The death of two manual scavenging workers at the plush Taj Vivanta at Khan Market, Delhi, has brought to the attention their plight at workplaces and incidents that wreak havoc in their lives. Five workers, including the deceased, fell unconscious when they entered the sewage treatment plant at the hotel.
The Delhi Police has registered a complaint under Section 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide punishable with a maximum term of seven years and fine) of the Indian Penal Code against Eco Pollutech, the agency conducting cleaning work at the hotel. It will also add Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder, punishable with a maximum term of 10 years and fine) of the Indian Penal Code to the FIR.
An Indian Express report stated that 31 manual scavengers have died in last seven years while cleaning the manholes in different parts of the city. Shockingly, nobody was convicted in the cases and the authorities have been passing the buck to each other. Interestingly, the manual scavenging and manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment have been declared illegal under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013.
In its judgement, the Supreme Court also declared the entry of manual scavengers without their safety kit is illegal. “Sewer deaths—entering sewer lines without safety gear should be made a crime even in emergency situations. Identify the families of all the persons who have died in sewerage work (manholes, septic tanks) since 1993 and award compensation of Rs.10 lakh for each such death to the family members,” stated the judgement.
Commenting on no convictions, Harnam Singh, Former Delhi Commission of Safai Karamcharis Chairman said the deaths remain unabated due to lax laws. “When you don’t have stringent punishment for erring persons — private owners, contractors and government officials — why will anyone stop?” Indian Express quoted Singh as saying.
Talking to Newsclick, Bejwada Wilson of Safai Karamchari Andolan, the organisation fighting for manual scavengers, alleged that Delhi government should be held responsible for deaths of sewer workers. "We wrote letters to Delhi Government and Lieutenant Governor several times that a meeting of major establishments should be called after the Vasant Kunj tragedy so that they can be apprised about the necessary steps that need to be taken while conducting such cleaning. But it had not called for such a meeting till date," said Wilson.
Commenting on the question of compensations, Wilson said that 80 percent of the victims who have lost their lives cleaning sewers have not received compensations despite the Supreme Court order.