It has been more than 18 years since the National Human Rights Commission, responding to the death of workers cleaning sewers, framed guidelines and a safety code for those involved in this kind of work. Yet, little seems to have changed. On Monday, the Commission had to yet again ask authorities in Delhi to investigate the deaths of five workers who were cleaning a sewage tank at a residential colony in the capital the night before. According to ANI, one person – a supervisor – has been arrested for the deaths.

Unfortunately, the tale is a familiar one. The five men were cleaning a sewer tank at the Phase 2 section of DLF Capital Greens residential complex in Moti Nagar. According to a preliminary police investigation, the men were not wearing any safety equipment, which is mandated by the guidelines for sanitation workers. Even more disturbing, the sister of one of the victims, claimed that his job responsibilities did not include cleaning the sewage tank. Another worker at the residential complex accused JLL, the service firm that hired the five men, of forcing housekeeping staff to perform tasks they had not signed up for. Reports suggest that emergency personnel who arrived at the site to try and save the men also fell ill because of the toxic fumes from the tank.

Who’s responsible?

DLF, which owns and runs the housing complex, has pointed the finger at JLL. The services company has yet to make an official statement. The police, meanwhile, have focused on the immediate supervisor and contractor. The Delhi Bharatiya Janata Party has blamed the Aam Aadmi Party, which in turn has promised to fully investigate the matter. Yet, experience suggests that though the investigation may go through and the families of the men may be compensated, the actual working conditions of those who have to clean Delhi’s sewers are unlikely to change.

Earlier this year, the Delhi authorities admitted that 2,403 sanitation workers have died before their retirement age in the capital over the last five years. While some of those deaths may not be related to work, authorities have admitted that these workers operate in hazardous conditions. This would not even count those who died on Sunday, since those around them seem to suggest they were not sanitation workers at all, just support staff being asked to do this work regardless.

If Delhi has to prevent more deaths like these, the response to this incident must be quick and exemplary. The fault cannot remain at the supervisor level – the government must find a way to convince the contractor and the owner of the housing complex that they too are responsible, even if not under criminal law. The lives of those who do this work, often at the bottom of the economic ladder, cannot be treated as expendable. Sunday’s deaths are Delhi’s shame and more must be done to ensure they do not get repeated.

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