September 27, 2007 was a dreadful day for both K Nagammal and R Emilia. On that fateful day, their husbands, Kannaiya and Ravi died due to suffocation while cleaning a septic tank in Pallikarni. Nine years have passed since. They have not been able to move past the tragedy, and perhaps what keeps it alive everyday is that they are still struggling to get government aid promised for their husband’s deaths.
For Nagammal, the incident is still afresh in her mind. Remembering that day, she said, “I did not know that he was going to clean a septic tank. He just told me I’m going to talk to someone for my job. He left around 8 pm, I waited for him till 3 am in the morning and then slept off. Around 4 am, someone came and told me that he had died.”
For the next 15 days Nagammal was admitted in a hospital and when she regained her consciousness she saw the picture of her husband with the other two manual scavenging workers in the newspaper.
“I did not know what to do. He was the only earning member of our family. We had shifted to Chennai from Andhra Pradesh in 2003. I had to look after my children and he used to go for work,” she said.
Nagammal had started working as a domestic help but later left that job and started making idlis and selling it on the roads. It is her dream to start her own small eatery shop but no one is ready to help her. “If I ask for loan from people they say how will you return it? You just earn Rs 300-600 everyday. The bank wants something as a guarantee like property or jewellery. I do not have either.”
Emilia has a similar story to tell. Talking about that night and her husband’s death her voice started breaking. “I had just come back from work and both Kannaiya and Krishnaiya were there at our place. They all went out together and I did not know they went for this work. I waited whole night for my husband Ravi to return. At 6:30 am, I was informed that he has died. Immediately, I filed an FIR at the Pallikarni police station,” Emilia said.
She is working as a domestic help and lives with her mother-in-law. “I have not received any government aid till now,” she said.
Both Nagammal and Emilia had been given Rs. 30,000 each by people living in Jose apartments in Pallikarni where their husbands died.
In March 2014, Supreme Court gave a direction to all state governments in India to identify people who died in sewage man hole or septic tanks and give their families a compensation of Rs. 10 lakh. "Initially, no action was taken by the state government. Towards the end of 2014, ChangeIndia filed a representation to the government’s Municipal administration department. We enlisted about 152 deaths in manholes and septic tanks since 1993 till November 2014 from various media archives,” said Narayanan, an activist.
"We gave a representation to the department saying that we have collated 152 deaths, requesting the government to trace these families. We gave all media reports with it. Government will have post-mortem reports. Government did not do anything so we filed a writ petition in Madras High court in March 2015 stating that we had given a representation and government has not done anything about it. They asked the government to give timely status report about it," he added.
With ChangeIndia’s petition, Safai Karamchari Andolan also stated 75 deaths, so about 227 deaths were recorded in total. "So now the government has identified 192 victims. Supreme Court had said that manhole or septic tank they have to pay compensation to their families.
"But the state government is not ready to pay for people who died working in septic tanks. There will be only 3 lakhs for them as those people died in septic tanks were by private parties," Narayanan said.
He feels it is not right. "We are challenging it in court. We are going to take up the issue in the court. They cannot differentiate between government and private as it is failure of the government to stop such work," he said.
However, Nagammal dreams of making her daughters, a doctor and teacher but is still clueless about how to financially support their future.