On January 28, two days after India marked its 72nd Republic Day, 35-year-old Lala Mohammad Sheikh Mehtar and his nephew, 30-year-old Rashid Sheikh Mehtar, died, most likely from poisonous gases, after being forced to clean a choked sewer chamber at a temple complex in Kalaburagi, north Karnataka.

Six years ago, Lala’s elder brother Mehboob died in a similar fashion.

The images taken from the site of their death show the men, caked in dust and faecal sludge, with gashes on the sides of their body, sustained while they were being pulled out from the narrow chamber. The blood dripping from Lala Sheikh’s head forms a pool under his neck.

These images may seem too graphic to be displayed, but the families of these men said they should be shown to reveal the reality of their lives and their death. We have shared one of them with this story.

The photo shows 22-year-old Raja Ahmed Mehtar, Lala’s youngest brother, covered in grime, slumped over. The only one to survive, Raja was presumed dead when he was pulled out of the pit. He was later rushed to the hospital after a bystander thought he noticed him breathing.

The doctors managed to revive Raja, but the toxic gases he inhaled inside the pit have left his lungs scarred and his breathing laboured.

Mehtar brothers’ father, Burhan Sheikh Mehtar, 55, has been a sanitation worker with the Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Drainage Board in Gulbarga for nearly 40 years, cleaning choked gutters and sewers since 1982.

“Like my father before me, the only work I do is manual scavenging,” said Burhan. “But I am officially shown as a Water Board employee because the government officials do not want to accept there are any manual scavengers.”

When they were barely in their teens, Burhan’s sons and grand-nephew started accompanying him to his work sites, hoping to add to the family income. Within months, they were picked up by local contractors linked to the Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Drainage Board, which handles the sanitation in this north Karnataka town of more than half a million people.

The work, mainly to clean choked drains and sewers, was always done via informal, unwritten contracts, with no employment guarantees, no welfare benefits, not even basic protective gear.

Burhan blamed himself for introducing his family to a profession that claimed their lives.

“I will never be able to forgive myself for not being able to give my family a different life but you must know this is work we do out of compulsion not choice,” said Burhan, breaking down as he recalled the day he buried his son and his grand-nephew.

“Two men died in a senseless, brutal way but the deeper tragedy is that these are not isolated incidents,” said KB Obalesha, the Karnataka state convenor of the Safaikaramchari Kavulu Samithi, an advocacy group. “Across the country sanitation workers keep dying, and in each incident, the law is broken, principles of fundamental rights violated, and the manual scavenging act is, once again, rendered ineffectual.”

In 2013, The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act, which Obalesha referred to, extended the earlier The Employment Of Manual Scavengers and Construction Of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, to ban any “hazardous cleaning” of sewers and septic tanks.

Any violation of the Act is a non-bailable offence. In Karnataka, as elsewhere in the country, the law is largely observed in the breach, even though manual scavenging has been illegal for seven years and despite recent government efforts to automate sewer cleaning.

The 2011 Socio-Economic And Caste Census recorded more than 1,82,000 families reporting at least one member as a sanitation worker: 376 of these workers have died over five years to 2019, with 110 dying in 2019, a 61% rise over the previous year. There have been no reported convictions.

The problem of manual only appears to be worsening and entrapping thousands in a supposedly illegal profession, despite recent government efforts to automate the cleaning of India’s vast, invisible and dangerous underbelly.

The families of Lala Mohammad Sheikh Mehtar and his nephew Rashid Sheikh Mehtar said they wanted this graphic image to be shown to reveal the reality of their loved ones’ lives and their death. Raja Ahmed Mehtar, Lala’s youngest brother, seen in the foreground, was the only one to survive. Photo credit: Article 14

Ambitious plans

Replace the word “manhole” with “machinehole”. Amend the law (the Manual Scavenging Act) to make sewer- and septic-tank cleaning mandatory. Set up a 24x7 helpline to report violations.

In November 2020, the Indian government offered Rs 52 crore in prize money and launched what it called a “challenge” to state governments to make obsolete by April 2021 and replace sanitation workers – scavengers as they are called – with machines. This effort was preceded by a Delhi government programme, which in February 2019 inaugurated 200 sewer-cleaning machines and made sanitation workers “sani-entrepreneurs”.

