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Society indifferent to workers who perish in India's 'death holes'
There has been no news from the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Art regarding the deaths of three sanitation workers in the campus on 14 July while cleaning the sewage line near the AC plant. The families of the deceased have not heard anything from the company yet.

The National Human Rights Commission and other government bodies need to act on it as one of the prime witnesses in the case is Chhotu, 30 who was part of the team and survived. In an interaction, Chhotu and his mother provided horrific details of the incident and how they were treated at the hospital.

It was early morning at around 7.30am when Chhotu along with his friends Rajesh and others started from Trilokpuri for work. He was not told about the nature of the work. He was informed that he would have to clean water tank, he said. At 8.30am they reached Indira Gandhi National Centre for Art and the watchman at the gate took them to the AC plant side to carry out the work.

Chhotu was the youngest and hence worked more than his elderly colleagues. There was no big deal in cleaning the five pits as they did not have gas but just ‘water’. They had cleared five pits. Bahadur, the watchman of the centre, helped them. They had pump also but that was not used fully. Bahadur left after the five holes were cleared. It was five in the evening. A couple who too was working had left for tea.

Chhottu felt that it was time to finish the last one too and leave. As he entered the sixth pit, there was gas inside it. He could not face it and fell unconscious. His friends were watching. So, they pulled him up but the person who tried to save him actually died. He was Satish. Each one of them was trying to save him but he died. Satish, Ashok and Rajesh died trying to save one other facing the terrible gas. There was no staff of IGNCA. The couple who had gone out for tea had returned. There was commotion and they called up police helpline. Police arrived quickly and took all the victims to Ram Manohar Lohia hospital where Satish, Ashok and Rajesh were declared dead while Chhotu was admitted.He was responding to the treatment.

The death of medical ethics

Chhotu’s parents at Trilokpuri were informed late in the night and both of them rushed to the hospital. His wife was pregnant. His mother was in a very disturbed condition. At the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital, they found them unwelcomed. The doctors were not interested in them. The mother rushed here and there but finally found the boy in the ward. He was unrecognizable as the body was covered with oil in coal black. No one among the staff bothered to clean him up or wash his dirt.

In the early morning when Chhotu came to senses, he saw his mother and asked about their children. “They are all fine,” said the mother. He then inquired about Rajesh and others and his mother said that they too were fine. His mother was worried about his condition and hence felt that it was good not to inform him. Suddenly, he got up and went outside the ward. He was feeling uneasy and uncomfortable. It was very unfortunate and shocking that when he, returned to his bed after 10 minutes, the doctor and the nurse did not allow him. They were asked to leave. The doctors did not even give them the papers of their treatment. His mother begged but the doctors at the hospital did not bother to listen to her pleas.

Both mother-son duo remained at the hospital only. Now, Chhotu had realized that his three other colleagues were dead as the families of them were already in the hospital. He was in deep shock but fortunately he could tolerate all this. Despite being in terrible mental and physical condition, he helped the families of the deceased and was there with them till they got the bodies of their loved ones back.
If we see the pattern of treatment meted out to all these victims including Chhotu, then one thing is clear: doctors in India suffer from prejudices and perhaps arecnot ready to touch those who clean the human excreta and other garbage in our cities as well as go deep into these sewage lines, the modern day night-soil.

All of them were acknowledged as ‘unknown’ and their concerns were not addressed. Their families got the dead bodies at 12pm the next day. One can understand the seriousness that the doctors showed. When they asked for post mortem report, they were asked to come after 40 days. Why are the doctors denying the patient the post mortem report? Shockingly, the cause of death is not mentioned in the certificate issued so far.

Some more Facts

After speaking to Chhotu, who is the witness to the event following facts emerged and they must be enquired.

The entire work was being supervised by Rajesh who is among the deceased. He had promised Rs 300 to each for the job. They were promised that there was no sewage pipe but water pits at the centre.
The other fact coming to the notice is that Rajesh was employed at the IGNCA by a private company who has so far not approached the family. It needs to be seen as why IGNCA has not spoken on the issue.

