As was his routine, Bulbul Hasan, 23, left his home at Nasbandi Colony in Ghaziabad’s Loni area at around 6 am on July 8 to collect garbage from the streets. The rag-picker returned almost three hours later with a bagful of waste material which he stored in a makeshift tin shed near his home where he sorted the day’s collection. “I saw him returning home,” recalled Jamal Hussain, a neighbour of Hasan who makes a living as a scrap dealer. “He said he was hungry and wanted to eat before getting back to work.”

Hasan never got home. He was passing by the main pumping station of Loni Sewage Treatment Plant nearby when he heard somebody crying for help. He found Roshan Lal, 40, and Mahesh Gujar, 35, in a 40-foot-deep sewage tank, choking on toxic fumes. Lal, an operator at the plant, had gone down into the tank to clear a blockage caused by plastic but felt suffocated and called for help. Gujar went in to save his co-worker, only to be overcome by toxic gases himself.

Just as Hasan was climbing down into the tank, a crowd was gathering near the tank, alerted by the trapped workers’ cries. One of them was Sameem Ahmed, 25, who runs a shop selling animal fodder across the road from the sewage plant. Ahmed followed Hasan down the ladder into the tank. As soon as Hasan touched the bottom, he collapsed. Ahmed tried to pull him out but, starting to choke himself, rushed out.

“I escaped from the jaws of death,” said Ahmad, who provided the bulk of the account of the three men’s death. “The gases were so poisonous I could hardly breathe. When I saw Bulbul collapsing into sludge, I sensed danger and started to climb up to safety. Had I stayed there for a few more minutes, I would have died.”

The assembled people called the police but by the time they arrived, Ahmad said, the three men were lying unconscious at the bottom of the pit. The police, in turn, called the National Disaster Response Force divers who eventually managed to retrieve the men at around 3 pm, nearly 5 hours after they had gone down. All three had died from asphyxiation, according to the police.

The deaths of Lal, Gujar and Hasan have shaken Nasbandi Colony, home to a large number of migrants from Uttar Pradesh most of whom earn their livelihood doing menial jobs.

The deaths are the latest reminder of the dangers that come with being a sewer worker in India, and the state’s utter disregard for the safety of such workers. Prior to the incident in Loni, at least seven such deaths had been reported from across the country this year. Three workers died while cleaning a sewage treatment plant of a private apartment complex in Bengaluru in January and three more, including a deputy chief engineer, died in the sewer of the upscale Vivanta by Taj Ambassador hotel in Delhi in April. Another worker suffocated to death a month later while carrying out maintenance work at a sewage treatment plant in Gurgaon’s Surya Vihar area, according to the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a non-profit which maintains a database of such deaths.

The sewage tank where the three men choked to death. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Lal and Gujar were employed with Environcon Engineering, a private company contracted by the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam to run the pumping station. An inquiry into the deaths by the Ghaziabad district magistrate indicted six employees of the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam while the police registered a case against the contractor for causing death by negligence. The magistrate also asked the state government to pay Rs 10 lakh as compensation to each victim’s family.

Sameem Ahmed said he barely escaped death. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Lal was from Saharanpur and Gujar from Baghpat, both in Uttar Pradesh. While Gujar was unmarried, Lal had a family back home that he visited once every few weeks. In Nasbandi Colony, they stayed together in a rented room near the plant.

Hasan had moved to the neighbourhood with elder brother, Razaul Hasan, 25, and sister-in-law Zainab Bi, 20, from Bareilly four years ago. Both brothers collected and sorted garbage for a living and stayed in a rented house. “We earned Rs 150 to Rs 200 a daily,” said the older brother.

Razaul Hasan is now solely responsible for looking after his family. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

The younger Hasan was married just eight months ago and his wife, Arani Khatun, who the family said is only 18, is four months pregnant. She is in shock and has not spoken much after her husband’s death.

“Who will look after the family now?” sobbed Hasan’s mother Hamida Bi, 48. “What will happen to his unborn child? He used to send us Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 every month so that we could survive.”

Hamida Bi lives in Bareilly with her husband Shamsul Hasan, 64, and their three other sons, all under 15. She said they lived on the money that Bulbul Hasan and Razaul Hasan sent them every month. Now, the responsibility of looking after the family is entirely on the eldest son. Although they have received the compensation cheque for Rs 10 lakh, they have not been able to encash it “because it is in Arani’s name who doesn’t have a bank account”. “We approached the Punjab National Bank, but they kept asking for her Aadhar card to open the account,” said Shamsul Hasan. “She does not have that. She has applied now though and we hope she gets it soon.”