This story is the second of a five-part series that explains why the law to end manual scavenging instead helps perpetuate it, as we evaluate the efforts to make the sanitation worker obsolete – told through the workers, their unchanging status in life and society and the new machines.

The third part focuses on a Delhi government effort to convert sanitation workers to “sani-entrepreneurs” who are the owners of sewer cleaning machines. The fourth on a similar effort in Telengana, which inspired the project in Delhi and the fifth explains how female manual scavengers still clean latrines with their hands, despite decades of legislation.

The ambitious new plans to upgrade sanitation work are not currently reflected in the cases that unfold in India’s courts, which reiterate that the law continues to fail those it is meant to protect.

On December 9, 2020, a month before the Kalaburgi tragedy, the Karnataka High Court admonished the state government, while hearing a plea by the All India Centre Of Trade Unions and the High Court Legal Services Committee on the failure of the state to implement the Act.

“We have found there is hardly any implementation of the provisions of the Manual Scavengers and the Rules in the State of Karnataka,” said a division bench of Chief Justice Abhay Oka and Justice S Vishwajith Shetty. “Therefore, this is a case where continuous monitoring will be necessary and the power of issuing continuing mandamus will have to be exercised.”

But repeated interventions by the court (Change India vs Government of Tamil Nadu, Anupriya Yadav vs Union of India & ors) in the past five years, too, have not succeeded in ending manual scavenging.

Manual scavenging is a term that hides the extreme nature of the injustice it seeks to combat. It refers to the cleaning of human excreta by hand, carrying it, or disposing of it. It also applies to labour who clean sewers, open drains, septic tanks and sewage pits.

Manual scavenging is a reflection of India’s caste and social inequities because almost all those who do such work are from Dalit castes, traditionally tasked with such work.

This is true of the two men who died. Both belonged to the Mehtar community of Dalit Muslims for whom these jobs are largely the only avenue of employment.

Deaths ignored

“Caste is the underpinning for manual scavenging, and it is because 98% of this work is done by specific Dalit communities that society can take it so lightly,” said Shailesh Darokar, chairperson for the Study of Social Exclusion & Inclusive Policy at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

The Sheikhs live together in a ramshackle neighbourhood called Umar colony, inhabited mainly by the Muslim Mehtars, most of whom work as manual scavengers.

“If we do not die, we fear death and we live with disease,” said Raja, of the grim working conditions for his community.

For the family, these deaths are a tragedy revisited.

Five years ago, Raja’s eldest brother Mehboob died in a similar manner. Burhan recounts the events that led to his son’s death on April 17, 2015.

“Mahboob complained about breathlessness and pain in his chest after he opened a sewer chamber, but the Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Drainage Board contractors simply told him to go home without paying him his daily wage or even giving him money for the auto-rickshaw fare.”

In the blazing hot noon sun, despite his condition, he pedalled back home on a bicycle,” Burhan added. “At our doorstep he collapsed, asking for some water. Before it could be brought to him he was dead. Only later we learnt what had happened from those who had been working with him at the time.”

The family told Article 14 that they got no compensation from either the contractor or the Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Drainage Board, which simply dismissed the death as being unrelated to the work Mahboob was doing.

The Mehtars combined earnings added up to anywhere between Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 a month, barely enough to meet basic expenses. With a lack of alternative employment, the Sheikhs had no choice but to continue their perilous work as manual scavengers.

In 2016, there was another close encounter with death.

“We were cleaning a sewage chamber when the gas hit Lala so badly he fainted,” Raja told Article 14. “Though we were able to revive him, we decided never to enter a sewage chamber again.”

It was a decision they were forced to reverse on January 28. The Sheikhs felt they had no choice but to comply with the contractor’s demand to do what they had been avoiding. After repeated complaints that the sewage lines at the Manikamma Guddi temple complex were choked, the Sheikhs were called in to fix the problem.

The drainage chamber the Mehtars were cleaning when they died. Photo credit: Article 14

Temple drain death

When they arrived at the shrine, a six-temple complex in the heart of Kalaburagi, the Mehtars began unclogging the outer drains, but the contractor repeatedly urged them to enter the deeper pit.

