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.

Sukhlal, 40 and Ajay, 19

February 14, 2016

Prem got married when she was 15 and lived near Sawra Ji temple in Chittorgarh. She then worked briefly as a construction-work helper. She also worked as a manual scavenger for a while but gave it up when her husband protested.

Prem and Sukhlal came to Udaipur from their village in search of better opportunities. Sukhlal found employment with a contractor who worked for the municipality, cleaning drains. He was paid Rs 4,000 a month. Prem found a cleaning job in an NGO that worked with disabled people. She brought home Rs 4,000 each month too.

This was not enough, so Sukhlal was always looking out for additional work. He cleaned sewers and septic tanks and had even printed visiting cards with his name, offering this service. People called him to clean out their septic tanks on an average of three or four times every month.

The owner of a private house had called six men to clean this septic tank which was very old. Sukhlal in turn called young Ajay to help him do the job. The house owner just promised to pay him Rs 300, which was much less than the Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500 that he used to normally get.

The house owner had deployed a vacuum-fitted machine to empty out much of the sewage in the septic tank. It was left to the workers to manually clean out the residue. The other workers had gone to dispose of the sewage that had been sucked out of the sewer. No one is clear when and how Ajay fainted and fell into the tank. Sukhlal jumped in to save his life, but he too lost consciousness and drowned in the excreta.

The police documents report that the two men died of asphyxia due to drowning in the septic tank.

It was afternoon when she heard that her husband had been injured cleaning the sewer. In the hospital, she was shocked to see his body swollen. No one had cleaned him properly. His eyes opened briefly when she sat crying by her side. One doctor asked her to sit outside, saying she would not be able to withstand the stress, but another asked her gently to stay. “Seva karne do,” he said. Let her serve him. She washed and cleaned his body. She then sat by his bedside for many hours. She does not know when he died.

Today Prem, who is around 35 years old, lives with her three daughters and one son in Sector 3, behind Kanak Hospital in Udaipur. Her eldest daughter took up her mother’s job at a bank as a cleaning staff about five months ago. Prem’s daughter now gets Rs 1,000 per month from the bank job.

This is when Prem moved from her old bank job to a permanent job in the municipality as a safai karamchari. Now, only a few permanent cleaning jobs open in the municipality, and these are decided by a lottery. The bulk of the cleaning work is done by contractors, who pay workers half of what the government does, and they are always frightened that they will be sacked if they annoy their employers in any way. A permanent government job is their ultimate dream.

The irony of Prem’s life is that her husband’s name appeared in the list of new appointees after he had died in cleaning a septic tank. She begged the District Collector that she should be given the job in place of her husband, and in the end, she got the job. It is still not permanent. They will see if she works well for two years before confirming her employment. But the increased salary is the only good news she has had since the nightmare of her husband’s death.

A news report about Sukhlal's death.

For the months after her husband’s death, her memories are a haze. Many important politicians and officials visited her. The local MLA gave each of her four children Rs 2,000. The local administration released a cash compensation of Rs 50,000 to her. But people of her community launched an agitation, demanding the full Rs 10 lakh which the Supreme Court had ruled for every sewage worker death.

Eventually, she was paid the remaining Rs 9.5 lakh. Some of this she has paid towards her house mortgage, and the rest is in fixed deposit for her children, to be able to marry off her daughters when they grow up.

But the house owner did not pay them anything. He did not even once come to them to ask about how the family was faring. He has not been arrested or charge-sheeted for her husband’s death. She met him once at the police station, where the local inspector had called her to facilitate a “compromise” between them.

“Take back your police complaint against me,” he said. “I will give you what you ask for.” Prem replied, “I want my husband back. Can you bring him back to me?” She recalls that he just looked down, and then walked away.