Lucknow: On 29 March, 2022, when her mobile phone rang, Sangeeta Bharti heard someone crying, trying to say something. She did not know who the person was. She could only make out the call was coming from near her son’s workplace—the dank sewers under the lanes of the teeming capital city of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
“At first I thought it was a prank,” said Sangeeta, 38, a slight woman with the first signs of grey. “It took me a while to realise that my son, Karan, had died.”
Sangeeta, who washes utensils for a living, is a mother of two and a Dalit, lowest of Indian castes, who almost exclusively staff professions that no other castes will venture into. That includes cleaning sewers by hand, an act banned for 29 years since Parliament passed the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993.
Up to 99% of such “manual scavengers” in India are Dalits, according to a 2019 report from Oxfam, a global charity. Government data from December 2021 found that 42,495 of 58,098 manual scavengers, or 73%, were scheduled castes.
That fateful morning, Karan Bharti, 20, asked his mother for his breakfast and for Rs 10 to repair his cycle. When he got to work as a safai karamchari or cleanliness worker in a lane in old Lucknow, he was told by a supervisor of the company that employed him to descend a manhole to clear a clogged sewer line.
The company, Suez India Private Limited, had been contracted by the Lucknow Water Works department of Lucknow Municipal Corporation (LMC) to clean sewers, an outsourcing practice often followed by municipal corporations nationwide to hold down costs and, as experts have said (here and here), to avoid being accused of hiring manual scavengers on their rolls.
Like his father, Maikoo Lal Bharti, 40, and his uncle Kisan Bharti, 22, Karan, a seventh-standard dropout, was a manual scavenger, and had been for more than two years. He and a colleague Pooran Bharti, 33, were apparently reluctant to go down the manhole, but, Karan’s mother alleged, he was “threatened” by the supervisor to “do the work or leave”.
Article 14 sought comment from Suez India general manager Rakesh Mathpal, over phone calls and texts over four days, but there was no response. We also sent an email to the company’s official email address. If there is a response, we will update this story. The supervisor, now under arrest, denied any wrongdoing and blamed the “attitudes” of the two young Dalit workers.
The deaths of Karan and Pooran were only the latest indication of how some of India’s most disadvantaged people continue to die in sewers and septic tanks filled with toxic gases, in work conditions that violate the law. Their deaths also revealed the tenuous nature of their existence, with their families and communities struggling to keep finances and ambitions intact.
The Laws That Fail To Stop Manual Scavenging
UP has the highest number of manual scavengers in India, and the state also topped the list of sewer-cleaning deaths over the previous five years, the government told Parliament in 2021.
On 6 April 2022, the union social justice and empowerment ministry told Parliament that 161 workers died cleaning sewers and septic tanks nationwide over the past three years, a number that experts said is almost certainly is an underestimate, The admission of fatalities came nine months after the same ministry claimed there were no deaths from manual scavenging.
Bezwada Wilson, winner of the global Magsaysay award and cofounder and national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan or Sweepers Agitation, an advocacy group, accused India’s government of behaving like manual scavengers no longer existed.
"They give false statements in the Parliament that there is no manual scavenging and related deaths,” said Wilson. “They are more interested in constructing toilets because they get good money, which goes to their karyakartas (party workers) and contractors. but they are not concerned about the very people who provide the service."
In December 2021, a union government press release said 58,098 manual scavengers were identified across the country in two surveys in 2013 and 2018: 32,473 were from UP.
Apart from the 1993 law, there have been various other court judgements on manual scavenging over the years, such as the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavenger and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (PEMSRA), which lays down punitive action against any person or agency if they engage or employ any manual scavenger, who is not bound by any legal obligations.
“Every person so engaged or employed shall stand discharged immediately from any obligation, express or implied, to do manual scavenging,” says the PEMSRA, which critics have said repeats lacunae evident in the previous law.
The Farce Of Safety Gear
Since manual scavenging was outlawed in 2013, more than 400 deaths have been reported, but there have been no convictions. The law’s loopholes, Article 14 reported in April 2021, keep a dirty, dangerous practice alive.