Initially they refused but, according to Raja, the work inspector on duty threatened to stop payment for the work they had already done and warned them they would get no other jobs if they did not enter the chamber.

When the men lifted the rusted iron cover, Raja said, the smell was foul. A dog sitting next to the sewage line got up and tried to move away but collapsed as the fumes were so toxic. And yet, the pressure from the inspector and the fear of losing their job and money compelled the men to go in.

“Lala Bhaijaan went into the chamber around 12:40 pm and he fainted,” Raja said. “Then, his nephew who was standing on the road above stripped to his underwear and plunged into the muck to pull him out. He also gagged and fainted. When I saw that neither were coming out, I also pulled down my trousers and jumped in without even removing my t-shirt.”

That is the last thing he remembers before the potent mix of methane, hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide fumes knocked him out.

The supervisor on site is said to have panicked and screamed for an earthmover to be brought to break the chamber open.

“That is how we were all pulled out but it was too late for Lala Bhaijaan and Rashid bhai,” said Raja. “They saw that I was still barely breathing and I was rushed to the United Hospital where I was put on oxygen. If you look at the pictures of us, my brothers’ dead bodies, you will see how debased our lives are. At least the dog got away.”

As these deaths occurred on the accident site, in public view, the authorities were unable to dismiss them as easily as they had dismissed the death of their brother but they came up with a new tack.

The contractor and the Karnataka drainage board officials in charge of the area claimed the deceased had slipped and fallen, a claim the family is contesting in court.

They have been able to seek legal justice this time around because of help from the advocacy group. “When you follow what happens post the death of sanitation workers, you can see how the Manual Scavenger Act is contravened at every step and yet how hard it is to get justice,” said Obalesha.

Vague law

Part of the reason why justice for sanitation workers flounders, experts argued, lies in the ambiguous wording of the Act.

The 2013 Act clearly bans the “hazardous cleaning of sewers and septic tanks” and goes on to define hazardous as “manual cleaning by such employee without the employer fulfilling his obligation to provide protective gear and other cleaning devices and ensuring observance of safety precautions…”.

However, the law is difficult to implement, as it does not detail what “hazardous” means nor define the “adequate protective gear or safety devices” that must be provided.

In the Mehtars’ case, Obalesha said, even this definitional vagueness cannot stand in the way of implementing the law because Lala, Rashid and Raja were sent into the sewage chamber without protective gear of any sort.

“The threat to deny them their employment was also used to compel them to work,” said Obalesha. “This amounts to force and compounds the violation.”

Initially, Obalesha said, the first information report in the case of Lala and Rashid’s death was only going to list section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 – death caused by negligence.

Activists had to intervene to ensure the FIR also invoked the 2013 Act. In fact, as no one in Sheikh’s family was literate, Obalesh had to write out the complaint in Kannada with precise details and requested the police to file a complaint under the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act, IPC 304 and the The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Even so, Obalesha pointed out, the Raghavendranagar police station in Gulbarga, where the FIR was filed, watered down the complaint, changed the time of the accident and wrote the names of the accused incorrectly. The FIR also does not name the drainage board which had outsourced the task of clearing the septic tank at the temple complex to a contractor.

Representational image. Photo credit: AFP

Governments dodge responsibility

“The common, nationwide practice of working through contractors allows government departments to deny their involvement with manual scavenging and makes it legally difficult to fix culpability,” said Bezwada Wilson, national convenor of advocacy Safai Karamchari Andolan.

Wilson said manual scavenging was a practice that disregarded several court interventions, which have sought to hold government departments responsible.

For instance, a noted Supreme Court observation came in a 2011 case known as the Delhi Jal Board vs National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and Allied Workers, in which the Jal Board had argued that it was the contractors’ duty to provide safety gear.

“Human beings employed for doing the work in the sewers cannot be treated as mechanical robots, who will not be affected by poisonous gases in the manholes,” said the Supreme Court. “The state and its agencies/ instrumentalists or the contractors engaged by them are under a constitutional obligation to ensure the safety of the persons who are asked to undertake hazardous jobs.”

The problems faced by the Sheikhs in filing the FIR are not unique.

Watering-down death

Obalesha described a “set-template” followed by the police in investigating the deaths of sanitation workers.

