UP: Death of Sanitation Worker in PM Modi's Parliamentary Constituency Raises Questions

UP: Death of Sanitation Worker in PM Modi's Parliamentary Constituency Raises Questions

Despite the advancements of Digital India, sanitation workers from Dalit and marginalized backgrounds continue to face hazardous conditions while performing their duties. Over the past five years, close to 400 sanitation workers have tragically lost their lives in sewer accidents, sparking heightened concerns about safety.

Varanasi- In Uttar Pradesh's Varanasi, Prime Minister Modi's parliamentary constituency, a devastating incident has shaken the community.

A Dalit sweeper lost his life due to suffocation while working in a sewer. This unfortunate event occurred in the same area where the Prime Minister had previously made headlines for washing the feet of sanitation workers. Despite the advancements of Digital India, sanitation workers from Dalit and marginalized backgrounds continue to face hazardous conditions while performing their duties.

Shockingly, in the past five years alone, approximately four hundred sanitation workers have lost their lives due to accidents in the sewers, highlighting a dire situation that persists in Uttar Pradesh, ranking the state second highest in such fatalities.

The incident unfolded at Bhaisapur Ghat in the Adampura area, where two sanitation workers were exposed to poisonous gases while cleaning a sewer. Tragically, one of the workers succumbed to drowning in the filth of the sewer, while the other is battling for life in critical condition at the district hospital. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the District Magistrate of Varanasi has ordered an immediate investigation into the matter to ascertain the causes and prevent similar tragedies in the future.

Ram Babu, a sanitation worker, recounted the tragic events to The Mooknayak, shedding light on the sequence of events that led to the devastating loss of life.

He shared, "There was a complaint regarding a sewer blockage in front of the Ravidas temple at Rajghat. In response to this complaint, the Ganga Pollution Department summoned Ghurelal (40 years old) and Sunil from the Machhodari area to Bhaisasur Ghat for cleaning duties. Upon arrival, Ghurelal, accompanied by Sunil, descended into the manhole using a rope around 3 pm. Three of their colleagues remained stationed above ground."

Continuing his account, Ram Babu revealed, "After a while, there was an ominous silence from Ghurelal's end. Sunil emerged from the manhole and alerted the other workers about the presence of poisonous gas below. He promptly informed the supervisor, Babu Yadav, about the hazardous situation. Shockingly, upon learning of the danger, Babu Yadav fled from the scene, leaving his colleagues behind. Subsequently, the workers notified the police stationed at Rajghat, who promptly summoned the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF)."

Ram Babu detailed the swift response, stating, "Upon receiving the distress call, the NDRF team swiftly arrived at the scene and rescued the trapped sweeper. He was rushed to the Shivprasad Gupta Divisional Hospital for urgent medical attention. Tragically, the doctors at the hospital pronounced the death of Ghurelal.

Mahendra Kumar Bharti, a relative of the deceased worker, voiced serious allegations against the authorities involved, claiming that neither the Junior Engineer (JE), the contractor, nor any officer arrived promptly to provide assistance for nearly an hour following the incident. By the time the NDRF team eventually reached the scene, it was tragically too late.

Ghure Lal, who had been engaged in sewer cleaning duties for approximately 15 years, had been working under a contractor at the sewage pumping station located at Gola Ghat, earning a monthly wage of Rs 12,000.

His wife, Chanda, revealed the devastating impact of the loss on their family, stating that they have four children. Two daughters are enrolled in the ninth class, one son in the eighth class, and another in the seventh class. Chanda further shared the heartbreaking news that their eldest son, 18-year-old Azad, had tragically lost his life in a motorcycle accident just a month and a half prior to this incident.

Lilavati Construction, the company responsible for overseeing the sewer cleaning work, extended financial assistance amounting to Rs 10 lakh to the aggrieved family.

Following the incident, DM Rajalingam swiftly ordered an inquiry into the matter, appointing an investigation officer to look into the circumstances surrounding the tragedy. The investigation report is expected to be submitted to the DM within a week.

Supreme Court's Ban on Unsafe Sewer Cleaning Practices

In a significant move aimed at safeguarding the lives of sanitation workers, the Supreme Court imposed a ban on hazardous sewer cleaning practices. According to the Manual Scavenging Act 2013 and a Supreme Court order dated 20 October 2023, it is now a punishable offense for any sanitation worker to descend into a sewer or septic tank without proper safety equipment.

The law stipulates that there should be a total of 59 types of safety equipment available for the protection of sweepers, including essentials like oxygen masks, safety shoes, and safety belts. Additionally, there must be provisions for an ambulance on-site. However, many contractors continue to send cleaning workers into sewers without adequate safety gear, flouting these regulations.

Disturbing Statistics Highlight the Urgency of Action

Recent statistics reveal the grim reality of the dangers faced by sanitation workers across the country. Over the past five years, a total of 339 deaths have been recorded due to accidents while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. This translates to an alarming average of 67 sanitation workers losing their lives each year while performing this hazardous task. Shockingly, these incidents have been reported from 18 states and union territories. The year 2019 saw the highest number of fatalities, with 117 sanitation workers losing their lives while cleaning sewers. Even during the challenging years of 2020 and 2021, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, 22 and 58 sanitation workers, respectively, met tragic ends.

Expert Voices Concern Over Worker Safety

The staggering loss of life among sanitation workers has raised concerns among experts and activists. Bezwada Wilson, a prominent figure leading a nationwide cleanliness movement in India, has been vocal about the need for urgent action to address this issue. Wilson emphasizes that despite repeated appeals to political parties over the past five years, no significant measures have been taken to address the hazardous working conditions faced by sanitation workers.

The recent Supreme Court decision to award compensation of Rs 30 lakh to the families of victims underscores the severity of the situation. Wilson criticizes this compensation amount, stating that it diminishes the value of the lives lost and underscores the urgent need for comprehensive action to protect the safety and dignity of sanitation workers across the nation.

-Translated by Geetha Sunil Pillai

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