Every winter for the past 10 years, Pareshnath Singh has been travelling to Mumbai with dozens of other migrant workers from West Bengal’s Paschim Medinipur district. Labour contractors in Mumbai provide these migrants with sewer cleaning and construction work for six months, after which they head back to their villages and farms in time for sowing season.

This year, Pareshnath Singh’s name has found itself in the fine print of local Mumbai news reports, as the lone survivor of a manhole accident that left four of his co-workers dead.

The incident occurred on January 1, when the five men were cleaning a sewage line 10 metres below the ground in Powai, close to the Indian Institute of Technology campus. At around 5.30 pm, the rope of the crane that was hauling the workers out of the manhole snapped, and the men fell down 9 metres. By the time the fire brigade reached the spot, pulled out the five labourers and rushed them to Ghatkopar’s Rajawadi hospital, three of the men – Vishwanath Singh, Satyanarayan Singh and Rameshwar Heramsingh – had already died.

The fourth worker, Ramnath Singh, died on January 2 while undergoing treatment for multiple internal injuries. Pareshnath Singh, who survived with fractures in both his legs, is now stable and undergoing treatment at KEM Hospital.

Up till January 4, the Powai police claimed that the bodies of the four deceased workers were still lying in the hospital morgue, since they had been unable to trace their families and inform them about the deaths. On Friday, however, police officials and Pareshnath Singh’s relatives confirmed that the bodies have now been claimed and taken back to West Bengal for cremation.

The police have so far arrested the crane operator Mohammed Taher and charged him with causing death by negligence. The labour contractors and supervisors had fled the spot soon after the accident, but police officials have now managed to trace the contractor.

“We are questioning the contractor but we are also waiting for a report from the mechanical department of the BMC [Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation],” said deputy commissioner of police Navinchandra Reddy. “We will see whether the contractor can be held liable for these deaths, but the BMC should also take some action on its own.”

Scroll.in was unable to reach officials from the BMC’s mechanical department for comment. These deaths, however, highlight the dangers that sanitation workers contracted by private agents face every day without proper equipment and safety gear. They also highlight the illegality of the contract system under which the civic corporation continues to hire sanitation workers.

Migrant workers

At KEM Hospital, Pareshnath Singh’s relatives were waiting anxiously outside the operation theatre while he underwent a leg surgery on Friday.

“On the day that the accident happened, it was January 1 and most of us had taken a holiday,” said Motilal Singh, Pareshnath Singh’s younger brother, who also works as a sanitation labourer under the same contractor in Powai.

Pareshnath Singh and the four deceased labourers were among those who chose to go to work that day, because their contractor – a man they only know as “Nandlal” – does not give his workers weekly-offs, and not showing up to work could mean losing a day’s wage of Rs 500. “Paresh was lucky to survive, but the others were not,” said Motilal, who said that Pareshnath Singh has aged parents, a wife and two children back home in their village of Damda Sol. “This was an accident, and we don’t blame anyone. Nandlal is helping us by paying for this hospital treatment.”

Pareshnath's brother Motilal Singh (right) and cousin Hiren Singh wait at KEM Hospital in Mumbai. Photo: Aarefa Johari

While Pareshnath Singh and the deceased workers hail from different villages in West Bengal, they all lived together in a small room in Mumbai with seven other sanitation workers. As migrant labourers, they had been getting short-term contract work under Nandlal for the past three years.

An illegal system

Mumbai’s civic body employs more than 35,000 sanitation workers to sweep streets, clean sewers and collect garbage every day. The majority of these workers are not permanent employees of the BMC, but are hired through a complex network of contractors and sub-contractors.

This is a violation of the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, which specifies that contract labour cannot be used for work that is perennial or permanent in nature. Since sanitation work is required to be carried out regularly, civic bodies are expected to hire workers as permanent employees who are given safety gear, timely wages, paid leave and medical expenses for any injuries they may sustain at work.

Despite this, civic bodies in Mumbai and other cities allow contractual labour to thrive, and often employ devious manipulations of loopholes in the law to keep workers in the exploitative system.

Contract labourers are routinely denied basic rights such as protective gear, weekly leaves and timely wages. The poor work conditions take a severe toll on their health and life expectancy. In 2015, a study by the Mumbai civic body found that 1,386 sanitation workers in the city had died in the span of just six years. The majority of deaths reported tend to be of contract workers.

In February 2017, for instance, three contract labourers died after inhaling toxic fumes while cleaning a septic tank in suburban Mumbai. Instead of taking action against the contractor or the solid waste management department of the BMC, the police filed a case against the only labourer who survived the mishap.

In 2014, a Mumbai industrial tribunal held the entire contract system as “sham and bogus” while granting permanent jobs to 2,700 contract-based sanitation workers in the city. This judgement was upheld by the Bombay High Court in 2016 and also by the Supreme Court in April 2017.

However, the death of the four workers who fell down the Powai manhole on January 1 indicates that the contract system is still flourishing in the field of civic sanitation work in Mumbai.