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 Valmiki, 37

Balkeshwar, Shivpuri Valmiki Basti,
February 29, 2012

For 15 years, Raju Valmiki was employed as a sanitation worker in a private residential society in Karamyogi in Agra’s Kamla Nagar. His job was not only to sweep roads but also clean or fix blocked sewer lines. For this, he was given a salary of only Rs 3,500 every month, and no other employee benefits. There were many times that he had cleaned sewers, but never did his employers give him any protective gear or safety devices. The last time he went down into a septic tank was on February 29, 2012, never to return.

This was not his first job. Valmiki had migrated to Agra from his village in Hathras after he married Baby, in search of a better life. He was the only one among four brothers and two sisters who chose to move to the city. When Valmiki first came to Agra, he tried looking for work in several places. He had studied only till Class 8 and knew finding work was going to be hard.

Baby remembers that Raju Valmiki only looked for sanitation work from the start, because he figured that this was the only work that he knew and would be given. His parents had worked as manual scavengers all their life, but sometimes also engaged in agricultural labour.

The family was of the Valmiki community, the lowest in the caste hierarchy in India, assigned with the caste-based occupation of manual scavenging, manually cleaning human excreta using buckets, brooms and their bare hands. Raju Valmiki’s siblings are all employed in such sanitation work back in their village.

In Agra, Valmiki took up temporary employment as the sanitation staff in a rest house but they paid him irregularly, forcing him to look for employment elsewhere. He applied to work in the panchayat, but to bag the job he was asked to pay a bribe that he couldn’t afford. He instead settled for a low-paid contractual cleaning job in a factory. His next job was in the Karamyogi residential society, and this lasted 15 years, ending in his tragic death.

Raju Valmiki's wife Baby and his family speak to Harsh Mander.

On that morning of February 29, 2012, Valmiki was called in to clean a sewer line along with two other men, who were also employed as cleaners on contract by the society. The part of the sewer that they were working in was an older construction, and need to be demolished because a new line of sewers had been recently constructed in the area.

A few hours later, Baby, Valmiki’s wife received the news that her husband had been injured in a fight. When she reached the hospital, she found that this was only what her family told her, because they knew she would not be able to bear the news that he had died on the job. Three men had climbed down the sewer, of whom only one had survived. Baby recalled that the sewer was supposed to be dried up. However, when Valmiki first climbed down the sewer followed by Chhotu, Valmiki collapsed immediately by inhaling the toxic fumes released from the bottom of the sewer.

Chhotu managed to climb out of the sewer in a semi-conscious state. However, on reaching ground level, he passed out as well. The third man in the group, Jogendra had not entered the sewer and on seeing the two men collapse, struggled to bring Valmiki up. However, his fate was the same as Valmiki and Chhotu and the toxic fumes proved fatal to him as well.

Not a single person who had witnessed the men falling unconscious had come forward to help, not even to give them some water. Caste seemed to have been a barrier even for offering water to the dying men. In some time, the news had spread around and a few people belonging to the same caste as the three severely injured men gathered around.

They managed to bring up Valmiki and all three men were taken to the hospital. Valmiki was declared dead by the hospital.

Reneging on promises

The investigation that followed Valmiki’s death resulted in a police complaint, and a First Information Report was lodged against three of the committee members of the Karamyogi residential society, under The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the Indian Penal Code.

But nothing seems to have come of the case. The residents of the upmarket housing colony were wealthy and influential, reportedly including some senior officials. The committee members of the residential society did not find it fit to make even a single visit to the family’s house after Valmiki died. They had promised to pay his wages every month to help with the children’s education. But after paying two months’ salary, no money came their way.

It was only when the court ordered the employers to pay up Rs 3 lakh to the family that the employers made three fixed deposits of Rs 1 lakh each in the bank in the names of the three children, which they would be able to encash when they turned 18.

Illustration: Krisha Balakrishnan

After Valmiki’s death, Baby couldn’t make ends meet, and taking care of three children proved difficult as a single mother. They had three children, a baby daughter of one year, and two sons, aged four and nine. Her mother came to her aid and moved in with Baby and the children. Baby barely went to school and had never worked outside her home in her life. Baby begged the members of the housing society for a job in place of her husband, but they refused.

Circumstances pushed her to take up work as a domestic worker, cleaning toilets in a private residential society. Her house was in shambles when Valmiki passed away. It was Baby’s mother who took it on herself to renovate the house. The family, which was now joined by Baby’s mother, did not have enough money to pay for the children’s education.

When we looked through the papers that Baby showed us, we found that her husband had taken a life insurance policy for Rs 1 lakh. Baby recalled that officials from the insurance company had visited her, and asked her for many documents. She did not hear from them again. But the documents claimed that she had received her insurance payment of Rs 1 lakh. Baby and her mother could not follow-up on the case in court; it was proving to be testing and tiring, and they did not have a fight left in them. Their only goal is of survival, and their only hope is of building a future for the children.