Young, underpaid and overworked in Delhi: Workers' death at DLF complex reveals how society treats those who clean sewers
The death of five workers in DLF Capital Gardens' residential complex in Moti Nagar, West Delhi, shows how the guidelines for managing sewage treatment plants are being flouted while the authorities responsible for implementing them look the other way
It was Sunday. Vijay Mishra was at home with his family in Prem Nagar, a colony lost in the inner depths of West Delhi congestion, which metro pillars have somehow grazed through. At 5.45 pm, he received a phone call from his colleague, who sounded anxious about an incident that had taken place inside DLF Capital Greens' residential complex in Moti Nagar, West Delhi, which some staff members had been injured.
Mishra’s younger cousin Umesh, who lived with him, worked in the housekeeping section at DLF Capital Greens. As fast as he could, Mishra showed up at the front gates of the residential complex, only to be stopped by the security guards. He begged and pleaded to be allowed inside, or, at least inform him if his cousin was alright. He offered to show his Aadhaar card and his Pan card as proof of his identity. The answer, again and again, was a humiliating no.
As he stood outside those gates, he wondered why the police and government officials were allowed inside but nobody considered him worthy enough of receiving information about his cousin. After waiting for an hour on the footpath outside DLF Capital Greens', Mishra received a call from one of Umesh’s colleagues, who broke the news of Umesh’s death and said that the body had been taken to Acharya Bhikshu Hospital in the neighbourhood.
On reaching the hospital, the staff informed Mishra that the body was now at Deen Dayal Upadhyay hospital along with three other bodies. Broken with trauma, and held together by the search for closure, Umesh lost and found the strength to reach the hospital where he found his cousin frozen like a rock, eyes half shut, smothered with grey waste. He ran to a corner, vomited and cried.
"Hum Brahmin hain. Uska kaam housekeeping ka tha, fir septic tank mein kaise chala gaya. Kisi bhi jaati ka koi bhi insaan, aise nahi marna chahiye (We are Brahmins. It was not his job to clean septic tanks. Nobody deserves to die like this, nobody from any caste),” he wailed, flashing Umesh’s ID card, which carried a photo of the 22-year-old and mentioned that he was a housekeeping staff and had been employed by a company called Crest.
Vijay Mishra explained that DLF had outsourced services to other firms and one of them was Crest Commercial Cleaning Projects, a firm offering housekeeping services. It is also stated in the FIR that Umesh worked for Crest (Spelt as Cresta in the FIR) and the other four who died along with him were employed by Unnati, which managed operation and upkeep of the sewage treatment plant. Two days after Umesh's death, his family spent close to Rs 17,000 to transport his body back to his village. Up until Wednesday evening, he said he hadn't received a single phone call from either the government or DLF or Crest.
Standing next to Mishra, outside the Municipal Corporation of Delhi office in West Delhi, was Virender Singh Churiyana, Delhi president of the Valmiki Samaj Action Committee. He declared that even though Umesh was a Brahmin, the Valmiki Samaj, which most sweepers and manual scavengers belong to, will fight for justice for his cousin. Churiyana objected to the fact that the case was filed under IPC Section 304, which reads as follows: ‘whoever causes the death of any person by doing any rash or negligent act not amounting to culpable homicide shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both’.
Churiyana said that in the garb of words like negligence and accident, the power elite were protecting themselves. "How much does a kit cost? Masks, rubber gum boots, ladders, gas detectors, gloves, are they too expensive for an established builder like DLF to stock up on?" he revealed that even earlier, the action committee has fought for justice for those who died while cleaning septic tanks. He shared the story of Rakesh from Lajpat Nagar who was irreparably injured a year ago and wasn’t offered any compensation.
Nineteen-year-old Mohammad Sarfaraz from Darbhanga, Bihar, was one of the other four workers who died along with Umesh on Sunday while cleaning a septic tank at DLF Capital Greens' residential complex. Sarfaraz's father, Mohammad Khayul, who is physically challenged said that his son had been working at the residential complex for nine months and earned a monthly salary of Rs 9,000.
