Over 36 hours since the incident, the police have not made any arrests in the case. Their excuse: The contractor – also a manual scavenger – died in the incident.

Manual scavenging deaths Is the police protecting residents of posh Bengaluru apartment
news Manual Scavenging Tuesday, January 09, 2018 - 08:02

Until Sunday afternoon, Mahadeva Gowda was the sole breadwinner of his family. But on Sunday, life changed for his wife and two young daughters, as the 42-year-old suffocated to death inside a manhole in a posh Bengaluru residential society. 

Mahadeva was cleaning a manhole in the ND Sepal Apartments in Somasundara Palya in HSR Layout, along with 52-year-old Srinivas, and 35-year-old Narayana Swamy – who was also the contractor for the job. On Sunday evening, all three men were asphyxiated inside the toxic sewer, and while Narayana and Srinivas died inside the manhole, Mahadeva died on the way to the hospital.

Over 36 hours since the incident, the police have not made any arrests in the case: The contractor, Narayana Swamy, was also a manual scavenger who died on the job, and therefore the obvious ‘villain’ the police could pick up is gone.

But what about the residents of the apartment who got workers to go into a manhole, against all existing laws and humanity – not even with some protective gear? 

"We have to see whether the residents gave consent to this," says Ramesh Kumar, Inspector of the Bandepalya Police Station in HSR Layout.

“We are exploring whether the residents can be charged. The investigation is on and we will know more soon," he adds.

The police say they have registered an FIR under IPC sections 304A (causing death by negligence) and 34 (Acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention), against the apartment association instead of any individual.

But the police have refused to share the FIR with either the media or activists. Lawyer and activist Narasimha Murthy says this is one of the ways in which the police help the banned practice of manual scavenging to continue. 

“In these cases, the authorities are hand-in glove with the perpetrators.The police is not giving any clear picture. They have registered an FIR but are not sharing any details. violating the Supreme Court guidelines,” he says.

“Moreover the case is filed under section 304A – which is a non cognisable and bailable offence. The actual section is 304 part II, which reads as culpable homicide not amounting to murder,” he adds. 

Another activist-lawyer, Maithreyi Krishnan says, “They have to take action against the apartment dwellers. This is just an informal contract, the contractor is not officially registered. The STP lies inside the apartment complex, they are responsible. The FIR should be against the contractor, apartment owners, and the BWSSB engineer.”

“The principal or the only role of the BWSSB is sewage treatment. Sewage treatment wherever in the city is their responsibility. They can't say that STPs have come up and we have no responsibility at all. That is their statutory, obligatory function,” she says.

Manual scavenging is a banned practice in India, but it continues to be practiced across the country; activists say lack of enforcement is what encourages this practice to flourish. 

According to official figures, 68 people persons died in the last 12 years due to manual scavenging in Karnataka alone. Àmong these, 13 deaths were in greater Bengaluru in the last two years.

Following the incident on Sunday, Bengaluru Development Minister KJ George announced an ex-gratia compensation of Rs 5 lakh to the next of kin to all the victims.

But the families of the victims are in too much shock to process any of this. Nagaraj, the brother-in-law of Mahadeva Gowda, says the family didn’t even know he was cleaning sewers. 

"BBMP has promised Rs 5 lakh for us, but we don't know what we will do. We are in a state of shock. He would go and do pest control in other buildings and I do not know how he ended up like this.”