‘‘They often make it into a systemic, vague, negligence case without holding people accountable,” he said. “This means that no blame gets fixed and the deaths keep recurring. In this case, because of our pressure, they have invoked the 2013 Act but when the case comes to trial all accused will be able to get away because the names are wrong and the FIR so shoddy.”

Bezwada Wilson said there was a pattern to how cases involving the death of manual scavengers were filed, beginning with the FIR, which is usually filed only if some organisations and activists push for it.

When it is filed, said Wilson, “very simple sections are put, with the aim of trying to show that the death was an accident”. In the few cases where “there is considerable pressure”, Wilson added, “someone will be arrested but never the highest officer or owner or contractor”.

The person arrested, he said, is “someone lower in the hierarchy who will be sent to jail for a few days and then released. Later, the person will be shown to be absconding”.

The data involving such cases back Wilson’s contention.

According to an affidavit filed by the state of Karnataka state on December 10, 2020, placed before the Karnataka High Court, which is currently hearing a PIL on manual scavengers – of the 83 such cases in which sewage cleaners have been killed in Karnataka since 1993-2020, an FIR has been registered in only 25. Of these, only 3 FIRs have invoked the 2013 Act.

There have been no convictions or arrests. No trial has begun in any case. The Kalaburagi case appears to be following this template.

None of the accused has been arrested despite the fact that offences registered under the Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act are non-bailable. Gulbarga’s Police Commissioner, N Sateesh Kumar said: “We will have the details about the wrong names checked out”. He added that no arrests have been possible since the accused were absconding.

‘Machines were used’

The Mehtar case appeared to have got a boost on March 1 when the Karnataka High Court took cognisance of the death of the Mehtar brothers in Kalaburagi and directed the state government to investigate the deaths of Lala and Rashid.

However, Clifton Rozario, counsel for the All India Centre Of Trade Unions, one of the petitioners, said that the show-cause notice the state government had sent to the Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Drainage Board, civic officials and the contractors in charge was “already worded in a way where it asks officials to respond to the deaths which have occurred when the two men slipped and fell”.

“How can the state government make this assumption when the investigation is ongoing?” Rozario said.

The contractor and department officials have repeatedly claimed that the cleaning and de-clogging work “was undertaken by machines”. Rozario said the inconsistencies were “staggering”.

“If machines were indeed engaged to clean the sewage chamber then how do the officials explain the state of the bodies when they were pulled out?” he said. “The men were stripped down to their underwear, they had injuries and Raja had to be revived as he had inhaled toxic fumes.”

While the legal battle continues, the family has got Rs 500,000 as compensation from the Kalaburgi Municipal Corporation. “It will not bring back our family members but it will help my nephew and brothers’ children,” said Raja.

The poverty of the family makes even this paltry compensation invaluable. But in the absence of work, the money will not last. The family has already had to withdraw money for buying groceries and essentials.

“Unless Raja and I go to work there will be no food,” said Burhan, but this has not proved easy as the promise of rehabilitation under the 2013 Act is largely notional.

For weeks after Lala and Rashid’s death, the Sheikhs went to the labour mandi or market at the Kalaburagi bus stand, hoping to be picked up for electrical and plumbing jobs but there were few jobs.

“Contractors prefer labour who they know and those who have some experience of the line of work they are expected to do,” Burhan said. “So we had to fall back on scavenging work.”

They have not cleaned septic tanks after the tragic accident on January 28. “Now, we only clean open defecation spots and choked gutters. I cannot lose any more members of my family,” he said, adding that he would rather “let his family starve than die a senseless death”.

Raja says that his heart still misses a beat when he goes into a deep gutter (while they avoid septic tanks, they continue to clean choked gutters and open defecation spots). “Though it is open to the sky I can feel my heart beat faster,” he said. “And I break into a sweat remembering how close I was to death.”

This is the second part of a five-article series on manual scavenging. You can read the first and third parts here and here.

Radhika Bordia is a journalist and Director, Global Programme at the Missouri School of Journalism, United States. Yogesh Pawar is a journalist based in Mumbai.

This reportage was supported by the Thakur Family Foundation. The Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this reportage.

This report first appeared on Article-14.com, a project that tracks misuse of the law and the hope it offers.