In Thoothukudi, four people, without earnings for several months due to the lockdown, went for sanitation work to the house of A Somasundaram on his request to clean his septic tank in July. The four members, who were supposed to clean the tank with equipment, however, were reportedly forced to enter the septic tank without protective gear. One of them, Bala, entered the tank first to clear the blockade. He opened a chamber and suddenly fainted. The three others immediately jumped into the tank to save him. But all the four breathed the noxious fumes emanating from the sewer and succumbed in the septic tank due to asphyxiation.
â€śManual scavenging destroyed our family,â€ť cried Isakimuthu, father of Bala who left behind a pregnant wife.
â€śWe have lost our son forever. His wife has delivered a girl baby but we are not even allowed to have a look at our granddaughter by her family members. He was the only earning member of our family and if not for the coronavirus, he would have been alive, playing with his daughter,â€ť he said.
Tamil Nadu has not just lost Isakiraj, Dinesh, Pandi and Bala to manual scavenging in this period. A total of eight people have died of asphyxiation in the state during the lockdown.
Isakimuthu said the four of them were new to manual scavenging and were only assigned the work of operating a private sanitation truck to clear the blockade. â€śHowever, Somasundaram forced them to enter the tank and Bala was the first person to enter. The house owner did not mention that the tank has two chambers and the interior chamber was not cleaned recently. As soon as Bala opened the chamber, the gas emanated and he asphyxiated to death,â€ť he said.
The father also asked, â€śThe government is paying us compensation but how can that be a compensation? Will I get back my son? The government should put an end to manual scavenging.â€ť
These eight people succumbed in the sewer even as industries, malls and major buildings remained closed during the lockdown.
The four other asphyxiation deaths were recorded in two houses in Namakkal and Kanchipuram districts. Two Dalit youths, Murugesan and Sanjay, hired by a builder, died of asphyxiation while cleaning a septic tank in Namakkal district. In another incident, two sanitation workers, including a Dalit man, were asphyxiated to death in Muthiyalpet of Kanchipuram district.
The founder of Madurai based Dalits and Human Rights NGO, 'Evidenceâ€™ Kathir, claims that Tamil Nadu has recorded the highest number of asphyxiation deaths in the nation during the lockdown.
Speaking to TNM, Kathir said, â€śTamil Nadu has recorded the highest number of manual scavenging deaths even during the lockdown. The number is the highest in the country. Eight people have lost their lives due to asphyxiation and many brutal [caste] crimes have taken place during the pandemic. Everything came to a standstill in the pandemic but not caste atrocities.â€ť
The eight deaths during the lockdown have sent shockwaves among activists who warn that Tamil Nadu might continue to top the ignominious list of asphyxiation deaths in 2020.
The state topped the list of asphyxiation deaths in 2013-2018. Tamil Nadu recorded 144 deaths in five years which was twice in number compared to the state with second highest deaths in this category, Uttar Pradesh, as per the data released by the Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Ramdas Athawale, in 2019.
Tamil Nadu State Convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan, D Samuel Velanganni, also agreed that the state will likely top the list even this year. Samuel said, â€śTamil Nadu will continue to top the list of manual scavenging deaths in the country this year. From the time the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 came into force, Tamil Nadu has continued to record the highest number of deaths in the country.â€ť
He said, â€śThe government has not taken adequate measures and even the surveys undertaken by them in a few districts do not show the real picture on the number of sanitation workers involved in manual scavenging. The death of Dalit workers should be taken seriously and the government should do the needful.â€ť
100 caste crimes recorded during lockdown
During the lockdown, the state has also recorded an increase in the list of caste based atrocities including caste killing, caste abuse and assault.
Kathir says that his NGO has recorded 100 caste atrocities against Dalits that took place during the lockdown, between March and September 2020. The team has a record for over 20 murders, 58 caste based abuse and assault; eight panchayat leaders reported discrimination and there were 14 instances of sexual harrasment reported by Dalit woman.
Kathir said, â€śDomestic and caste violence have increased during the lockdown. Many caste Hindus went in groups to attack Dalits even as the strict lockdown was in place to control the pandemic. The caste Hindus who were frustrated by the pandemic found easy access to attack Dalits. Many caste killings have happened in the lockdown. Many of the survivors are yet to get justice since the full-fledged functioning of the judiciary has been affected by the lockdown. A few cases were not registered and the turn of events increased the impunity of the caste Hindus."
He also pointed out that caste crimes are on a rise since the anti-caste movements in Tamil Nadu have failed to equally condemn the caste violence inflicted by the intermediary caste members against the Dalits. Kathir said, â€śTamil Nadu has several movements to criticise Brahminical oppression but they have not condemned the intermediary caste groups enough for inciting violence against the Dalits.â€ť