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.

Raju, 20

Dayal Bagh, Agra
December 13, 2017

Raju could not bear how hard his father had to work. Typically, his day would start at 3 in the morning, and he would toil until sundown. The work he did was socially humiliating, because of the stigma associated with scavenging in the Hindu tradition. Besides, he earned so little that working double, even triple shifts were never enough.

Raju dropped out of school after Class 6, and when he was barely 15, decided that he would find work to be able to meet his own expenses, and in good months he would even give some money to his mother. It was a decision that was to cost him his life. He died cleaning a septic tank, before he could celebrate his 21st birthday.

It was in 1983 that his grandfather had migrated to the city of Agra, as there was no work in their village. He, and after him his son Pappu, found work and a home in Dayal Bagh Satsang Trust, an enclave on the outskirts of Agra of a religious organisation, the Radha Soami sect. Devotees live in an enclosed estate with posh multi-storied apartments, and this settlement has a separate municipal authority from the Agra Municipal Corporation. This is the Dayal Bagh Nagar Panchayat, and its elected members tend to be followers of the sect.

This sect combines elements of the Sikh and Hindu traditions; believes in a living guru, fellowship, community, prayer, abjuring animal meat, and in principle is said to be opposed to caste inequalities and discrimination.

A gruelling routine

Raju’s father Munna Kumar was allotted a small single-room tenement in the periphery of the Dayal Bagh settlement. In return, he is employed as a scavenger by the community. He is paid an incredibly low salary for this, Rs 1,200 a month. He gets up at 3 am every day, sweeps the streets, cleans the public toilets, and collects and clears out the trash. He then washes private cars, and toilets and floors in the homes of the devotee residents, for which they pay him a few hundred rupees a month. It is this extra earning that helps him feed his family. After lunch, he returns to sweeping streets and collecting garbage for the Trust.

Raju’s mother worked as a manual scavenger in the Nagar Panchayat area, but lost her employment after those dry latrines got demolished. She now tends her home.

Kumar’s elder son, Dinesh, earned a little more than his father, Rs 4,500 a month, for similar duties in the Dayal Bagh University. His wages are much lower than the statutory minimum wages. But he is paid more than his father because the authorities of the sect did not allot him a house.

Faith in education

Dinesh told us that he did not want to repeat the mistakes of his parents by keeping his brother and him out of school. He sends his daughter to a private English medium school. The fees are Rs 6,000 every month. He works double and triple shifts like his father, so that his children will be able to study and break out of the confines in which their caste and class had trapped them.

On a winter morning in December 2017, a local petty contractor who they called Rajkumar Bhaiya phoned Raju and another young friend from the colony, Vivek. He wanted them to empty a septic tank of a community toilet complex at the bail ghar (buffalo shed) in Dayal Bagh area, which had filled up with excreta. Raju, always looking out for petty sanitation work, left with his friend to clean the septic tank. When they lifted the lid of the tank, gusts of stinking gas emerged. They told the contractor that it would be best to wait for a few hours before they went into the pit. But he asked them to hurry. He had no time to waste.

Vivek was the first to enter. He wore no mask, and no protective clothes, and was not tied by a belt. Even crude precautions such as first immersing a lit candle into the pit were dispensed with (if the candle was extinguished, it would have indicated that poisonous gas had accumulated inside the pit). Vivek quickly fell unconscious into the sludge. Raju in panic entered the pit to save the life of his friend, even as the petty contractor ran away. Raju managed to pull his friend out and threw him on to the side of the pit, but he lost consciousness and fell back into the sludge. Other workers strapped him to a belt and managed to pull him out.

A scramble

No one was willing to transport the unconscious boys to a hospital, because they were covered with shit. After much agitation by the locals, it was in the tractor in which they would have transported the sludge and faecal matter that the unconscious bodies of the two young workers were thrust, to rush them to medical care. The first halt was at the public hospital, but the doctors said that they would be unable to save the boys, and that it would be best for them to be shifted to a private hospital. By then, the families of the two boys had gathered and both shifted them to expensive private hospitals, desperate to save their lives.

Vivek died the next day. In Agra,newspaper headlines screamed, and officials and political leaders gathered. They announced compensation of Rs 10 lakh, a home and a government job.

Raju’s family meanwhile became even more desperate to save his life. They sold his mother’s jewellery, and the jewellery that they had collected for his sisters’ weddings. His father also took a loan, all to pay for his treatment at a private Maa Bhagwati Hospital. In a few days they accumulated a bill of over Rs 1 lakh, but they became hopeful because he regained consciousness. The doctors said he would need to stay in hospital for at least a month. They knew they could not afford this. They met senior local politicians, and they assured them that the local municipality would bear their hospital bills.

A sudden discharge

Soon after the chairperson of the municipality met the hospital authorities, and after that, Raju’s family maintains, the doctor changed his tune. He told Raju’s family that he was fit to be taken home. They were certain that he had been persuaded to say this only to save the high costs of his medical expenses by the municipality. Protesting, they had no option except to take him home.

“I still remember he complained even at the hospital of severe chest and head pains and also of blurred vision,” said Dinesh. “We were surprised at doctors’ sudden claim of Raju’s fitness.” A few days later, Raju complained of chest pains again and they rushed to the same hospital where he was denied treatment. They moved him urgently to another private hospital, but when they got there, he was declared dead on arrival.

The state government has paid his family a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for the boy’s death, but no one has been punished, or even charged and arrested for the crime. Not the petty contractor, not the municipal authorities, and not those who run the religious trust. Instead, Dinesh says officers of the trust have threatened him that they would evict his father from their home in the enclave if he agitates or files a police complaint against them or the contractor or local authority.

Dinesh is still determined to fight them, for justice for his dead brother. But his father stops him: he is worried that if he fights the powerful trust and municipal authorities, they would evict him and his family from their home. It is a chance he cannot take.

Names changed to protect identity.