Who is responsible for the deaths of these people?

Why has the police not filed an FIR and if yes, why the copies of FIR have not been provided to the family. It needs to be seen whether the FIR contains any case of negligence against civic authorities or IGNCA.
What are the rehabilitation measures done so far? After the privatization process, contractors have given it to subcontractors and hence no social security for those who enter this death hole. Most of the time, it is the younger member or older one, who are not employed or labourers enter into these pits just for earning a few quick bucks.

Despite High Court orders, why were these people not informed about the last pit which contained ‘oil’- a dangerous and contained gas? Chhotu informed us that till the five pits were covered, the watchman Bahadur was with them but when they opened the last pit, very suspiciously Bahadur left that time. The question is whether Bahadur had known what was in that pit and if yes then why didn’t he inform them.
They were clearly told that unless they clear each of these pits, no payment would be made to them.

Defied death

Chhotu defied death. He is a daily wage worker. He parents are sweepers. His mother works in a local hospital and is too concerned about him as he is the only son. Fortunately, they have their own house unlike other colleagues who died. Chhotu’s mother clearly does not want him to do this work. “I would have died if anything had happened to him,” she said.

Just a day after Chhotu came back from this danger zone, his wife delivered a baby girl and now his mother says,’ the daughter has brought her father back, so she is a special child. He is now father of four children and one shudders to think about the event which happened in his life.

Chhotu’s story is one of deprivation, denial and rejection. It is a social violence brutally legalized by the state apparatus which has failed to provide protection to Dalits all over the country. The state which claims to work on the secular principles of its constitution has not been able to construct a secular bureaucracy which treats all of its citizens without any preconceived notions.

There are serious questions that arise from this incident and I am sure it is not the last despite our wishes because neither the people nor the civic authorities have any civic sense here. They remain unpunished because the power elite have not taken these issues seriously. There are provisions for protection and punishment for violating yet shamelessly nothing moves. Can the NDMC, MCD, Delhi government or Ministry of Social Justice keep quiet on the issue since the entire sanitation work is now ‘privatised’?

The problem is that things remain the same. The death occurs in the heart of Delhi and at the premier institution of India. It has shown the callousness of our police which did not show any concern. We don’t even know what they are doing as far as this case is concerned. The story of RML doctors is well known who did not even bother to give full treatment to Chhotu. He still sees a doctor at the Lal Bahadur hospital in East Delhi. He is still not well but who cares?

Where are the masks, gloves and machines meant for this work? We hear so much of mechanization process and yet we send people from a particular community to die in these gas chambers without proper protection measures or medical insurance. Manual scavenging is prohibited legally and on papers and in the heart of our capital city, the community which has been compelled to do this work is dying daily without any dignified response to their issues including rehabilitation.

A challenge to human values and constitution

The deaths in sewers and subsequent treatment given to those, who died and those, who continue to suffer while doing this inhuman work, needs to be properly investigated. The role of each agency must be clearly mentioned. Doctors and other medical staff, Delhi Jal Board, New Delhi Municipal Corporation or Municipal Corporation of Delhi, private contractors should not be allowed to go unquestioned. Let there be heavy penalties imposed on them. Let them answer the deaths of all these people and maltreatment to them.

Will the National Human Rights Commission and National Commission for Scheduled Caste wake up? They take up suo-motto actions which are published in newspapers but what happens to things which are not taken up by the media seriously? It is a wake up call and time for a decisive battle against all forms of manual scavenging.

Mechanization process is not the solution but a will is needed to overhaul our social value system besides a strict implementation of anti-discriminatory laws including SC-ST prevention of atrocities act.

In the meantime, we want the authorities to answer the families of the victims. Who is responsible for these deaths and what is being done to the families of these people who languish in humiliation and uncertainty of life. Each death in the sewage line or toilets is an upfront to our constitution as it is the very negation of society based on equity, liberty and fraternity as envisaged by Baba Saheb Dr Ambedkar.


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