More than four days after his younger brother died in a flooded sewer in Govandi in suburban Mumbai, 27-year-old Rahul Kumar was still in a hearse, headed to Gogri in Bihar’s Khagaria district, nearly 2,000 km from the financial capital, where the brothers worked as daily wage labourers.
“He did not want to enter the manhole, usko jabardasti utaara gaya (he was forcibly lowered into the sewer),” Rahul said of his brother Ramkrishna, 25, who died along with their uncle Sudhir Das, 35, on June 24. Rahul said they were construction labourers, who had worked earlier on building underground drainage and sewage line chambers, but had never been engaged in cleaning sewers. “We never did that work,” he said.
A video of the two men being pulled out of the manhole showed they were wearing no protective gear, a violation of law and of a landmark Supreme Court order.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, forbids any manual cleaning, carrying or handling of human excreta in insanitary latrines or in open drains or pits into which human excreta is disposed of. In a significant departure from the previous 1993 law prohibiting manual scavenging, the 2013 law expressly included in its ambit sewers, or underground conduits that carry human and other waste matter.
The work of “entering sewer lines without safety gears should be made a crime” if the practice of manual scavenging is to be brought to a close, the Supreme Court said in a 2014 judgement authored by the erstwhile Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam with justices Ranjan Gogoi and N V Ramana. The court ordered that compensation of Rs 10 lakh would be paid to the families of all workers deceased under these circumstances.
“Regardless of the law, the truth is that whether it is manhole cleaning or the cleaning of open roadside drains and nullahs, there is no mechanised work being undertaken here in our area,” said Shaikh Faiyaz, an activist of a citizens’ welfare forum in Govandi, the suburb where the latest deaths occurred. “Men get into the drains and handle the waste, most often without any protection of any kind.”
In April, along with photographic evidence of workers without protective gear cleaning drains manually, Faiyaz and others wrote to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) seeking directions to municipal officers to ensure that the practice is halted. “We have raised this issue several times earlier too,” Faiyaz said.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), meanwhile, said the contractor had been undertaking water-flow tests in the newly constructed underground sewer on 90-Feet Road in Shivaji Nagar, Govandi. Technically, it was not a cleaning operation. On June 25, the Mumbai Police arrested the contractor and three others after registering a first information report (FIR) invoking sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) pertaining to causing death by negligence.
Robots, machines and manual scavenging
In her 2023 budget speech, union minister for finance Nirmala Sitharaman said fully mechanising sewage cleaning in Indian cities was on her agenda, on the heels of a handful of indigenous and foreign companies offering robotic machines capable of removing sludge from drains and sewers. Some of these comprised a control unit with a drone or robotic cleaning mechanism, some had integrated drone-cameras, while older machines were suction-and-jet machines, which the BMC has used in several areas.
These work by unblocking settled sludge material using high pressure jets, then collecting the material towards the manhole with suction straight into an attached tank, with the sludge eventually deposited at pre-designated places. “We saw some suction machines in our area, but very very infrequently,” said Faiyaz. “Whether along main roads or narrow gullies, in M-East ward, most cleaning operations have been done by using labourers to clean the muck.”
One problem with the newer robotic machines, said one private contractor, is that it is heavy and transporting it requires additional manpower, incurring additional transportation costs. Older suction machines require generator sets and diesel, adding to the cost for contractors. Faiyaz said it was clearly much more inexpensive to use manual labour, particularly owing to the easy availability of migrant labourers working on day wages.
Following the registration of the FIR and the intervention of local legislator Abu Asim Azmi of the Samajwadi Party, the contractor firm handed over cheques for Rs 10 lakh each to the relatives of Ramkrishna and Sudhir Das.
Holding government agencies accountable
Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Aandolan, who won the Ramon Magsaysay award in 2016 for his campaign to end manual scavenging across India, said the real lapses occur in the way law enforcement agencies respond to these incidents, and in the fact that municipal agencies that are never held accountable.
“These incidents continue because the municipal bodies have the feeling that it’s no big deal,” said Wilson, whose organisation was the petitioner in the decade-long litigation that resulted in the 2014 SC order. “The responsibility is that of the municipality, which has the primary ownership, even if it gives out contracts and sub-contracts for such work. No action is taken against municipal bodies, and that is why these incidents keep happening even in a city with the country’s richest municipality.”
Cases of accidents and fatal incidents involving men and women cleaning drains, sewers and septic tanks in and around Mumbai have been reported at regular intervals. The law is applicable to private premises as well as municipal sewers, activists said, and in both cases, it is contractors and labour contractors who are held responsible.
Only on June 11, a car ran over a worker, who was standing inside a manhole in Kandivali. The worker had been cleaning the manhole without any barricading provided around the manhole nor anybody managing traffic around it. He died after 10 days in hospital. The driver of the car and a contractor were arrested.
In March 2022, three sanitation workers died while cleaning a septic tank adjoining a public toilet in Kandivali. The same month, two men died while cleaning a septic tank in a residential building in Mumbra, Thane.
In December 2019, three workers died in a septic tank in a Govandi apartment building. The widows of the three men later approached the court seeking compensation as directed by the SC order of 2014. In 2021, the Bombay high court directed that Rs 10 lakh be paid to each of the three families.
The high court also asked to be apprised of what efforts were made to rehabilitate those employed as manual scavengers.
Despite the frequency of these incidents, they have not stopped; and victims have had to suffer the indignity of approaching courts to get their SC-mandated compensation, Wilson added.
Repeated protests and calls for action
A little over a year later, in December 2022, the Maharashtra state government instructed local bodies to suspend all manual cleaning of septic tanks and sewers and instead opt for 100% mechanisation. Yet, on June 14, 2023, ten days before the Govandi incident, a small group of labourers held a demonstration outside the office of the suburban collector—the manual cleaning of roadside drains was continuing, they said, asking for a complete halt to the use of manual labour in removing sludge from storm water drains.
Among the protestors were wives of men who had been unwell after working inside these drains. “Some workers died later, not at the location and time of their work,” said Shubham Kothari, an activist of the Jan Haq Sangharsh Samiti, who led the group seeking compensation for the families. “This was just before the current monsoon arrived, when drain desilting work was still being conducted using men who stepped into the nullahs.” The issue of compensation in such cases was vexed, he said. Moreover, officials told them that neither compensation nor rehabilitation of families was possible because the work was not considered to be manual scavenging at all.
In March 2023, the Union government informed the Parliamentary standing committee on social justice and empowerment that FIRs had been registered in 616 cases across the country, where contractors had not provided safety gear and equipment to sewer workers. A decade since the law was enacted to prohibit the practice, one single conviction had been secured from courts, the government said.
Acknowledging that more needed to be done, the department representative told the committee that besides handing out compensation—out of 1,035 fatalities in sewers and septic tanks, only 74 were still to be paid the compensation—the government was undertaking a “zero tolerance” approach to deaths of workers cleaning sewer lines.
Shaikh Faiyaz of Govandi echoed the thought. “A simple solution is that local officials should ensure zero tolerance,” he said. “When we tell them that contractors are making labourers climb into a drain or sewer, they should stop it immediately.”