NEW DELHI: Afsana and Sakho clutch an old newspaper as they talk. The paper carries an article of their husbands’ deaths in 2013. Five years have passed since. Not only has justice been denied, they say, their lives have gotten worse.
The two middle-aged women are bound by grief — their husbands were cleaning septic tanks in the employ of a private contractor in Awadh Puri in Uttar Pradesh’s Agra and died in an accident. They were given neither any protective gear, nor safety equipment.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, outlaws manual scavenging, which includes hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks. The ground reality however, is different. According to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, the agency has recorded 634 deaths while cleaning septic tanks and sewers since 1993 across the country. Despite the law, the lack of implementation on the ground ensures that the practice continues.
“We now work as daily wage labourers. The private agency had given us compensation but we have not received any aid from the government. I have five children. The meagre amount I earn is not enough to support the large family I have,” said Afsana.
Sakho agrees adding she has borrowed money to for her four daughters’ marriage and still hopes for a “better future” for her other two children. The women admit that they never anticipated the worst. Their neighbour Seema, has a similar story to share. Her 18-year-old son died while cleaning a septic tank in 2009.
Activists have repeatedly pointed out the State’s apathy in handing out rehabilitation packages for the families of those killed while cleaning septic tanks and sewers. Survivors also have little option but to go back to manual scavenging.
For Ajay Wagla, 26, remembering the day he lost his brother is also a grim reminder of what he went through himself in Maharashtra’s Solapur. “I lay there unconscious for four hours. The day is a blur. When I regained consciousness, my brother and the other man who went with us to clean the tank were dead.”
The family received no compensation, said Ajay. Four years after the accident, he now ekes out living by cleaning toilets in a factory where he does not need to fear for his life.
Pankaj Khare, 27, says his father died cleaning a septic tank in 1995 in Dewas in Madhya Pradesh. There has been no government relief since. “The incident still haunts us,” says Khare who works with the local municipal body as a safai karamchari.