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.

You might wonder why faceless and impoverished working men continue to die in sewers with unrelenting regularity – even in the National Capital Region – and why there seems nothing that Central, state and local governments do to end this. Some illuminating and gravely incriminating indications of what governments are not doing and should do come through in a significant and carefully researched study by the People’s Union for Democratic Rights.

The PUDR set out to investigate incidents of death of workers who died while cleaning sewers or septic tanks in the National Capital Regions of Delhi in incidents spanning two years. Their findings are remarkably similar to those which emerge from the stories which we have been reporting in these columns, based on our studies (by the Centre for Equity Studies and the International Labour Organisation).

The roll call of deaths in sewers and septic tanks which the PUDR team studied is grim and sobering, of desperately poor men, mostly of the most disadvantaged castes, but sometimes crossing religious divides, all profoundly dispensable lives in the glitter of new India’s cities.

In the urban village Ghitorni in South West Delhi, Swarn Singh, Deepak, Anil, Balwinder died while cleaning septic tanks on July 15, 2017. A month later, on August 6, Joginder, Annu and a third unknown man were killed in Lajpat Nagar in South Delhi. Yet another month later, this time in a mall, the Aggarwal Fun City Mall in Anand Vihar in East Delhi, the lives of Mohammed Jahangir and Mohammed Ejaz were extinguished cleaning sewage on August 12.

The next month, on September 9, in DLF Capital Greens, Moti Nagar, New Delhi, sewage cleaners Umesh Tiwari, Mrityunjay Kumar Singh, Mohd Sarfaraz, Vishal and Pankaj Kumar Yadav lost their lives. The same month, on September 18, in the urban village of Mundka in West Delhi, Amarjeet and Makhan Lal were killed doing the same work. The last death studied by them was of Ganesh Saha and Deepak, some months later, on May 7, 2018, in Bhagya Vihar in West Delhi. Each of these workers dies while manually clean sewers, septic tanks and drains.

Underlying problems

Broad patterns and contexts in which these incidents commonly occur emerge starkly from the PUDR study. The case studies divulge repetitive underlying problems that are overlooked by state authorities despite death after death. The report sheds crucial light on various aspects of the workers’ lives and their labouring conditions, as well as the culpable fault-lines that define urban planning.

The first of these is the absence of any arrangements and provisioning for scientific sewerage and septage systems and their regular and effective maintenance. There are swathes of entire areas and institutions in the capital region where state-laid sewerage lines either do not exist or if they do, these are completely inadequate and ill maintained. Sewage disposal is in effect left to the devices of individuals, with no official monitoring, regulation or authorisation operating on the ground.

Credit: HT Photos

According to the Sewerage Master Plan of National Capital Region, only about 50% of the population is covered by sewerage network, which suffers from disrepair, siltation and settling or collapse; and only about 57% of the total sewage generated by Delhi sewage is treated through 34 Waste Water Treatment Plants.

The rest of the sewage and waste water from unsewered areas and untreated sewage either flows into drains which mostly end up in the Yamuna River. Other unsewered areas rely on septic tanks. Waste water and faecal sludge accumulates in these tanks and regular cleaning is needed. This is what has led to a spike in the need for the services of sewage cleaning workers.

Private maintenance

The PUDR report observes that large cities like Delhi maybe expected to have proportionately fewer septic tanks and greater sewerage reach than smaller urban centres. But this is true only for the relatively upmarket colonies of the metropolis. Since many of Delhi’s urban areas are also “unauthorised”, the precise numbers of such septic tanks are also difficult to establish. Even “authorised’’ low-income settlements rarely have sewer lines and rely on septic tanks.

While at least officially, maintaining state sanctioned sewerage is supposed to be a public and municipal matter, septic tank maintenance is reduced effectively into a private responsibility, making both monitoring and ensuring safe practices more difficult.

Adequately linked water supply to support the city’s sewerage infrastructure is essential – however, those who designed the government’s ambitious policies on sanitation seem to have lost sight of the basic precondition of water supply. PUDR points to the fact that there are a total of 1,725 unauthorised colonies in Delhi, of which 1,230 of these got water pipelines by 2018. But the Delhi Jal Board, which had set a target of laying water pipelines in another 291 unauthorised colonies in 2018-’19 could only complete the work in 144 such localities.

