Case Report (02/04/2019): 3 workers die in a septic tank at Indi Town, Vijayapura

On 2nd April 2019, the owners of Amar International Hotel at Chadachan Road in Indi Town of Vijayapura district, asked Gudusaab Bagwaan (40), Nabilal Ekkewale (32) and Lalappa Madar (35) to clean the septic tank behind the hotel. The workers went inside the septic tank around 4 pm in the evening and never came back. The hotel owners checked the tank only at 7 pm and saw someone lying unconscious in the tank. When they called out, there was no response from any of the workers. The owners called the police along with Fire brigade. The body of Lallappa Madar, belonging to Dalit community, was brought out first but to get the bodies of the remaining two workers, JCB had to be brought to break open the tank.

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On 27th April 2019, in a similar incident on Nagwara Main Road in Bengaluru City, two workers – Gafoor Pasha (45) and Aftab Pasha (38) – died while cleaning a well which was being used to dump sewage. On March 2, 2019, in a similar incident in Bengaluru city, a worker had died while cleaning a chamber of a private school on Bengaluru Main Road. The number of manual scavenging deaths in Karnataka has now crossed 80 and it does not look like that the trend of these deaths are going to end anytime soon because of complete absence of political will from the state government. Because of the pressure built by Dalit and Human Rights organizations, while compensation is being provided to the families of the deceased workers and FIRs are being registered promptly, the government has completely failed in taking steps towards preventing such deaths. There are two aspects to prevention of manual scavenging: 1) making technology available and 2) ensuring criminal action against those who employ human beings, in most cases dalits, as manual scavengers.

As part of a PIL filed by PUCL in 2009 (WP 30221/2009), the Karnataka High Court had ordered government to buy Sucking and Jetting Machines for all Urban Local Bodies. After these orders, each Urban Local Body was provided with minimum one Sucking and Jetting Machine. BWSSB has 125 S&J machines. But in many towns, these machines are lying idle. Some have broken down, some urban local bodies have not hired drivers and operators, while others have not publicized how people can request services of these machines. With machines becoming available, slowly and slowly, government bodies are being forced under public pressure to stop using manual scavengers in maintenance of sewers and manholes, but most cities do not have UGD coverage and houses and establishments rely on septic tanks and chambers. While few years back, most of the manual scavenging deaths were happening when government was employing manual scavengers for cleaning the sewers and manholes, off late a majority of deaths are happening when private persons like house owners or hotel or hospital or school owners hire workers for cleaning septic tanks or chambers. Thus ensuring that enough numbers of machines are available, and can be easily requested by private persons by calling a helpline number is a necessary step towards prevention of manual scavenging.

Indi Town also got one Sucking and Jetting Machine after this order which can be hired for 1500 rupees, but the hotel owners preferred using workers as manual scavengers for cleaning the septic tank. So, while availability of machines is necessary, it is not sufficient. Since, most people doing this work come from Dalit community, there is no value for their lives. Hence, if someone hires a person as manual scavengers, ensuring strict punishment, will act as deterrent. Unfortunately, in over 40 cases of manual scavenging deaths that have occurred since the 2013 Manual Scavenging Act came into being, there has not been a single conviction! The government needs to treat these cases as special category cases and try them in fast track courts after appointing special public prosecutors. Unless this is ensured, every year we would be counting dead bodies.

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