For instance, with “adequate and appropriate” safety gear, the PEMSRA, according to critics, appears to have no problem with the practice of manually cleaning sewers, but the Act fails to define what is meant by “protective gear”.
As a result officials and contractors interpret according to their own convenience, mostly to the detriment of those doing the work. In 2015, a survey found that some contractors even claimed a handkerchief as “safety gear”.
“We were not provided any safety gear at all that day,” said Karan’s father. “Sometimes, we are provided a mask, suit or shoes but we were never told to go inside without permission or orders.”
When they descended the clogged narrow manhole, Karan and Pooran at some point got stuck, according to locals, police and Karan’s family, where they remained for two hours among the poisonous gases, feces and sludge.
To save them, another worker, Kailash Bharti, jumped in but was taken out by colleagues in the nick of time, before he too could be felled by the deadly gases that build up inside sewers. By then, Karan and Pooran were dead.
After strenuous efforts by the family and police, their bodies were pulled out and taken to a local hospital called the KGMU trauma centre. It was too late. A post-mortem was done, but the family has not received the report.
Supervisor Left To Get Help & Never Returned
Karan became a manual scavenger at 18. He had studied till class seven but joined his father and uncle—Kisan Bharti, 22, only two years older—at work in the sewers. It is rare that the sons of manual scavengers are able to break free from family tradition. Father and son often travelled to work and returned home together.
Maikoo Lal watched his son go down the manhole and never return. Telling them what to do was the supervisor, Amit Kumar Singh, the prime accused in the case.
Singh, Maikoo Lal and other workers worked at one manhole with what is called a “jetting machine”, which produces a jet of water at high pressure to dislodge debris from sewers. Such machines are supposed to replace humans, but in practice, manual scavengers are used to reach places where the jets are ineffective or when there aren’t enough machines.
Karan and Pooran, said Maikoo Lal, were sent down another manhole without any protective or necessary gear.[[https://article-14.com/uploads/2022/04-April/13-Wed/1b.jpg]]
“When the two were stuck inside the manhole our supervisor left, just saying, ‘ladke leke aarhe hain (more boys are coming to assist)’ and then never came back,” said Maikoo Lal.
The supervisor contested this version. Sitting with his sister, Priya, a friend and two police officials at the KGMU trauma centre, Singh, who faces murder charges and offences under the PEMSRA and Scheduled Tribed (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, or the SC/ST Act in short, accused the workers of being “under pressure and disgruntled”.
“I never ordered Karan and Pooran to go into the sewer tank,” said Singh, who said he, too, had inhaled the gas. “I had only told them to check the area because of a complaint we had received.”
A local shopkeeper, Mohammed Amin, said he saw two workers descend the manhole with only a bucket and a rope.
“All the locals were frantically shouting for ropes from each other, but they had nothing, and in that chaos, they were stuck there for two hours,” said Amin, who corroborated Maikoo Lal’s account that the supervisor said he would get help but did not return.
Syed Ahmed Mehdi Zaidi, senior sub-inspector, Saadatganj, who was present at the scene of the sewer-cleaning attempt, said it was painful to watch the family’s distress.
“It was very difficult to take out the two bodies,” said Zaidi. “Almost 50-60 policemen were present and along with locals, we all tried to save them with ropes and jugaad (improvisation).”
“My eldest son was finally becoming a man, and he was at that age where we started relying on him,” said Sangeeta, Karan’s mother, weeping as she spoke. “Now that he could finally earn for himself, he has gone forever.”
Karan's monthly salary as a contract worker was Rs 9,000; after provident fund and other deductions, he was left with about Rs 6,000.
A Happy, Close-Knit Community Is Riven With Grief
In a cluster of small, dank mud-and-brick homes, cleaved by an open sewer and situated near a sewer tank, live the city’s manual scavengers. The homes are modest, but the people who live here, all Dalits belonging to a caste called Dhanuk, have a strong sense of solidarity and hospitality.
This is where Sangeeta and her family live, as does Sanjana Bharti, 30, and her family. Sanjana is the wife of Pooran, who died with Karan. Her grief was evident, as she spoke about losing her husband and father of her children, Poorva (12), Vivek (eight) and Alia (three).
