The unavailability of protective gear for sanitation workers to clean manholes and septic tanks clearly states that private and government authorities have a casteist and feudal mindset and, therefore, are consciously pushing poor and marginalized sanitation workers into the deep pits of poisonous gases to die. These authorities do not see value in lives of “lower caste” sanitation workers. They don’t find it worthy to spend a few more hundreds to make sanitation work safe and automated so that lives of sanitation workers can be saved.
These deaths cannot at all be called deaths due to negligence. These sanitation workers have been killed gruesomely. These are murders in broad daylight. Within the last fourteen days of December, nine sanitation workers have been killed in septic tanks and manholes. The first incident occurred in Ludhiana on December 9, in which two sanitation workers were killed in a sewerage line of Hotel Grand Marian. The second incident occurred in Surendranagar, Gujarat, on December 11 in which two sanitation workers were killed. It was a sewer line owned by Thangadh municipality of Surendranagar district. The third incident occurred in Hyderabad on December 19 which killed two sanitation workers. Here sanitation workers were hired by a Bio-Chemical Synthetic Private Limited (a drug manufacturing company) to clean its manhole. And the fourth incident occurred in Chennai on December 22. In this case, the three sanitation workers died after they were hired by a jewellery shop owner to clean its septic tank. The video report shows a huge building where jewellery-making is done and claims that the toxic chemicals used in this workshop are released untreated along with the toilet waste.
These incidents, along with earlier cases of sewer deaths this year, also show a pattern that manholes and septic tanks in big offices, companies, hotels, hospitals, shopping malls, commercial and industrial areas, and even in government premises are still being cleaned manually and without the legal requirement of protection. The people hiring the sanitation workers in such non-residential premises are definitely not uneducated and ignorant as they hold decision-making positions at these offices. It is worth questioning whether they are clueless about the problem of deaths of sanitation workers in manholes and septic tanks and how do they manage to do so continuously. Another possibility, and a more likely one, is that they are just pretending to be ignorant and actually do not care enough for the lives of poor sanitation workers. A news article about manual scavenging practices in Hyderabad reported in June this year that government officials of the level of Deputy General Manager and General Manager are the ones approving manual scavenging. Deepu Choudhary, one of the two who died earlier this year in May in Patna cleaning a sewer line, was told by a sanitary inspector, “Go in, or you’ll lose your job”.
Almost every other day there is a news of such deaths of sanitation workers. But still, the people handling these companies and offices choose to ignore the threat to the lives of sanitation workers. They choose to ignore their right to life. They violate the sanitation workers’ fundamental right, the ‘Right to Life’, enshrined in the Article 21 of the Constitution of India. By not providing the sanitation workers with enough safety equipment, they are also violating the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act of 2013. These people are not just depriving sanitation workers of enough safety, but are deliberately killing them. Such deaths are also happening in government premises. Two workers died working without safety in a government-operated sewage treatment plant in Noida on April 14 this year, which incidentally is also the birth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar who valiantly fought against the caste system and authored the Constitution that this government functions on. The government which is responsible for proper measures to safeguard the lives of its citizens, is itself violating the Constitution of India.
Another critical issue to see here is the age of these sanitation workers. They all are dying quite young. They all had their entire lives ahead of them, but are instead dying in an effort to earn their bread and butter. Who is responsible for their deaths? Better yet – Who isn’t responsible for their deaths? Isn’t it our government’s responsibility to save the lives of these young citizens of India? Why facilities like life insurance and medical insurance, not provided to the sanitation workers, if they are provided to scientists, teachers, college professors, bureaucrats, MLA, MPs, chief ministers, governors, the prime minister, and the president? Will these professionals and position holders be able to sit in their work premises if sanitation workers do not come to clean them for just a day? Will they be able to do their work? Will this country survive without the sanitation it needs?
It is not that private and government authorities do not have enough money to provide protective gear to sanitation workers. Then why don’t they do so? Because their religion has taught them to do nothing. They are made to believe in these texts so deeply that they have stopped caring when somebody dies while doing his/her “karma”. Verse 35 of Chapter 3 of Bhagavad Gita says, “It is better to perform one’s own prescribed duties imperfectly rather than perform another’s duties perfectly. It is better to die while performing one’s own duties, for executing the duties of others is fraught with uncertainty”. This verse served two purposes. Firstly, the people in power (higher in caste hierarchy) do not bother if a so-called lower caste person dies in performing “his duty”. For the powerful and privileged castes, it is their service to their society so it does not matter if one dies while doing it.
Secondly, the oppressed caste people also religiously accept such humiliating and life-threatening work as their duty. That is why even the regular news of sanitation workers’ deaths in manholes and septic tanks don’t stop them from continuing this dangerous form of manual scavenging. If asked, these sanitation workers simply say that “this is their work” and “if they won’t do it, then who will do it?”. They have imbibed sanitation work as their only work, their duty, the purpose of their lives. And religion played a big role in that. In the name of Karma, oppressed caste people have been prohibited from developing in society as human beings, as organic minds, who can also think for their betterment, dignified lives. Religion has instead turned them into suicide squads for its survival, the survival of the status quo. Oppressed castes are trained by the caste system-enforcing religion to die in its name.
If oppressed castes stop doing sanitation work, this is seen by the upholders of this religion as an effort to weaken their religion. These theories of karma and dharma have killed the morality of India. The Hindu religious texts, followed by the majority of the population here, teach them to believe in karma more than humanity. People higher in caste hierarchy do not see their fellow citizens coming from oppressed castes—sanitation workers—even as a human being worth their right to life. It doesn’t matter to the privileged caste members if a few oppressed caste people die while serving them. The idea of human rights and justice do not apply to this breed of our population. The privileged castes obviously do not see caste as a problem in itself. And those who talk about evils of caste and about the victims of caste are instead labelled “casteist” by the caste Hindus. We are living in a shameless time. They will read this article today and forget it tomorrow. And next time, instead of calling for the sewage-sucker machines, they will again look for some cheaply available sanitation workers to clean their septic tanks or manholes. And we will again see a small news story about deaths of a few sanitation workers.
Baburao Bagul rightly said to the oppressed castes, “either leave the country or make war!”
You who have Made the Mistake
Those who leave for foreign lands,
Embrace other tongue, dress in alien garb
And forget this country
-them I salute.
And those who do not forget,
And don’t change even after being beaten up for centuries
-such hypocrites I ask:
What will you say if someone asked you-
What is untouchability?
Is it eternal like God?
What’s an untouchable like? What does he look like?
Does he look like the very image of leprosy?
Or like the prophet’s enemy?
Does he look like a heretic, a sinner, a profligate, or an atheist?
What will your answer be?
Will you reply without hesitation:
‘Untouchable- that’s me?’
That’s why I say-
You who have made the mistake of being born in this country
must now rectify it: either leave the country,
or make war!
Dhamma Darshan Nigam is with the Safai Karmachari Andolan and Sheeva Dubey is doing her PhD from the School of Communication at the University of Miami.