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.

Rakesh Valmiki, 28

Krishna Nagar Colony, Sanjay Nagar
May 16, 2018

The two brothers, Vikalp Valmiki and Rakesh Valmiki, did all they could to find stable and decent work in Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, the city where they were born and raised. But they were always confined by the limits that were set by their Valmiki caste, which was ritually assigned the socially most demeaning task of manual scavenging or cleaning human excreta.

Vikalp had been once hired as a bus conductor at a nearby school. A few days into the job, he was asked to leave as one of his supervisors learned that he was from the Valmiki community. Rakesh ran a butcher’s shop, but could not make much money. But for the most part, they worked as casual and on-call sanitation workers in a residential colony, collecting garbage, cleaning doors, drains, streets and staircases.

They had to begin work early, as teens, because their father had taken ill. Their mother Safedi Devi worked as in a residential colony, cleaning streets and collecting garbage, earning just Rs 50 a day. She now works as a cleaner in a private hospital. She is paid a daily wage of Rs 100 but these are cut if she takes a single day off.

Contractual job

The brothers felt that they had made an advance in life when they were employed by the District Urban Development Agency, a city-level government nodal agency responsible for slum development under a central government housing scheme, even though it was a contractual job. They were paid, after deductions, around Rs 6,000 a month each. Their work was to sweep streets, clean drains and collect waste, and they had been allotted two separate neighbourhoods in Mathura. Cleaning sewers was not part of their job description.

On October 25, 2017, Vikalp Valmiki received news that one of the four men cleaning a sewer had died in it. He could not imagine that one of these men was his brother Rakesh. He rushed to the site of the accident, but by then the body had been shifted to the hospital. In the hospital, he was devastated when he recognised the dead body to be of his older brother, who was 28 years old at that time. The other three men, Govind, Mohit and Sanjay had been admitted to a private hospital in Mathura.

It seemed Rakesh Valmiki had died because of inhaling toxic fumes released in the sewer. His body was discovered with barely any clothing, and without any safety gear or equipment in sight.

His family, his mother and Rakesh’s young wife Anjali were inconsolable even when we met them more than a year after the death in their small one-room house with a leaking tin roof. They could not understand why he had agreed to clean the sewer: it was risky and demeaning work that both brothers had stayed away from. People say that his superiors had promised him a permanent job if he agreed to clean sewers, and a permanent government job even as a sanitation worker is for anyone in their community the highest that they felt that they could aspire to.

Vikalp Valmiki holds up a photo of his brother, Rakesh.

His wife of seven years, Anjali, said she was in a daze. Still distraught, the only thing she remembered of the day he died was that he had gone to work as usual. She said she had a faint recollection of him telling her that he was going to clean a sewer. He believed that one or two of these jobs would earn him permanent employment in the District Urban Development Agency over the next few weeks.

By the afternoon of his death, hundreds of people from the Valmiki community gathered in mounting rage and anguish outside the hospital where the body of Rakesh Valmiki lay. They blocked traffic on the highway for a few hours, refusing to allow the body to be taken out for their last rites. Senior officials gathered and made many promises to them. Rakesh Valmiki’s family would get a compensation of Rs 10 lakh rupees, a permanent government job for one family member, a pension for his wife, free rations for six months, support for the education of his children, and a self-owned home.

The traffic blockage was lifted, and the families set out to cremate their loved ones. The agitation continued for three days. To establish their goodwill, the family was paid Rs 5 lakh rupees immediately – Rs 2 lakhs by DUDA, and another Rs 3 lakhs from the local authority.

Rations came for a couple of months, but none of the other promises made by the officials was fulfilled. They are rudely turned away when they go to government offices to petition. “Why do you keep coming here?” they ask impatiently. Rakesh Valmiki is survived by Anjali and three children, two daughters and a son. None of the children have been enrolled in school, the family feels that they simply cannot afford to provide them an education in their current situation.

Cause of death: unknown

No official has been held accountable for the death of the four men in the sewer. The cruelest cut is that the reason for Rakesh Valmiki’s death was deemed “unknown” in the postmortem report, and as having been caused by a “severe illness” in the report of the social welfare department. This closes options for establishing any criminal liability for the deaths, leaving no scope for an investigation on the grounds of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, and for due compensation.

Safedi Devi, Rakesh’s mother wept, “Every time my son Vikalp leaves for work, I am frightened – will be come back? Will he come back alive?”