, as the team returned to the DJB office for a bath.