The news of three deaths of sanitation workers in sewage line at the prime location of Indira Gandhi National Centre for Art (IGNCA) in Delhi on July 14th, has passed off 'peacefully' as the country is 'busy' in many things and media has no time to raise the issue as these are not 'political deaths', to raise pitch on our studios. The government is unable to bring new law so far as the parties have no time to pass it. Our huge growth and infrastructure developmental activities are unable to find machine to clean sewage lines and we need a particular community of Balmikis to enter into it. And poverty, isolation, oppression force the young men of the community to enter into these 'hellish' 'death holes' or 'shit bombs' knowing fully well the dangers involved in it. Authorities continue to get their things done despite deaths of hundreds of workers in past few years in these 'death holes' and the responsible civic agencies like Delhi Jal Board, Municipal Corporation of Delhi and New Delhi Municipal Corporations put blame on others. So far not a single official has been booked for this criminal negligence. Question is how long will we allow these incidents go scot free without any one being made accountable for these deaths? Secondly, what are the rehabilitation measures for those who have died in these plants and thirdly when will we see a complete prohibition of people entering into these 'death-traps' It is time to ask questions and fix responsibility on people. Sewage work is another name of manual scavenging for which government of India and state governments are claiming that they have 'eliminated' from their states. It is the new form of manual scavenging much more dangerous as it completely kills human spirit, degrade them and compel them to do things for purely economic reasons. No one would like to enter into these death traps. The death of three young workers in Delhi and the treatment meted out to them in death itself shows how much dirt exists in our mind. That those who make our cities clean are treated worse than animals in their death too. That their bodies are treated as 'unknown' by the police and medical doctors and families are not informed adequately about their deaths. The height of negligence is when IGNCA authorities refuse to accept, tender apology or even speak to the families of these deceased. So far none of the so-called authorities have visited them. Families are left to fetch themselves. It is a story of our criminal neglect, poverty, desperation, isolation, caste indignities, racist society and barbarianism. We must hang our head in shame.
The death in the hole
It was Sunday and Rajesh 35 decided to go to work thinking that he would earn a few bucks more to bring to his family. He took along with him Ashok, Satish and Chhotu to Indira Gandhi National Centre for Art (IGNCA) in the Lutyen's sprawling Delhi for the days 'cleaning' operation. Little did they know that this would be perhaps the last 'working' day for them? They were supposed to clean 6 sewage pits near the AC plant in the IGNCA and hence they started early morning at 7 am from the home so that he could finish that on time around 5 pm in the evening and get back home to do his additional work of Rickshaw pulling which was essential for him to run his family. It is not well known so far as whether they were hired by the company or whether IGNCA had subcontracted the work to any company. It needs thorough investigations and criminal case of murder must be file d for those responsible for this.
In the semi urban locality of Trilokpuri nearly 50,000 Balmiki families live to earn their livelihood through various kinds of engagements. A majority of them now work with the private contractors after the sanitary work was privatized. The MCD and NDMC jobs became lucrative and out of reach for most of them. Many of them actually work in absence of those who 'sign' in the register. The signatories get the salaries but most of these youngsters work for someone and get a meager sum of money for their survival. Some others are destined to work with private contractors as they can't get any other job. The private contractors squeeze them and pay well below the minimum wages and take a minimum of 8-12 hours' work a day against all the norms of the government. There is no social security benefit as well as no leaves and holidays for them. They can be called at any moment and even there it is not known how many of them are truly registered as employees. So, most of them actually, despite working regularly with these private contractors are treated as daily wage workers and hence their condition is pathetic.
Rajesh was a supervisor in the private company and was earning Rs five thousand a month. Living along with his wife, a son and a daughter, he was the sole bread-winner of the family. A few months back he had lost his elder daughter who was about eighteen years of age. Just two months ago, he got his second daughter married. The neighbor says that he was a very hard working man, who after coming from work used to ply rickshaw till the night. 'How much can you really make in Rs 5000/- when you have to shell out nearly three thousands for rent, says an elderly woman in the neighborhood. He was under tremendous pressure as his second daughter got married two months ago and we know he had taken a loan of Rs 100,000/-. The pressure is so much that the family has not been able to return the money. It is this reason that Rajesh and many like him actually work in the evening and ready to exploit their bodies further.
In the first floor house lives this family. Rajesh's son is too young to understand. He does not go to school. I asked why,' mere paas vardi nahi hai', he said, I don't have school uniform'. And one can understand the pain in his eyes in saying so. We know how the Balmiki students are humiliated in the schools. They are normally asked to sit at the last and if they come late the teachers beat them and scold them in best known expletives.
The family was therefore aware that he was going for some extra work. There was no information at home till late in the evening at 11 pm two boys came and asked them about the where about of Rajesh and his number. In the night police came to inform them about his death. They died in sewage line but surprisingly and shockingly the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Art is shamelessly ignoring the facts about their presence. Rajesh parents are no more. His wife is in a state of deep shock and his son has no mean to go to school. His brothers live elsewhere so for this family now life has become more challenging and traumatic. The family does not even have a ration card leave alone of having a BPL card. One does not know what are these card made of and for whom if the most oppressed of the people have no access to it.
