The Delhi Jal Board, the state’s labour department and municipal authorities have all refused to take responsibility for the deaths of five men while cleaning a sewage tank in an upmarket housing complex in West Delhi’s Moti Nagar on September 9. Each state authority said it had no role in protecting private workers.

This despite the fact that the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act emphasies that local authorities must ensure that no worker within their jurisdiction is employed as a manual scavenger – a euphemisim for cleaning excreta, a job most often performed by members of lower caste groups. The act bars local authorities from allowing sanitation workers to enter sewers and septic tanks. But officials in each department said the matter was not under their purview.

The workers’ deaths reflect the failure of the government at every level to implement the law, activists contended. Regardless of whether workers are employed by a private or a public entity, the government has a duty to protect them said Martin Macwan, founder of the Navsarjan Trust in Gujarat. “According to the Act, there should not be a single manual scavenger in the country,” he said. “This really shows that there is no willingness and political consciousness to take up the issue.”

No one accountable?

The five workers – all aged between 18 and 30 – were asked to clean a 30-foot deep septic tank in DLF Capital Greens even though it was not their job to do so, reports said. The police identified the men as Vishal, Sarfaraz, Pankaj, Raja and Umesh, but did not give their last names. According to reports, they were not equipped with any safety gear and were asphyxiated by the toxic gases in the tank. The police said that four workers were brought dead to the Acharya Bhikshu Hospital. The fifth worker died during treatment at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital.

The police have arrested the supervisor of the plant. On Monday, Delhi’s Labour Minister Gopal Rai ordered an inquiry into the incident.

Both government authorities and the private firms involved are passing the buck on who is responsibile for the deaths.

Real estate developer DLF which manages the housing complex where the deaths occured said that another private company, JLL, handled the services at the site. JLL in turn said that it had subcontracted housekeeping and cleaning services to two other firms, Unnati and Crest.

Dinesh Mohaniya, vice-chairman of the Delhi Jal Board, which handles the state’s sewage facililities, said that his organisation had “no jurisdiction” in the matter because the workers were hired by a private employer. “It is the labour department’s job,” he said. “There are three aspects to this case which need to be looked at by the municipal corporations. The workers employed by them, the contractors and the ownership and maintenance deal of the septic tank.”

Additional labour commissioner Rajendra Dhar refused to comment on the deaths. Joint labour commissioner SC Yadav, who is in charge of the West Delhi zone under which Moti Nagar falls, said that his department was only looking into whether the families of the men had received compensation under the employee state insurance scheme under which the workers were covered. He added: “We are also checking if the contractors had a valid licence.”

Other officials in the labour department said that Crest was functioning with an expired licence. The Contract Labour Act requires entities with more than 20 employees to obtain a licence so their services can be regulated.

What the law says

After the practice of manual scavenging was banned in 1993 by the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, an amendment to the law a decade later brought cleaning of septic and sewage tanks under its purview. Section 7 of the act prohibits local authorities or agencies from employing a worker to clean sewers and septic tanks, and provides penalties if authorities are found guilty.

The Act also underlined the responsibility of local authorities, especially District Magistrates, in ensuring that no worker is employed as a manual scavenger within their jurisdiction. It also makes them responsible for rehabilitating people employed as manual scavengers and says that anyone violating the act must be prosecuted. Section 33 of the act emphasises how local authorities must use machines to clean sewers and septic tanks.

Despite this, little seems to have changed on the ground. While the Delhi government is in the process of preparing a list of manual scavengers in the city, it was reported in June that there are more than 53,000 manual scavengers in 12 states including Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Haryana. In August, it was reported that according to data provided by municipal corporations in Delhi, more than 2,400 sanitation workers died before the age of retirement.

Who is accountable?

Workers’ representatives sharply criticised the attitude of government agencies to the deaths of the workers.

“This is a failure of the central, state and other quasi governments,” said Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, which advocates for the rights of sanitation workers. “They all have a share in the crime. The Supreme Court has clearly stated that we have a right to life with dignity. It is condemnable if the labour department cannot admit that they are accountable.”

He added: “When I visited the site on Monday, the police was not letting us in. The state is clearly protecting the culprits. There is no point in going after some small supervisor.” Wilson said that it isn’t just the government that should be held accountable – private builders and contractors should also be held responsible for the safety of workers.

Paul Divakar of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights said that merely ensuring that the victims’ families received financial compensation could not be seen as the end of the problem. “Accountability is the weakest,” he said. “Till now, there is no proper machinery in place to clean tanks. We do not have any strong laws in place for this. Instead, we have laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act where the force can mobilise and make arrests whenever they want.”