The National Human Rights Commission should call for criminal action, including arrests, in connection with the death of four persons in a sewage line in Delhi, activist Bezwada Wilson told on Thursday.

Wilson is the national convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a non-governmental organisation that works on the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and the eradication of the practice.

Manual scavenging – or the practice of removing human excreta by hand from sewer lines or septic tanks – is legally banned under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. Despite this, the practice remains prevalent in many parts of India.

“The NHRC has the power to direct the district magistrate to take action, and to ask whether the culprits have been arrested,” Wilson said on Thursday. “Since it is the government that operates the sewer lines, it holds the responsibility to ensure that people do not die because of falling in sewer lines.”

Wilson said that the government must come up with an action plan to stop such deaths. “How many more such deaths is the government waiting for?” he asked.

On Wednesday, the National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the Delhi government, the city police and the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited in connection with the deaths, that took place in the city’s Rohini area.

Three of those who died were private contractual employees working with MTNL and were repairing a telecom line when they fell into a sewer below. The fourth person who died was a cycle rickshaw puller who had jumped in to save them.

The contractual employees were identified as Bachu Singh, Pintu and Suraj Kumar Sahni, while the rickshaw puller was identified as Satish.

Fire department officers told the Hindustan Times that none of those who died were wearing any protective gear.

Wilson told that existing legal provisions are sufficient to ensure justice in such cases, but there is a need for better implementation. “If the persons died in the sewer line, then the matter in hand is the condition of the sewer lines,” he said.

The activist added that it was immaterial whether the persons who died were contractual labourers or permanent employees. “The issue at hand is about the life of an Indian citizen, and the responsibility of the government to protect it,” he said. “Right to life and dignity is a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution.”

The National Human Rights Commission took note of allegations that those who died were not wearing any protective gear.

“The commission has expressed concern that despite being laws, Supreme Court judgements and its own interventions to provide safety equipment to the workers, poor people are dying while working in sewer lines, which is completely unwarranted,” its notice said.

Other recent deaths

In the past month, at least 11 more people died in sewer lines in different parts of the country.

On Tuesday, two contractual workers died while cleaning a sewer line in Uttar Pradesh’s Rae Bareli district, while two more died on the same day in Lucknow.

The workers who died in Rae Bareli were Yogesh Valmini and Sanju Nagar, while those who died in Lucknow were identified as Puran and Karan. The police have arrested a labour contractor, Sher Singh, in connection with the deaths in Rae Bareli, The Times of India reported on Thursday.

The main accused person in the Lucknow case, Amit Singh, is reportedly receiving treatment at a hospital. The police are said to be waiting for his health to improve so that they can record his statement.

On March 10, three workers died of suffocation while cleaning a septic tank in Mumbai, according to PTI. They had entered the septic tank of a public toilet in the Kandivli area in the northwestern part of the city.

On March 27, four workers died in Rajasthan’s Bikaner while cleaning a septic tank at a woolen garments factory in the district’s Karni industrial area, the Hindustan Times reported.

The four men – Lal Chand, Choru Lal, Kalu Ram and Kishan – died after inhaling poisonous gas.