Two men – Murugan and Pandi Durai – asphyxiated to death while unclogging an underground drainage system in a housing colony in Coimbatore on Tuesday.

Didnt realise it would be last time I saw him Wife of TN manual scavenging victim
news Manual scavenging Wednesday, January 23, 2019 - 12:36

“When my husband told me about his assignment in the afternoon and bid me goodbye on Tuesday morning, I did not realise that would be the last time I was seeing him alive,” says 28-year-old Ayyammal holding back tears.

On Tuesday, Ayyammal’s 37-year-old husband Murugan, and his brother Pandi Durai (29), asphyxiated to death while unclogging an underground drainage system in a housing colony in Coimbatore. Their death has once again put the spotlight on manual scavenging, which continues despite being prohibited by law in 1993. Manual scavenging thrives across Tamil Nadu in its cruelest form, swallowing lives and pushing families into misery and despair. According to the data available with Safai Karmachari Andolan, more than 90% of those killed in manual scavenging incidents are Dalits. Murugan and Pandi Durai were no exceptions.

Murugan was a sanitary worker in Coimbatore Corporation for the last five years. After completing his designated work from 5.30 am to 12 noon, he used to take up independent odd jobs to make ends meet. The job at Thirunagar housing colony in Singanallur on Tuesday was one such part-time job that Murugan took up in the past three months.

“For the past 10 days, since workload in the housing colony was high, he chose to go there full time,” Ayyammal says.

Ayyammal works as a sanitary worker in CIT College, Coimbatore, from 9 am to 5 pm every day. She married Murugan 11 years ago and the couple have two children -- a 11-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy. On Tuesday, Murugan was still at home when Ayyammal left for work. Ayyammal says that Murugan told her that he would also leave for work later in the day with his younger brother Pandi Durai and Murugan’s friend Suresh.

“When I was coming back home after work on Tuesday, our neighbours from the colony told me that my husband and his brother were involved in some accident inside the drain and that Suresh was trying to help and get both of them out. So I rushed to the spot with a few others,” Ayyammal narrates.

As she reached the Thirunagar housing colony, she found out that the Fire and Rescue Services personnel had brought both the men out. Though an ambulance reached the spot, the paramedic in the ambulance checked the men and declared them dead. 

“The housing colony did not provide my husband or his brother with any basic protective equipment when they gave them this task. This caused their death, and now two families are left without their loved ones. Pandi Durai got married just five months ago, and his wife Keerthana has not spoken to any of us since yesterday,” she says.

An FIR has been filed in Singanallur police station on Tuesday against the residents welfare association of the housing colony under section 304A (Causing death by negligence) of the IPC and sections 7 and 9 of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavenger and their Rehabilitation Act 2013. No arrests have been made in the case.

Speaking to TNM, a police officer at Singanallur police station says that since the complaint did not mention any caste-based slur or abuse directed at Murugan or Pandi Durai the SC/ST Act was not invoked in the FIR.

Meanwhile, the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) has written to the Chairman of the National Commission for Safai Karmacharis about the crime and sought immediate action in the matter along with increased compensation to all victims since 1993. In the letter, SKA stated that governmental efforts focus on denying the manual scavengers their entitlement, beating the original cause. "Repeated government surveys have focussed more on denying the manual scavengers their entitlements rather than to take a count and ensure their liberation and rehabilitation. All the persons who died in sewer work were those whose names did not appear in any survey record," read the letter. Adding that there are more deaths that go unreported, SKA demanded 100% mechanisation of all sewage work to be undertaken on a warfooting, compensation of Rs 25 lakh for all sewer deaths in the country since 1993, and free schemes for self-employment for all manual scavengers. 

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