Similar scenes were visible at the house of Ashok who too was living on a rented place. With 4 children, two daughters and two sons, Ashok was paid Rs Five Thousand for his work every month by the company. His father is too old and his younger brother was worried about him particularly his growing daughter who is expected to get married in November. His family is living in a difficult shape as they pay Rs 4000/- as rent and his two sons are too young and don't know whether they would be able to go school again or not. The families do not know what to do and where to go, who to approach. They become vulnerable to exploitation further.
Bodies treated as 'Unknown'
According to preliminary information from the hospital three persons, Rajesh, Satish and Ashok were brought dead there by the Parliament Street Thana Police. It is surprising, shocking and disturbing that there is no information filled up in the police form and the initial form provided to the family of diseased looks as if they are 'unknown' and found dead lying in the street. Three deaths were recorded everywhere as unknown which means neither the IGNCA nor the contractors have anything to do with this issue at present. If that is true than how can police take up this matter without registering a case of negligence against those responsible for it? Is it just the case of negligence or our lack of humanity and basic dignity provided to Balmikis for doing all the work which none other can do? It raises basic question of how we treat our people who doing the most dangerous work. Did the police make any arrest in this regard? Did they speak to any one on the issue or just want to close the file? Were these people working without any body's knowledge? How can they enter sewage pit when it is prohibited? Who is responsible to manage and maintain sewage lines? Can the IGNCA get away without any penalty? The three workers were working with private contractors so it needs to be investigated whether they were working on the guidelines of the private contractors. If yes, then what was the role of the authorities to stop such things?
We all know that Delhi and other parts of India shamelessly use the poverty of people to fulfill their ulterior agenda. The manual scavenging in India continue and is on the increase and without any sincere effort to eliminate it. How can the authorities treat the persons who were doing this work as 'unknown' and lawaris? Rajesh, Ashok and all others had not only their mobile phones with them but had some cash as well as their company Identity Card. They would not have entered the IGNCA air-conditioned block without the entry at the gate and if it is not entered then why? The pain is that we have seen deaths for years without changing the pattern of our governance system as well as social attitude.
Who is responsible for these deaths?
After showing these deaths as 'Unknown' not a single official from either IGNCA or the private contractor where Rajesh and other worked visited their homes. And it is till yesterday evening 6 pm when I was speaking the families had neither the copy of the FIR nor any other details as how their people died. Leave aside asking about their people, there is something fishy as all the families were not informed properly by any responsible authority about this 'accident', which is clearly a murder. The families are shocked that no one from these 'responsible' bothered to ask about them.
The deaths seem to occur at 8.30 in the evening but families were not informed properly about this. In fact, people were sent casually to find out the whereabouts of these people as well as their contact details. It is late in the night when they were informed by the police about the 'accident' and asked them to visit Ram Manohar Lohia. Ashok's brother actually informed that they got information next morning. It is shameful that our authorities do everything to kill the information and hence any investigation further becomes a mere formality.
It is well known that after such pressure a token amount could be given to the next of diseased yet the way everyone has behaved here shows the criminal apathy of governance, civil society and media. Except for DNA, there was not even news on the issue. The news which die next day and none try to find as what happen to families who's everything is lost.
Impartial Inquiry and comprehensive rehabilitation of the families
Rajesh, Ashok and Satish are no more. None cry for them except their family people. Government of India has not been able to bring a bill in Parliament to eliminate manual scavenging and rehabilitate the manual scavengers. It is shocking negligence by each apparatus of our system that the families of these people suffer in agony and uncertainty. On the one hand we want to stop it through legislation and the other side there is no security for them. Strangely and disgustingly their families do not possess ration cards here as they live on rented houses. The government facilities do not reach them. Fact of the matter is, it is difficult for any Balmiki family to get a house on rent in a 'normal' locality. The community which should have been on our agenda to eliminate not just discrimination but caste discrimination to be precise is suffering all humiliation.
While an impartial inquiry is important yet the most important is fixing up of responsibility and rehabilitation of the families who lost their members. You cannot allow people to die in suffocation and suffering and hence the government must compensate adequately to the families. It is time when bodies like NHRC, NCSC must take suo-moto action against the private contractors, NDMC/MCD /Jal Board officials for gross dereliction of duty and negligence resulting in deaths of three young men. The government on the other hand must come out with comprehensive rehabilitation measures completely banning entry of human being into these 'death holes' as well as other forms of manual scavenging. It is gross violation of human rights to live with dignity and show our caste and racial prejudices, a 'divine reservation' which has been meant for Balmiki community. It would be better if the government address the issue seriously and show some sign of action at the ground before other deaths take place in these death traps.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat
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