Sanjana was at work at a pan-masala shop, when a girl from the neighbourhood broke the news of her husband’s death. She found it impossible to comprehend, she said.
“When Sangeeta heard the news, she kept fainting and refused to even drink water,” said Anita, Karan’s aunt. “She kept crying that she wanted to go to the hospital and begged to see her son's face for the last time.”.
“When Pooran's body was taken out and his stomach was pressed, dirt and mud came out of his mouth,” said Sanjana.
The day he died was his first day working as a manual scavenger. Pooran was previously a sweeper with the Lucknow municipal corporation. “We have kids, stomachs to fill and a house to run hence, he took up the job,” said Sanjana.
Poorva, their eldest, wiped her tears, as she spoke about her indulgent father. “We miss everything about him,” she said. “He used to be here and get us whatever we wanted. He never even fought with anybody."
Sanjana, who like Pooran never received any formal education, said she and her husband were determined to ensure the children studied, even if they struggled to put three meals on the table.
“The children repeatedly ask: ‘Is Papa coming? When is he coming? I want to go to him.’ They cannot live without him,” said Sanjana. “We thought we will get our kids to study and they will grow up to get better jobs.”
Sanjana showed us a family photo, with two of the children: everyone is relaxed and appears well cared for.
The striving to improve life was apparent in Sangeeta’s family as well. “Karan was our support, and we thought as he kept working, his salary would increase, then he might be able to do some other work,” said Sangeeta. “And our problems would go away.”
In this close-knit community, every death is a personal loss for many. “I have not only lost my son, but also my brother,” said Sangeeta, referring to Pooran.
The other safai karamcharis of Rajajipuram and their families recounted the amiable and helpful natures of Karan and Pooran.
“Every time we used to come from Delhi, he used to be very excited and happy,” said Karan’s aunt Meena, who uses only one name. “He played with our children and constantly joked around. He really did love children.”
Anita, another aunt, who also uses one name, said, “He used to think of us as friends, not as typical aunts. That's how our bond was.”
Playing a video game on a mobile phone, Ashish (8), Meena’s son, said his cousin Karan was one of the nicest people he knew. “He used to take us out and feed us good food,” said Ashish “We even used to play video games and cricket together. We miss him a lot."[[https://article-14.com/uploads/2022/04-April/13-Wed/11.jpg]]
Karan’s uncle, Kisan, said his nephew was more like a brother and was given to clean living. “He never got addicted to alcohol or cigarettes, nor did he ever fight with anyone,” said Kisan. “We used to go play cricket early in the morning before our shift started, although he was fonder of kabaddi.”
Referring to her youngest son, Arzoo Bharti, 17, a 9th-standard student, Sangeeta said: “It will be difficult to manage the house financially now, Arzoo’s studies are going to be affected. He might have to start working soon.”
While the families of Karan and Pooran ponder their broken lives, the family of Singh, the supervisor, is mainly concerned with keeping him out of jail.
‘Govt’s Moral Responsibility To Regulate High-Risk Jobs’
Supervisor Singh’s sister Priya denied that her brother had tried to flee the scene of the incident that claimed the lives of Karan and Pooran.
“If he wanted to flee, why would he go to help?” she said. “How could he be admitted to the hospital then?”[[https://article-14.com/uploads/2022/04-April/13-Wed/12.jpg]]
Singh, who was arrested after discharge from hospital, claimed that he, too, had inhaled sewer gases while trying to save the workers and when he drove back to his office for help, he fell unconscious.
On 1 April, while in hospital, Singh said he had stomach ache, gastric issues and a back ache. He and his sister displayed the list of medicines that the hospital had prescribed.
Singh claimed that he had also applied for machines and safety gears for all the locations that came under his supervision but did not get them.
“As a supervisor, I don't even have the complete authority to fire them, that power lies with the company which is now making me a scapegoat,” said Singh. “The company told me that the investigation is going on from their end, but how will they do it when they are also accused in the FIR?”
The families of Karan and Pooran demanded only that he be punished so that no one needed to endure what they had to. They did not believe that the company was to blame. Maikoo Lal had worked with the company for more than two years and said they were given equipment when working, including shoes, masks and a protective suit.
