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.

Ram Shravan

Dewas, Madhya Pradesh
September 27, 2008

A decade and more has passed since she lost her husband to the sewers. Rekha Devi recalls that she was not discontent when he was alive.

Her husband Ram Shravan had found a regular contract job in a factory. It was not permanent, and did not pay much – just Rs 2,500 a month, which even a decade ago was very little. But he ran a stall in the evening after work, and they made ends meet somehow.

She remembers her childhood in a village in Dewas: her parents were from the Mehtar caste, considered the lowest of the low. They were called in to lift animal carcasses and clean toilets. Her husband brought her to the city Dewas to find a better life.

Ram Shravan was born in a village called Kharsan in the Sitamarhi district of Bihar. In his village, his parents too were manual scavengers. They cleaned dry toilets – which meant scooping out filth with their bare hands and shovels into buckets. Disposing animal carcasses was also part of their work.

Ram Shravan’s first job in the city was of cleaning, sweeping and mopping the factory floor and toilets, as a contractual labourer in the major pharmaceutical company. Ranbaxy. He accepted the work the factory gave him: sanitation work was his caste destiny. Caste had taught them both to clip the wings of their dreams. Born into the Mehtar caste, low-paid sanitation work was all that he could hope for. His aspirations were only for a regular sanitation job. He had hoped to marry soon and therefore a steady income was essential.

Insecure employment

His contract at the pharmaceutical company lasted for three years. Since then, Ram Shravan had worked as a sanitation worker in various companies, and his contract arrangements remained temporary, insecure and devoid of any benefits. His highest dream was to get a permanent government job one day, which would also earn him employee benefits and, more importantly, social recognition. He applied for a job in the local court, of course as a scavenger. Rekha Devi said his interview call letter arrived in the post two months after he died.

Eventually, he found regular salaried work in a large factory, Kriti Industries, a major manufacturer and exporter of soya products.

That fateful day in September 2008, as Rekha learnt later, the septic tank in the factory in which he worked was choked. The factory employed more than 300 workers, and the septic tank into which their waste was flushed got filled up and choked from time to time. His manager, aware of Ram Shravan’s caste and its prescribed occupation, tasked him to gather a few men to clean the tank manually.

Ram Shravan called in three other men, including his brother and uncle. All four men were of the Mehtar caste. The men had managed to empty out most of the excreta and sewage from the tank. His manager asked them to scrape out the excreta that still remained stuck at the bottom of the tank. One of the men scraped away some residual shit and suddenly a gush of foul-smelling gas was emitted. The men around began to faint.

Ram Shravan first pulled out his brother and his uncle. By then, he collapsed. A crane was then called in to pull him out, and the other fellow worker Mohan Lal Ved, who died with him.

Ram Shravan and his family.

News reached Rekha Devi that two men had died at the sewer tank in the factory, but no one told her husband was one them. She thought that everyone around her was grieving the death of her relative who had gone with Ram Shravan. It was not until the next day that her mother and brother arrived from their village that she realised her husband was dead.

When Shravan died, way back in 2008, Rekha Devi was not in a state to even get out of bed for a month. Her mother and brother stayed with them to look after her and the children. Rekha Devi knew that for the sake of her children, she needed to come to terms with her new reality, especially since her mother and brother needed to return to their village.

While Ram Shravan was alive, she never even went out of her home to buy milk. Every chore that required stepping out Ram Shravan did. Two months after he husband died, she had taken up her husband’s job at the factory. The factory owners had promised her compensation and a permanent job. What they gave her was just Rs 25,000 and a temporary cleaning job at the factory.

She needed to leave her three-year-old daughter and her toddler son alone at home. She needed to answer their repeated questions about the whereabouts of their father. Rekha and her children have a fixed routine every day in their life a decade later. She goes to work, they leave for school. Ten years have passed since then, and the family of three has survived against all odds.

But ten years later she still holds only a temporary employment contract. She says if she worked as a sanitation worker with the local urban body, she would receive more or less the same salary if they employed her on contract. She was enrolled in the employee provident fund scheme only last year and she has no insurance benefits.

A sparse home

We met her in her one-room tenement. A small room, with the only bed in the house, had a television on its front. The colours on the screen were distorted and were showing only shades of green and purple, and it was invariably switched on during our conversation on mute. In the last corner, the wall was elaborately strewn with bright hued posters of gods and goddess from the Hindu pantheon, the arrangement was the only thing providing colour to the otherwise-drab home apart from the broken television.

The stone shelf next to the posters showcased more images of gods, one stereo system with multiple speakers and one picture of a family of four with “this is my family” written on it with pink nail paint. On the floor in that corner was the low-lying table with a red cloth spread on it, serving as the main prayer place.

Rekha Devi pointed to the gods on the walls and in her small altar. They had given her the courage to live through each day while the sight of her three-year-old son and her infant daughter reminded her of the reason to live and provide for them. Many times, she had wanted to end the lives of her children and herself. But she persevered.

A letter from the factory in which Ram Shravan worked.

Rekha Devi stored in a cupboard her precious set of documents which she laid out before us. These included a death certificate of her husband, Ram Shravan and his postmortem report. The cause of death was recorded as inhalation of toxic gases inside the factory’s septic tank her husband was tasked to clean.

Among the nightmarish memories that she carries from the time her husband was killed cleaning his factory septic tank is that officials from the factory took her to a courtroom a couple of times. She recalls that after she told the judge how her husband had died, the lawyer tried to confuse her with a number of questions: “You were not there. Who told you what happened? How are you sure?” and so on. The factory asked her to sign a number of papers which she did not understand.

Only this she knows, that no one was punished for her husband’s death.We looked carefully through the papers which she showed us. We were shocked to find what the factory had done. The papers described her husband not as a factory employee but as a “contractor” who the factory had awarded a contract to clean the septic tank. In this way, it held him, and him alone, guilty for his own death, in the depths of the septic tank which he was tasked to clean.

Mohal Lal Ved was the person who also died in this incident. His story will be featured in next article.