This is essential to understanding the status of these colonies as far as sewerage linkage and toilet construction projects are concerned. It is yet to be seen how the recently decision by the Union government to give ownership rights to those living in 1,731 unauthorised colonies in Delhi will play out in terms of infrastructure and service delivery.

Working conditions ignored

Another aspect that policy makers and planners seem to have lost sight of in the much-touted policy push towards sanitation under the present regime is the need for continuous maintenance of sanitation systems and for safe working conditions for those involved in it. The Swachh Bharat Mission entails massive expansion of faecal sludge cleaning work which is, as mentioned, hazardous as well as brutal and stigmatising. The workers are required to work while being often literally immersed in filth, in faecal and other domestic and industrial sludge surrounded by poisonous gases emanating therefrom.

The deaths of workers while trying to keep sewer lines and septic tanks working, and the many ailments and diseases they suffer owing to the nature of the work are not cited once in the policy statements on sanitation.

Credit: AFP

Even in Delhi’s projected Sewerage Master Plan for 2031, PUDR notes, there is clear acceptance that some sewers that exist can be (at present and in the future) cleaned only manually and spacing of manholes in these are made accordingly. But no provision for recruiting sanitation workers for these operations has been made in the plan. This has been the practice so far, and as seen in the incidents discussed in the report, leads to completely ad hoc arrangements by which these workers are recruited, rooted in “traditional” caste-based attitudes and notions about sanitation work.

Compartmentalised approach

In the Master Plan Report, the only way in which sewer and septic tank workers are referred to is extremely tangential as in the “Operations and Maintenance” section. Planners are evidently not required to take any responsibility for the lives and working conditions of those doing the work of maintenance. This peculiarly blinkered and compartmentalised approach of the state in urban planning – in which the design of the Capital’s sewerage plan can be made without factoring in its maintenance, or the workers who risk their lives while doing this work, or the laws made to protect their interests, is largely responsible for these incidents.

In view of this, the frequency of their occurrence despite strong laws against such deployment, and the high probability of death of workers while doing this work, leads to a strong suspicion that these deaths are in some ways integral to and a by-product of the city’s plan. Sewer/septic tank deaths in Delhi are predictable occurrences, bound to happen under these circumstances. They are chronic and systemic “accidents”.

The complete absence of safety gear or provision of protective equipment, absence of training and adequate preparation for this kind of work, persistence of deployment of workers to clean sewers manually appears to be the norm – this is reflected in each one of these cases presented in the report. The workers had to do this work under compulsion – explicit or implicit.

Deaths go unpunished

The blatant denial of their rights persists because of their marginality. This is even more remarkable because the failures of legal redress and protection of these workers is not because of the absence of legal protections. In fact, because of the history of caste and organised resistance, India probably has more laws specifically related to sanitation workers than any other. Despite this plethora of laws, no death is followed by any kind of criminal legal action against those responsible for the deaths.

The PUDR study, as well our own, into a number of sewage worker deaths, never found criminal action taken against employers and contractors who place the lives of these unprotected workers, who do work the city cannot do without, but carry the shame and stigma of caste pollution, apart from the lack of any labour rights. Instead, the state is either absent after these deaths. Or if it is spurred to act by a movement and agitation about such incidents, all that the state does is – if at all - to grant financial compensation. There seems to be no clarity, or administrative will, to identify and prosecute the guilty.

This blinkered and chequered approach towards waste management in India’s Capital is laid bare by the PUDR report. It exposes once again the complete failure of planners and policy makers to address the crucial question of maintenance of sewerage, septic tanks, and to provide for the safety, rights and dignity of the sanitation workers (inevitably drawn from the underclass/outcaste sections of society) involved in it.

This is not simply a governance oversight. It is fundamentally rooted in caste. It is caste-based attitudes towards filth, dirt and human and other waste and all those who handle it, which form the basis of the profound and pervasive official and societal callousness towards sanitation workers. It is the culture and philosophy of caste which validates the casual subjection of these workers to hazardous and humiliating manual labour of cleaning sewers and septic tanks. Ultimately caste still renders some human lives expendable.