This article is part of “India’s Dirty Secret”, a series on manual scavenging and sewage worker deaths. Based on a study of the International Labour Organisation, Delhi, it brings together stories of families whose members died during sewage cleaning, and also highlights failures in the implementation of the various laws to protect their rights, dignity and life.

Dinesh Goyal, 40, and Rinku Goyal, 16

Vikas Nagar, Dewas,
Madhya Pradesh
July 3, 2017

The cause of death recorded in the postmortem reports of all four men was death by drowning. They drowned in the excreta which they had come to clean.

Dinesh Goyal was one of four men called in to empty a septic tank in Bardu village in Madhya Pradesh’s Dewas district. The men had been employed for this task by the sarpanch, the village headman, from an upper-caste household in the settlement. The septic tank was at the corner of the large piece of land in which his house stood. Dinesh Goyal’s wife was from this village, so the sarpanch knew that he was a Mehtar, a caste assigned to manual scavenging.

Dinesh Goyal took his 16-year-old son, Rinku, and three other workers from his caste along with him. The boy had dropped out of school after Class 5. It was time he learned his father’s occupation. This was all that life would offer him. They also had relatives in Bardu and had planned a little family reunion after completing the job. Rinku Goyal was supposed to help the men with food and water. Rinku’s mother, Seema and his three siblings, Raju, Pooja and Rano, were to meet them in Bardu the next morning.

The team of four men, and the boy, wanted to set to work right away. They knew that the cement cover to the septic tank ideally must be opened at least 24 hours in advance to let out any poisonous gases that could have accumulated there. But the sarpanch was adamant. He did not want the foul stench to foul their home and the village during the day. Instead, he asked them to wait until the evening.

Work at sundown

The men smashed open the tank’s cement cover in at around 4 pm, and began cleaning out the septic tank at sundown, less than two hours later. The continued their work in the dark. The men had not been provided with a torch light for the night, and even the buckets that they were using to scoop out the waste were their own.

It was late that night when the family of Dinesh and Rinku Goyal received the news of an accident at the site of the tank. No one really knew what exactly had happened. They rushed to the site, with the families of the other men. Seema Goyal had to stay behind to look after Rinku’s younger siblings, Raju, Pooja and Ranu. She still remembers the terror she felt, as she feared for the lives of her husband and son.

When the families reached the village, the men and the boy were still inside the tank, long dead.

They quickly pieced together what had happened. When the septic tank had been mostly cleaned, they loaded the contents of the tank into a tractor trolley. One of the men drove the tractor to a vacant site in an open forest outside Bardu to empty his load. This is what saved his life. When he returned to the site, he saw that the three men and Rinku Goyal were nowhere to be seen. When he found Dinesh Goyal, Rinku Goyal, Ishwar Singh Solanki and Vijay Sihote all lying unconscious inside the ten-foot-deep septic tank, he immediately raised the alarm. It was by then too late.

It was Dinesh Goyal who had first collapsed inside the septic tank. The other two men tried to pull him out, but both lost consciousness and sank into the excreta. When Rinku Goyal realised what had happened, he yelled for help. He banged the doors of the sarpanch’s home, and shouted out desperately to other villagers, “Please save my father.” But not a single person had come out to help him.

He was still a child and saw that his father was trapped in a pit of human shit, in the unfamiliar dark of the night. Rinku Goyal took it upon himself to save the men. The young boy tied himself to a tree with a rope and went down the tank. He probably breathed his last breath soon after entering the tank, even as he struggled to save the men who were trapped inside – unconscious or already dead, who knows?

His mother still recalls the horror that the men described to her later – that when the crane pulled his body out, his legs came out first and then his head, which was buried inside the excreta accumulated at the bottom of the tank.

Raju Goyal rummages for documents in a trunk.

By the time the men from the families of the dead workers reached the village, the sarpanch, Kamal Sendhav, had called the police, and they were sitting inside his house. “He had called the police for his own protection, not to save our men,” recalled Seema Goyal bitterly when we met her. “He must have worried that we Bhangis would have attacked him in our fury.”

