New Delhi: The death of 10 sanitation workers in Delhi has opened a pandora’s box their plight. Despite a ban on manual scavenging, sanitation workers are still made to go inside toxic sewers without any safety gear and with primitive tools to clean them.
Forty-year old Rishi Pal became the latest casualty of the pervasive apathy when he died on Sunday inside a gutter of the LNJP Hospital that he was tasked to clean. He had descended inside the sewer without even a ladder, let alone any safety gear.
His colleagues at the hospital testified to IANS that there was nothing anomalous with the way Rishi Pal went about his business on Sunday and that none of them were ever provided any safety gear while cleaning the sewers of the establishment.
“We are not given any safety gear; no oxygen mask, no gloves, no boots. They (the officials) know that if I refuse to go down the sewer they will have many others who can do the job. For them it’s like, either do the job or get out,” Mohammad Siraj, who has been a sanitation worker for more than 20 years, told IANS at the LNJP hospital.
About 70 such sanitation workers are hired on contract by the Public Works Department, an agency under Delhi government, for three hospitals in the vicinity, including LNJP. The two others are Guru Nanak Eye Hospital and Govind Ballabh Pant Hospital.
Another sanitation worker said that he was hired by a private contractor along with the rest to work for the government agency.
“PWD stopped employing sanitation workers on permanent basis long time back. All of us are hired on contract and are paid by cheque by the contractor,” said Hashamat Khan, who comes from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh to the hospital for work.
Apart from being made to work in perilous conditions, these workers do not have any sort of identification card or any proof that they are employed by the contractor for the PWD, which makes their status peculiarly vulnerable for exploitation.
“We have not been given any i-cards, or even a uniform. If I die today in a gutter my body can easily be discounted as an unclaimed one. Our lives don’t cost anything in their eyes,” said an infuriated Mr Siraj who had just lost a senior and helpful colleague in Rishi Pal.
He said that the PWD doesn’t provide them masks even upon asking and since they are contractual labour, they can be easily dispensed with in case of a confrontation with the agency.
Mr Siraj agreed that sanitation workers go into the sewers after a couple of drinks.
“It is true that one cannot go inside a sewer without having consumed alcohol. We all drink. But that is no excuse for not providing us the safety gear. The reason is simple, they do not have any. Even during the incident (on Sunday) the person who pulled the body of Rishi Pal was provided an oxygen mask and cylinder by the hospital, not the PWD,” he said.
The government banned the practice of manual scavenging with the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, which also barred the manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.
The alternative to manual scavenging is the use of the suction machines and other sophisticated equipment. But, the alternative, which should also be the rule, is far from being implemented and it was made clear from what Mr Khan said: “I have not seen any such machine ever being used in the hospital in five years of my working here.”
A PWD official, who did not reveal his name or designation, told IANS that the agency is short-staffed by hundreds and has of late resorted to hiring workers on contract, as per the government’s wish “which wants to outsource all work gradually to private contractors”.
Ten people have died inside the sewers of Delhi in a span of just over one month as a consequence of inhaling toxic gases while inside them. All were found to have descended into the sewers without any safety equipment.
The responsibility of cleaning of city’s drains and sewers rests with a number of agencies. Apart from PWD, there are Delhi Jal Board, New Delhi Munipal Council, and Municipal Corporation of Delhi.