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| Last Updated:04/04/2014

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Deaths in the drains

S. ANAND, The Hindu, 04 April, 2014


THE WORLD BENEATH: At least two to three workers must be dying every day inside manholes across India. Picture shows a worker entering a manhole in Chennai. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam


What is the point of laws, and judgements to back these laws, when the situation on the ground has not changed?


We pervert reason when we humiliate life … man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures.”— José Saramago


Sewage travels across Delhi’s 5,600- kilometre sewer lines at the speed of one metre per second. That is a rather leisurely pace of 3.6 km per hour — the time an obese person may take to complete one round of Lodi Gardens. Along this river of filth — the Ganga is just half this length — there are 1.5 lakh manholes servicing the effluents released by the capital’s 15 million people. Much of this ‘infrastructure’ was designed more than a 100 years ago. According to an estimate I made in 2007, at least 22,327 men and women die in India every year doing various kinds of sanitation work. Figures are hard to come by since this concerns the deaths of a section of population that most of India refuses to see. Santosh Choudhary, then chairperson of the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, had told me in 2007 that at least “two to three workers must be dying every day inside manholes across India.”


On the morning of March 27, Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) sent a message to his well-wishers about the impending ruling of the Supreme Court in a Public Interest Litigation that had dragged on for 12 years. All that SKA had been seeking was the enforcement of fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution under Articles 14 (Right to Equality), 17 (Abolition of untouchability), 21 (Protection of life and personal liberty) and 47 (Duty of the State to raise the level of nutrition and the standard of living and to improve public health).


Judgment with a caveat


Later in the day, the three-judge Supreme Court Bench headed by the Chief Justice, P. Sathasivam, issued directions to the state, the railways, and several organisations to implement the provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 — itself a result of SKA’s relentless efforts. While everyone congratulated Mr. Wilson and the SKA team, a part of me froze at the sight of a certain clause in the judgment.


After ruling that “entering sewer lines without safety gears should be made a crime even in emergency situations,” the Bench added a caveat: “For each such death, compensation of Rs. 10 lakhs should be given to the family of the deceased.”


This, in effect, is like saying these deaths — rather murders — will continue to happen. They are inevitable. They are murders, for we know that each time a person enters these oxygen-deficient dungeons that spew a mixture of hydrogen sulphide, methane, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, there’s a good possibility he will die. Yet, the highest court of the land condoned these murders by merely offering compensation. Given that sewer workers anyway are considered socially dead because of their occupation, their legal death is just a matter of record. What kind of ‘safety gear’ can ensure that a person socially survives such an ordeal? Can there be a just way of being unjust? We reason with ourselves to accept the perversion of reason.


Law apparently has an answer for such a conundrum, derived from the Latin maxim: quod feri non debuit factum valet, also known as factum valet. “What ought not have been done is valid once it is done.” Dayabhaga, the 12th century brahmanic law that was prevalent in the eastern parts of the subcontinent, echoes this maxim when its says, “A fact cannot be altered by a hundred texts.” Ideally, don’t send a man into a sewer, but if you have to send him, make sure he wears safety gear. And if he dies after that, give his family 10 lakh rupees. If he refuses to wear safety gear that weighs 18 kilos and gum boots that gnaw at his toes, that’s his problem. Ideally, sati or child marriage should not be committed, but when it happens, we can always have eminent social scientists tell us why we need to understand the difference between pratha (custom) and ghatana (event).


No change on the ground


What is the point of laws, and judgements to back these laws, when the situation on the ground or rather beneath the ground has not changed? Urban India is serviced by four-inch house drains that empty into nine-inch trunk sewers that carry the slush to bigger lines of 2-metres to 3-metres in diameter. These make it necessary for a human being to be lowered into a drain. A clog demands at least three entries into a manhole: to fix the cleansing rod, to make it work, and to detach it.


In 2002, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission envisaged spending Rs. 1,20,536 crore over seven years on urban local bodies. Of this, 40 per cent was allotted for drainage and sewerage work. Thousands of crores have been likely spent on laying or relaying pipes and drains designed to kill. Phases 1 and 2 of Delhi’s metro cost Rs. 30,000 crore. While the metro works, the sewage system continues to foul the air all around us.


Meanwhile, each sewer worker’s death will cause something to die in us. A million rupees is a very small price we are agreeing to pay to stop respecting ourselves.