Hameeda Bi, Arani Khatun and Zainab Bi at their rented home in Nasbandi Colony. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

The Loni sewage plant’s main pumping station was established in 2011. It has a capacity of 68 million litres per day and receives both residential and industrial sewage from the township and adjacent areas. The station pumps wastewater into the treatment plant, which uses mechanical and chemical processes to remove its contaminants and releases the “treated water” into a water body. Much of the non-engineering work at sewage treatment plants is carried out by sewer workers.

A view of the main pumping station of the sewage treatment plant in Loni. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

On Wednesday, Nathi Ram, 45, a contractual worker manning an Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam sewage pipeline in Indirapuram area in the National Capital Region, was deputed to look after operations at Loni’s pumping station. “I work in Shanti Nagar near Indirapuram, where my job is to clear plastic waste that accumulates at the entrance to the pipeline carrying sewage water to the treatment plant,” Ram said. “I earn around Rs 8,000 a month and work for eight hours in shifts.”

Ram said he is aware of the hazards of his job but cannot do much about it since it is the only work he knows. He has been with the contractor for 4-5 years. “I wear safety gear like mask, body suit and harness,” he said. “But if I think it is still too dangerous to step inside a manhole, I just won’t go.”

Nathi Ram at the Loni pumping station on Wednesday. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Another worker at the pumping station, Mohammed Zaheer, 38, witnessed Sunday’s deaths and has been left shaken. A daily wager, he only looks after the security and the upkeep of the facility and does not operate the pump. He said there is safety gear at the facility but workers hardly use it before going inside the tank. Lal, though, had worn the safety shoes and tied the harness around his waist as well, Zaheer claimed, but removed them after reaching the bottom.

“He removed the harness because he felt it was restricting his movement,” Zaheer said. “That’s why Mahesh couldn’t pull him up and had to go in. Mahesh did not stop to wear any safety gear. He responded in a hurry and went inside with whatever he was wearing.”

Mohammed Zaheer witnessed the death of the three men. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi
A worker at the facility said these shoes belong to Mahesh Gujar. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Though the pumping station has a machine to remove plastic waste from the tank, Zaheer said, it has been dysfunctional for the past two months. This was confirmed by a Jal Nigam official who was at the station on Wednesday but would not identify himself to the press.

This machine to remove plastic waste from the sewage tank has been dysfunctional for two months. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi
Safety equipment lying inside the store room at the Loni pumping station. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Deaths in Delhi

Of the three men who died in a sewer in New Delhi in April was Ravinder Kanojia, 52. The sewage treatment plant operator at Vivanta by Taj Ambassador hotel had entered the sewage tank to fix a leak, only to be knocked unconscious by the poisonous fumes. Vikram, 26, a security guard, went in to rescue Kanojia, but he too fell unconscious. Gaurav Sukhija, 34, deputy chief engineer at the hotel, went in to help Kanojia and Vikram, and inhaled the toxic fumes as well. He died in hospital eight days later.

Vivanta by Taj Ambassador hotel in Delhi. Its sewage treatment plant is located behind the painted wall in the foreground. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Kanojia was a contractual employee with the Ecopollutech Engineers, a company tasked with maintaining the hotel’s sewage treatment plant. He is survived by his wife and two teenage daughters. His wife Taruna, 43, said that they were not aware of the nature of his work. Had they known it, she said, they would not have allowed him to continue doing it.

A portrait of Ravinder Kanojia hangs in his home in Ghazipur, Delhi. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

His daughter, Shilpa, 21, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree from Delhi University, said her father was only an operator and was not supposed to step inside the sewage tank.

“Papa worked for a monthly salary of Rs 9,500 and was employed with Ecopullutech since 2015,” she said. “He used to get his salary in cash, and there was no insurance cover or any other type of remuneration.”

She claimed that Kanojia’s contractor did not even bother to offer the family any compensation.

The hotel management, however, paid them Rs 10 lakh, Taruna said, and has promised to support her daughters’ education. “My husband worked hard to fulfil the needs of our family and his death took away our only income earner,” she said. “I am suffering from tuberculosis and need regular medication which costs a lot. I also have to look after my daughters and ensure their education.”

Taruna with her daughters at their home in Ghazipur. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

Taruna said her husband fell on hard times in 2014, when the department he had worked for 27 years at Rashtrapati Bhavan was shut down. He took the job as the sewage treatment plant operator because he “did not want our family to suffer”.

“My family has been destroyed,” she said. “Our daughters were close to their father. He loved them a lot.”

Ravinder Kanojia with his daughters. Photo credit: Aabid Shafi