The sarpanch did nothing to help pull out the bodies nor did the police raise a finger. It was the families of the dead men who hired a JCB earth-mover with a crane to pull out bodies of the men. They did not even get the dignity of a clean ambulance to transport their bodies. Instead, their bodies were piled on to the same tractor trolley on which the waste from the septic tank had been loaded earlier that evening.

The police in its records claimed to have called for the earth-mover and organised the transport of the bodies to the nearest rural health centre. This is a lie, the families insisted. All that the police did was to sip tea in the sarpanch’s home. The four bodies were cremated the next morning.

I had never imagined that this could happen, lamented Seema Goyal. She could still not come to terms with her double tragedy, in which she had lost both her son and her husband.

An unfamiliar task

Even though Dinesh Goyal had been contractually employed by several companies for sanitation work, he did not clean septic tanks or sewer lines often. But when the sarpanch rang them, it was an attractive opportunity for the household: a few hours of work could fetch them Rs 500 each. But as a relative of Dinesh Goyal lamented, “They did not receive the promised sum of money for the job done, we were only given their dead bodies.”

Dinesh and Seema Goyal had moved to Dewas ten years ago from the nearby village of Jivajigarh. They had come to the city looking for a stable source of income, hoping to get permanent jobs as sanitation workers in the city’s municipal corporation. Back in their village, the couple cleaned dry latrines, played drums in weddings, announced news of deaths in the village, removed dead cattle – all demeaning and defiling tasks typically attributed to those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy in India. Sometimes, they also worked as agricultural labourers.

They had migrated to Dewas not just for a stable employment, but also in the hope that they would find cleaner, more respected work. These hopes proved futile, therefore for many years Dinesh and Seema Goyal did multiple odd jobs, all related to sanitation.

In recent years, Dinesh Goyal had been able to get a job as a security guard and was given a tiny plot in the company’s service quarters. With no resources at their disposal, they built a house with grass and straws. When it rained, the house would collapse and its remnants float away.

The relatives of the dead men explain what happened that night.

The back-stories of the other men who died in that septic tank were similar. What was singular was only that one of the men who lost his life that night, Ishwar Singh, was a Rajput. He was the only upper-caste man we encountered during our study to have died in the sewers. His brother was unwilling to talk very much about how he came to clean sewers. “It was poverty,” he said. “Desperate poverty. He took any work that came his way.” He would not add more. He seemed too ashamed.

Following the deaths in Bardu, the police registered a First Information Report, under Section 304 A of the Indian Penal Code, of death caused by negligence. But no arrests had been made in the matter even until the time we visited the family, nearly two years after the deaths.

The sarpanch had never visited them once after the men died in his septic tank. “We don’t even know even if he is fair- or dark-skinned,” Seema said bitterly. The men had petitioned him for some monetary compensation, some food and a job, even if just to sweep roads, so that the widows could be helped to raise their children. But nothing came their way.

It was only after Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a non-governmental organisation working against manual scavenging intervened that the family was given its monetary compensation of Rs 10 lakh in accordance with directions of the Supreme Court. This was not paid by the house-owner but by the state government.

Laws flouted

Many laws were flouted in the Bardu tragedy. One central requirement in the rules of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, is that sewers and septic tanks must be cleaned only in broad day-light. But the priorities of the houseowner sarpanch were different. It was more important for him to spare the residents of the area the foul smell of their own waste, even if this meant putting to mortal risk the men from a lower caste were tasked to scoop and transport this waste.

Seema Goyal has used the compensation money to renovate her house. It stands strong now, as she fights each day to raise her children alone. “We are like birds in a nest,” she told us pensively. “Each morning, I set out to look for food to bring home to my children. The next day I begin anew.”

We asked if people had stopped cleaning septic tanks and sewers after this horrific accident. ‘We have told our children firmly that it is better to sleep hungry than to do this work,” she replied. “But we cannot speak of other people.”

She added, “Poverty and hunger can make you do anything.”