QUEEN'S ROAD: The death of two workers in a manhole last week exposes the callous disregard of scavenging rules.
Yathiraj and Prasanna were called to unclog a drain in one of the homes at the Income Tax quarters in Jayamahal.
They realised the drain was connected to the sewage system outside the quarters, and went to clear a sewer hole that falls under the BWSSB’s control.
The toxic fumes enveloped them soon after they descended into the hole. Both workers died of asphyxiation.
The Central Public Works Department, run by the Central government, manages the upkeep of all of its premises in the city.
A senior engineer said, “Some mistakes were made. One, the workers were not operating within the specified jurisdiction. Two, the manhole was not within the two-foot depth limit where humans are allowed to descend.”
CPWD Assistant Engineer Bala Reddy and the contractor Nagaraj, responsible for hiring the workers, had been charged with death due to negligence.
The JC Nagar police have now registered a case under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, confirmed the DCP North T R Suresh.
The arrests bring to the fore the question of who should be held responsible for such. Is it the authorities whose job it is to implement Central government rules or the local contractor appointed to carry out the work?
“The investigation is still on. We can’t answer the question now,” Suresh said. Bala Reddy was not present during the time of the cleaning, and had deployed the contractor to attend to the complaint. “There has been no communication with the arrested so far. They remain in custody. The police have still not questioned others at the CPWD,” the engineer said.
The engineer said the contractor would have to answer some questions as well. “We are preparing a report to submit to the police in the next two days, to put across the department’s assessment,” the senior official said.
The Sanitary Board Workers Union says the BWSSB employs just 150 workers to attend to such problems, and uses the services of 300 outsourced workers.
But the BWSSB says its policies are clear, and it uses machines to unclog sewerage lines. “Manual scavenging is prohibited. We discourage our employees from it,” said T C Saralakumari, PRO for the BWSSB.
Yatish Raju and Prasanna Kumar did not follow the standard practice of checking if the underground atmosphere allows a candle to burn, she said. If it does, it means oxygen is present, and the hole is safe.
Lack of awareness can lead to such deaths, and the BWSSB is educating workers on the importance of safety.
“I am in the process of getting financial approval to make a video guide on the precautions to be taken before handling sewage,” Saralakumari said.
Activist Bezwada Wilson, who has been espousing the cause of municipal workers, termed the incident “an utter violation of human rights.”
Since 1998, Wilson’s organisation, Safai Karamchari Andolan, has recorded 13 deaths of manual scavengers in the sewer lines and septic tanks of Karntaka alone.
The sentence for those found guilty of causing such deaths is a year in jail.
Why wasn’t a machine used?
Machines have replaced human intervention in handling sewage. The BWSSB has 117 jet-setter machines to clean manholes. The CPWD does not own any such equipment. The two workers got into a manhole that was 12 feet deep, and paid with their lives.