"We haven’t framed the photo. It will hurt us more to look at Vishal’s face,” said Parvati as her eyes welled up. “I can’t explain the pain of a mother who lost her 20-year-old son.”
“Shaam hote hi lagta hai abhi wapis aega (every evening I feel he will come back home). He was not supposed to work on that day. He went to work after he got a call,” Parvati said inconsolably, as her daughter Satya tried to calm her down.
On September 9 last year, Vishal left for cleaning a septic tank in West Delhi. Little did the family know that was the last time they would see him. The youth was pursuing Bachelors degree from Delhi University’s distance learning programme simultaneously as he worked in a private firm to help his family of five which lives in a one-room house in Nangloi.
“There were six people who were made to do the work. Vishal was a plumber. The supervisors had left after assigning him the job,” Parvati said.Satya recollected that no safety tools were provided to the group. “None of them were scavengers, but the supervisor engaged them for the work. They had promised Vishal more money. After they entered the tank, four of them died but my brother was still alive. He and his friend, a neighbour, somehow managed to get out of that 20 ft deep tank.”
What pinches the family is that Vishal was refused treatment by three hospitals before he was wheeled to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital where he died. “He could have been saved had the doctors treated him early. We got the news from the hospital. We though he had met with an accident. Only when we reached RML, we understood what had happened. His body was still covered in dirt,” Satya choked.
The Supreme Court last year, had questioned Attorney General K K Venugopal as to why proper protective gear like mask and oxygen cylinders were not being provided to manual scavengers. “Why are you not providing masks and oxygen cylinders? In no country, people are sent to gas chambers to die,” the top court had said.
Struggle for compensation
The same story unfolds in another family. Eleven years ago, Harkesh died while manual scavenging. Widowed at 32, Manju was left to care for her three children all by herself.“Pati mera chala gaya, isme kya jhoot bolun. Saare documents dikha diya phir bhi daftar mein bolte hain kya saboot hai (I lost my husband, what is there to lie about? I have shown all the documents to the officer but he still asks for proof” said Manju.
Manju now lives with her two sons and a daughter-in-law at Tilak Nagar in a 1BHK flat provided and rented by an NGO. “I came to know the Manual Scavenging Act in 2016, after the Safai Karmachari Andolon came to meet me. Since then I have been visiting court, DM office every week to get the compensation amount of `10 lakh but to no avail. The money won’t bring back my husband nor can it ever compensate the loss and struggle we had to face. But we are poor and Dalit.”
Though an FIR was registered against the contractor and the matter went to court, Manju said the judge asked her to settle the matter outside the court. “I was alone at the district court on the hearing day. The judge asked how my husband died. I said whatever I knew…meanwhile the contractor started crying. I then asked for a job but judge refused. The contractor paid me `1.5 lakh and the matter was over. I had no other option than to accept the money.”
With the new Manual Scavenging Act, Manju had hoped for justice but the law did little to help her struggle. “We are from Valmiki community…the only job people offer us is of cleaning toilets and drains. This is the bitter truth and probably a reason why even we don’t put much effort to ask for justice. Caste plays a big role in determining what you get from government…”
While Manju’s battle is for compensation still on, Vishal’s family was given `10 lakh by the Delhi government. “We were given compensation but that can never replace loss of a human… No one cares about our lives, not even the government,” Parvati stated.
What Delhi govt did
After missing several deadlines, the Delhi government this year launched sewer cleaning machines to minimise human involvement in the cleaning work. Around 100 more such machines will be acquired to add to the existing 116 machines, an official from the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) said.“Each unit is capable of performing diverse functions, including jetting through a high-pressure pump, desilting via hydraulically-operated grabber and rodding using a detachable mini-machine that runs on electricity. The rodding unit is a replacement for bamboo sticks used by manual scavengers to churn and push sewage.”
Multiple requests were made to the DJB for a field visit to demonstrate how the machines work. However, the initially approved visits were not allowed at the last minute.Activists, however, claimed that deaths have taken place despite these machines. Safai Karmachari Andolan founder Bezwada Wilson criticised the government’s move to deploy sewer cleaning machines as a lone measure to eradicate manual scavenging. “Machines are not the ultimate solution. Had that been a case then there wouldn’t have been recent cases of deaths,”he asserted. National Commission for Safai Karamcharis chairperson Manhar Zala said there have been 35 deaths since 2017.
Both the families claimed that none of them were offered any job from either of the companies. The director and the supervisor of Unnati Engineering and Contractors — Vishal’s employer —were arrested and are in jail. “Strong action needs to be taken against those who engage others in manual scavenging. I don’t want anyone else to go through the same tragedy,” Parvati said.The contractor, however, in Manju’s case was allowed to walk out of jail as the matter was settled. “Ek akeli mahila kahan tak ladti…harna to thaa hi (How far could a lone woman fight…I had to face defeat),” she said.
The burden of caste
According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, over 1.3 million people in India are involved in the practice of manual scavenging. “Reports suggest that 99% of those involved in manual scavenging are Dalits and among them, 95% are women. This job is akin to “forced labour or slavery” since Dalits are rarely able to take up another occupation due to discrimination and debt,”it said.