Lucknow: A sanitation worker died after inhaling toxic gases while cleaning a sewer line in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, on Wednesday evening. The condition of two other workers is said to be critical.
The workers were not provided protective gear by the private company hired by the Jalkal Department of the municipal corporation to clean and maintain the sewage treatment plants and pipelines across the city.
According to officials, the victim, Yogesh (identified by a single name), a native of the Aulina Hall village, was sent inside a sewage line in the Siyana area allegedly without any gear or safety equipment to rescue his colleagues.
Recently a sewer line has been laid to make the sewer system smooth in almost every ward of the city. The work of connecting the sewer line and its cleaning is currently ongoing.
On Wednesday evening, Amir, a resident of Bulandshahr, was the first to go inside the sewer line to clean it. However, he fainted as soon as he entered the sewer. When Amir did not come out, Hashim went in to find out what had happened, and ultimately, the duo became unconscious.
When Hashim did not respond for some time, a third worker entered to search for the other two, but he too failed to return, said the police. Then a fire brigade was called to rescue them. A firefighter went down the sewer wearing breathing apparatus to retrieve the victims by tying them to a rope in a 45-minute-long operation. The victims were soon rushed to a nearby hospital, where Yogesh was declared brought dead while Amir and Hashim were still in critical condition, the police said.
There was unrest among fellow labourers over the death. They complained that negligence on part of the contractor and officials led to Yogesh’s death. “Both Amir and Yogesh were given no safety equipment,” one of the labourers told NewsClick. Soon after the incident, the contractor fled the spot, further angering the labourers.
The concerned authorities, meanwhile, said that they have ordered an enquiry into the matter and announced a compensation of Rs 4 lakh to the deceased’s family.
“The workers are usually very poor and unaware of their rights. They earn their livelihood by exposing themselves to risk. So, it’s the duty of the agencies to ensure proper safety kits for every sewer worker,” said Bezwada Wilson, the national convener of Safai Karamchari Aandolan — a human rights organisation campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging. He told NewsClick, “The kit should include gloves, gum boots, oxygen cylinders, and safety belts. If they have not provided these to the workers, they will face legal action, but unfortunately, there is very less awareness on it and the practice continues across India,”
He said that the main reasons for these deaths are the lack of facilities to use mechanics, and in most states, scavengers are hired on the basis of contracts. In the case of contracts, the governments do not take proper care of the interests of the labourers. "Despite all the efforts and claims related to the safety of the scavengers, more than 400 people have lost their lives while cleaning the sewer in the last three years, and of these, 120 deaths have happened only in 2019, '' said Wilson.
Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath expressed grief over the death and directed the officials to extend all possible help, an official government spokesperson from Lucknow said.
Manual scavenging continues to pose a massive challenge to the country despite a 2013 legislation called the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act (Manual Scavengers Act) banning it. The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment said in its reply to a question in Parliament earlier this year that 340 people had died of asphyxiation in septic tanks and sewers across the country between 2016 till December 2020.
Last month, four sanitation workers were killed in separate incidents after they allegedly inhaled toxic gases while cleaning sewers in Lucknow and Rae Bareli.
According to the reports, the deceased workers were not provided with adequate safety equipment by the agency either.