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Night work in sewers was banned following the 2013 Supreme Court order. But the Madurai Corporation appears to have no conclusive information on under whose instructions the men entered the sewer at night.

Madurai Contract Workers death in sewer
news Sanitation Worker Deaths Monday, April 25, 2022 - 17:30

It has been four days since Saravanakumar (30), Sivakumar (45) and Lakshman (32) died due to asphyxiation late at night inside a sewer junction in Madurai’s Mazhagantham. Though the First Information Report (FIR) mentions the contractor who summoned the workers in the night, Damodharan, a family member of one of the victims, has questioned why the local ward councillor’s husband, who allegedly called for the workers, was not named in the FIR. The Madurai Corporation, meanwhile, seems to have no answers on who ordered the men to go inside the sewer.

“It was at the insistence of the local ward councillor’s husband that the three of them were sent there at night. Now the Corporation is telling us that no work card was issued for that night. This seems to imply that they are saying it is the contractor’s fault,” alleges Damadhoran, Saravanakumar’s brother-in-law. “They were given no protective gear, no masks or gloves. They did not even have a light when they went into that well,” he further alleges.

In the FIR filed by the Junior Engineer of the Madurai Corporation, he mentions that Thavamani, the husband of the area ward councillor Amutha, called him around 10 pm to inform him about one death at the site. But the Corporation appears to have no conclusive information on under whose instructions the men entered the sewer at night. Night work in sewers was banned following the 2013 Supreme Court order. Yet, three men were sent into a sewer junction at around 9.30 pm. 

Madurai Corporation Commissioner Dr KP Karthikeyan says, “There was no instruction from the Corporation to go there at night. Also, they were not there for sanitation work, they were there to remove a motor, which is allowed. The Standard Operating Procedure in such instances is for the motor to be removed with ropes. No one is supposed to enter the sewer.”

Karthikeyan also claims that the sewer junction should have been cleaned out before someone enters. “A pump is supposed to be used to suck out the dirty water and then clean water is pumped in to further flush out any filth.”

The Commissioner tells TNM that only a thorough investigation will reveal who is to blame. “Even with contract workers we ensure that SOPs are followed. We give regular training on safety measures.”

The deaths re-open questions various rights groups and activists have been asking for years. Why, despite a law banning night-time sanitation work, were the three of them sent down there? Why were they given no protective gear? Why have multiple governments, across party lines, done little to address the problem when sanitation work related deaths continue to be on the rise? Is simply paying compensation after the deaths—mere reactive measures—going to be all that the authorities do instead of preventing further tragedies?

If these are the SOPs, then it begs the question why none of the rules were followed? Damodharan alleges that even though the fire service personnel arrived quickly, the attempted rescue operation took about three hours, at which point the workers could only be brought out dead. “The water level was too high to retrieve the bodies. They would have needed pumps to take out the water first, but they did not arrive on time.”

Rs 5 lakh out of the Rs 10 lakh mandated compensation amount has been paid to the families. Damodharan says the money they have received has come from the contractor’s company.  “The remaining money will be paid too, that’s not the problem. The problems that do exist, the authorities don’t seem to care enough to address,” says Kathir, founder of the Madurai-based rights organisation Evidence.  “The sanitation department is grossly understaffed. For example, where there should be 3,000 workers employed, often there are only about half the number. Despite years of working, many remain contracted instead of being permanent employees. This saves the government money in terms of salaries. And it leaves the workers vulnerable since they are tied to the contractors instead of being government employees.”

Shalin Maria Lawrence, a writer and activist, adds, “Eighty percent of the manual scavenging labourers are contractual employees. So they don’t have proper income. The government needs to eliminate this business with contractors and directly employ the workers. Also, of course, give them mechanised equipment that they can use instead of directly doing the job.”

‘Tamil Nadu tops the country in sanitation worker deaths’

In a press statement, Evidence says that in the last 22 months alone, 21 sanitation work related deaths have occurred in Tamil Nadu. The state also has the highest number of deaths in the country.

Reacting to the Madurai incident, Shalin had pointed out on Twitter that the DMK had said it would implement its poll promise of ensuring manual scavenging is abolished as per the Supreme Court's order. “An MLA did photoshoots with machines to clean up sewage. People were all praises and called it a ‘sixer’ from Mr. Stalin. Apart from mere theatrics, nothing was actually done to eliminate or reduce manual scavenging in the state.”

Shalin also tells TNM, “These deaths highlight state apathy. If the government puts its mind to it, they can eliminate manual scavenging. The 2013 Supreme Court order based on a case filed by the Safai Karamchari Andolan mandates the complete abolishment of this practice. If even after nearly nine years nothing has been done, what other reason than apathy can we assume?”

Shalin also alleges, “The state thrives on the caste system. The caste system says that one caste should always be working in sewers, and should always be dirty. The government is replicating that.” This is a factor that has been repeatedly pointed out by activists — caste plays a deadly role in the problem. Most sanitation workers hail from Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe backgrounds. According to the police statement, Saravankumar, the electrician, was from the Scheduled Caste Pallar community and Lakshmanan, the machine operator, from the Malai Vendan Scheduled Tribe. Sivakumar, who was hired to unblock the drain, was from the Kallar community, an OBC group that is part of the Thevar caste. While Saravanakumar had 11 years of experience, Lakshmanan had eight years on the job, and Sivakumar had been working for over a year. But none of them had been made permanent employees.

Kathir asks why a case has not been filed under the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Act (PoA), given that two of the men are from SC and ST backgrounds. As of now, an FIR has been filed only under IPC 304 (causing death by negligence not amounting to culpable homicide). Vijay Anandan, the owner of a company named VGR, and two of its employees have been named in the FIR. Saravankumar’s family wants the ward councillor’s husband Thavamani to be added to the FIR. They are also demanding that the case be filed under the PoA. When TNM reached out to police officials, including the Commissioner of Police, Madurai, they declined to comment on the matter.

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