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.

Mohan Lal Ved

Dewas, Madhya Pradesh
September 27, 2008

Mohan Lal Ved died in the sewer as his wife watched and wailed.

Born and raised in village Kheriya, Mohan had moved to Dewas, a city 40 km away, when his young son died of snakebite. He and his wife Chinta Bai were inconsolable with grief, and her nephew Ram Shravan suggested they start life afresh in the city.

Back in the village, Chinta and Mohan had eked out a living by pounding the parai, a single-sided drum made of calfskin that is traditionally played at funerals. Since the skin of a dead calf is considered polluting, drumming it is one of the socially humiliating tasks reserved for Dalits. Besides this, the couple would clean gutters using bamboo sticks and Mohan would often dispose of rotting animal carcasses. Yet another form of inhuman work the family did in the village was manual scavenging. This required them to clean faeces from dry latrines in the homes of the wealthy with their bare hands, load the waste into baskets, and carry this on their heads for disposal.

A photograph of Mohal Lal Ved.

Twenty years ago they moved to Dewas. In the city, Chinta took up sanitation work, sweeping roads and cleaning open drains. Her husband used to work in private companies as a sanitation worker, always on temporary employment.

One day a decade ago her nephew Ram Shravan called Mohan to the factory where he worked. His manager had asked him to gather a few men to clean the septic tank. The promised wage: Rs 500. Ram Shravan and Mohan got down to work. By the time they were finished clearing the faecal sludge, they collapsed from inhaling toxic fumes.

“I was sitting right next to the tank when my husband fell unconscious in the tank,” Chinta recalled.

Illustration by Krishna Balakrishnan
Illustration by Krishna Balakrishnan

She remembers screaming and feeling suffocated, not sure if it was because of the fumes reaching the surface or the sight of her dying husband. The men had no safety device or protective gear, only buckets to collect the faeces. There was no security or manager around.

Chinta said she lost her husband for a piece of Rs 500. The factory manager gave her Rs 10,000 for their funeral expenses. Her memories are hazy but she recalls taking her husband’s body to his village for the last rites. After she returned to the city, the factory promised her Rs 5 lakh compensation and a permanent job, but all they gave her was Rs 25,000 and a casual cleaning job in the factory, for which she was paid Rs 3,300. It was a pittance, she knew, but it was all she had to raise her daughter.

Chinta outside her house.

Since then, Chinta has married off her daughter, who has three children of her own. Her salary has been increased to around Rs 7,000. She lives alone. She says she feels numb. She doesn’t eat most nights these days: “It is difficult to gather myself to think of what to cook and then actually do it, all just for myself.”

We looked through her papers. In the investigation that followed the deaths, Kriti Industries claimed that Ram Shravan was a contractor, and he had contracted Mohan to clean the septic tank. This shifted the burden of responsibility on Ram Shravan. No one was punished for the two deaths in the septic tank. The one person they claimed was guilty was himself dead.