Both families said they had received a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each from the government and Suez India Pvt Ltd.
Maikoo Lal said his son and Pooran had told Singh there was a lot of gas in the sewer below the manhole but he allegedly told them to open the lid for an hour and “then do what they were told”.
Another manual scavenger who worked with Karan and Pooran but was not there that fateful day, said about six months ago they had told supervisor Singh not to make them go down manholes and use a jetting machine instead. “Machine ka kiraya kya hum denge (Should I pay the rent for the machines)?” Singh was supposed to have said, which he denied.
Prashant Kanojia, a former journalist who now heads the SC/ST wing of Rashtriya Lok Dal, a political party, said it was common to blame the supervisor when there were accidents.
“But whether it's defence or cleaning sewers, both are high-exposure and risk jobs,” said Kanojia. “A decorated (armed services) officer has a salary, pension, medical facility and benefits, but the manual scavengers do not have a permanent job in India. It is the government's moral responsibility to regulate every high-risk job.”
‘Society Wants to Perpetuate Manual Scavenging, Not Abolish It’
Kanojia alleged that since the BJP and other parties and think-tanks or policy groups of these parties were dominated by upper castes, who also believed manual scavenging was the preserve of Dalits, they could not think of improving work conditions.
Both Kanojia and Vimal Kumar, founder of the Movement for Scavenger Community, an advocacy group that helps educate the children of manual scavengers, blamed the government for evading responsibility and passing the buck by letting corporations outsource sewer-cleaning operations to private companies and contractors that, they alleged, exploited workers and frequently ignored safety rules.
“You are bringing in bullet trains, but you still haven't been able to make a proper machine to clean sewers?” said Kanojia. “You talk about being a vishwaguru (guru to the world), but haven't made a single instrument that can prevent these workers from doing such dirty work.”
Kumar said the Hindu caste system traditionally limited people of certain castes to particular occupations. “So, it's not just a caste-based practice but also has undertones of untouchability,” he said.
Kumar said caste and profession were hard to escape. He narrated how his group once trained a manual scavenger to run a fast-food shop.
“But it did not work, as the market community found out his caste and (former) profession and started objecting to it,” said Kumar. “He left that job and resumed working as a manual scavenger again.”
“No mother or father would want their child to go into a manhole or a septic tank and clean garbage and faeces,” said Kumar. “But society does not let them move on.”
Kanojia, who is a Dalit, said: “I am well-educated, I dress alright and belong to the middle class in Mumbai. But I still get comments on social media like, ‘come clean our toilets, you are a jamadaar (menial worker).’”
The Pandemic Worsened Life For Manual Scavengers
During the Covid-19 pandemic, when doctors were given the title of “corona warriors” by the union government, Kanojia said he had written to the government demanding a similar title for manual scavengers.
“With that title they would have received incentives, like the doctors used to get, Rs 2000-3,000 more per day for their work,” said Kanojia. “These workers fight every virus all day and night, but they never got any recognition even during the entire pandemic.”
Manual scavengers could not work from home, and their work never really stopped during the pandemic.
Kumar, whose mother is a safai karamchari with the municipality, said that when she contracted Covid-19, she got no medical or other assistance. “Even in the pandemic, they were not provided masks and sanitizers,” said Kumar. “Moreover, the government ordered them to retrieve and burn dead bodies. No holidays were given, and many did not return home for days.”
Kumar, Wilson and Kanojia reiterated that the manual–scavenging ban existed only on paper.
“Unless and until you recognise this profession and bring it under social security, no matter how many laws you make, you'll only punish the one who is a little more powerful than the powerless here,” said Kanojia.
Wilson said the government was not meant to “maintain the status-quo” but that is what it did. “PM (Prime Minister) Modi speaks about everything but never a word about this issue,” said Wilson.
“Safai karamcharis are at the lowest rung of the caste system,” said Kumar. “And if that is shaken or broken in any way, if they don't clean sewers and manholes, the question arises: who will do it then?”
(Aliza Noor is an independent journalist from Lucknow, focussing on stories on social justice and gender from local communities.)