Outside the Bowring hospital mortuary in Bengaluru, several police personnel have blocked the main gate, preventing the sanitary workers dressed in brown uniforms from entering the building.
Inside lie the bodies of three men from Andhra Pradesh, who lost their lives while cleaning a manhole in the city in the wee hours of Tuesday. As everybody awaits the arrival of their families to identify the bodies, there is anger among the workers.
"The BWSSB does not provide us with uniforms or safety gears. How many times will we demand safe working conditions? When we ask for our basic rights, they threaten to sack us from the job. We are uneducated and in need of money, what else can we do?" asks 38-year-old Mukund, the driver of a water truck.
An outsourced employee of the BWSSB, Mukund has grown numb to the many deaths of his colleagues and friends in a similar manner.
Protesters outside Bowring Hospital
Mukund and his colleagues are angry at BWSSB for inaction
Gangadhar, president of Sanitary Workers’ Association Bengaluru says that the association has no information about the deceased, for they were not from the city.
"We ask our workers not to do the job without safety gears and masks. But in this case, we are at a loss. These three were were made to enter the manhole at 12.30 am, which is a grave crime," he said.
“What action has the government taken to ensure their workers don’t die? Where is your plan? Till the authorities come and show us their plan for our safety, we will sit in protest,” said Venkatesh, a BWSSB worker.
GN Nagendra, Bengaluru convenor of Safai Karmachari Gandonadatha is set to submit an enquiry report on the deaths to its New Delhi headquarters and demand criminal action against those concerned.
"Since the workers were not from Bengaluru, nobody has any information about their identity. It is outrageous that the BWSSV boss is claiming ignorance of its own contractor employing manual scavengers," he said.
Facts of the case
Anjaneya Reddy, Yerraiah and Dhavathi Naidu were residents of Prakasham district in AP. At around 12.30 am on Tuesday, one of them entered a manhole on Kaggadasapura main road. When he failed to come out after sometime, the second man entered the manhole. The third person went in to search of the other two, and the toxic fumes consumed all three of them.
The private contractor who employed the three workers is absconding.
However, BWSSB, who is the Principal employer, was quick to claim ignorance about the incident and refused to take responsibility.
Speaking to TNM, chief engineer Manjunath said that the Board would never employ manual scavengers and that the private contractor had done so without their knowledge. Asked about the Board’s accountability in the death, the official decided to evade the question.
‘BWSSB has blood on its hands’
Clifton Rozario, president of BBMP Guttige Powrakarmikara Sangha said, “The death of these workers have become mere numbers now. Even then several deaths are pushed under the carpet. What the officials forget is that behind every number is a family who lost an earning member.”
He invoked the SC guidelines on manual scavenging, saying that the workers are forced to do such work. "It is the social circumstances that compels them to clean another person's waste. We as a Society are equally responsible for the deaths."
He asserted that the BWSSB cannot at any cost wash its hands off the matter, though it has become the standard response of the Board whenever a death occurs.
"BWSSB is supposed to provide safe working conditions to its workers. They cannot pin all the responsibility on the private contractor since they are the principal employer. Complete government apathy and lack of concern is what is being reflected here,” Clifton said.
“Not just that, the society is equally responsible for this. As far as the urban elite are concerned, they want their dirt to be cleaned and do not bother about who does it in what condition. The blood of these men are on our hands and not just the contractor or the BWSSB. We have spoken to Minister George and Mayor Padmavathi about this in the morning when they visited the hospital," he added.
RTI activist Narasimha Murthy who is set to approach the Human rights commission on the matter said that a criminal case should be filed against BWSSB.
He said that 57 manual scavengers have died in Karnataka since 2008.
RTI activist Narasimha Murthy addresses protesters
"In such cases, they normally register case for death due to negligence (IPC 304 a) which is a bailable offence. At the end nobody gets convicted. They must instead slap Section 304 (culpable homicide) against the contractor and BWSSB and suspend the officials on priority," he said.
Clifton indicated the possibility of one or more persons belonging to Dalit families. In that case, he said, cases under SC/ST Atrocities Act 2015 and manual scavenging act must be charged.
Visiting the hospital, Social Welfare Commissioner Vikas Kumar told reporters that necessary action will be taken again the concerned persons soon.