He says that he faced great difficulty in bringing his son's body back to Darbhanga in Bihar. Sarfaraz’ grandmother would have died without seeing her grandson’s body, who she was very attached to, he says.
“Sirf paisa nahi, insaaf bhi chahiye (I don't want just money, I want justice),” he said, adding that his son was shouldering the responsibility of the house at a young age, for which he lived away from a family.
Pankaj Yadav, 26, another victim, had come to New Delhi from the town of Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh, nearly 800 kilometres away from the national capital, in order to find a dignified way to earn a living.
Krishna Yadav, his cousin, said that they both worked at Unnati. When asked what his cousin’s job was, he put it in one phrase: “Woh ganda paani ko saaf karta tha (He used to help clean dirty water)”.
Yadav shared that it was his cousin's weekly off on Sunday but he still went because he got a call from the team at the DLF Capital Greens. As a result, today, Pankaj’s three-month-old baby girl and three-year-old boy are without a father. Yadav spoke about how it cost nearly Rs 20,000 to deport the body back to the village and neither Unnati nor DLF nor the Delhi government offered any monetary relief.
The fourth victim, Mritunjay Kumar Singh alias Raja, 21, belonged to district Madhubani in Bihar. The only son of his parents and the only brother to his three sisters, Raja's death in the septic tank has left his cousin Rohit in a state of shock.
The family of Vishal, 20, who worked as a pump operator and was the fifth victim in the incident, is left with somebody else’s version of his death. On the way to Haridwar on Wednesday morning, they shared the story they heard: Vishal was still alive when he was pulled out the tank by the two others (an electrician and another technician) who survived the deadly fumes. Then, the boy was taken to Acharya Bhikshu hospital nearby where he vomited blood. His case was referred to Ram Manohar Lohia hospital, where he passed away. His brother also asked why no company or government body reached out to them, even to offer an initial re-assurance.
The deaths though were avoidable.
SA Naqvi, Citizens Front for Water Democracy, told Firstpost that the guidelines regarding safety measures to be adopted by workers entering septic tanks has been mentioned on the Delhi Jal Board website, but there isn’t any agency to implement them because the Jal Board isn’t allowed to intervene on their management in private premises.
"Just like the way ground water harvesting is monitored by the Delhi Ground Water Board and the Jal Board, the agencies should also actively monitor implementation of guidelines regarding sewerage,” he said, adding that safety arms and analysers for gases must be available.
Pointing at above-mentioned deats, Naqvi asked two specific questions: why there was a septic tank in a sewered area and why people who aren’t aware of hazards or trained for the job are entering these tanks in the first place.
Interestingly, last year, civic agencies in Delhi submitted an action plan to the Lieutenant-Governor, Delhi, for mechanised cleaning of sewers and drains and the tentative cost of the equipment was Rs 3,000.
The families, who poured their hearts out to Firstpost, highlighted the fault lines on society’s morality when private companies ran to save their own skin even after their children died, and the government, who put guidelines in place, forgot to check if they were being followed.
Amid the misery and horror on Monday evening, Adesh Gupta, Mayor of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (North) showed up outside the DLF property and told Firstpost that the Delhi Jal Board, the Delhi government and DLF were responsible for the incident because sewerage permissions are given by the Delhi Jal Board.
The Safai Karmachari Andolan, a human rights organisation working to eradicate manual scavenging under the leadership of Ramon Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson, has been collecting data and said that between 2010 and 2017, there have been 356 such deaths.
Another shocking figure their research has revealed is that 7,700,00 are sent into sewers without complete knowledge and awareness of the dire consequences. But rarely do people take to the streets demanding justice for sewer death victims who seem to neither have a name nor an identity and turn into a cold statistic upon their death.