The repeated claims by the Tamil Nadu government that no one is involved in hazardous cleaning of underground sewers were proven tragically wrong yet another time as two conservancy workers were asphyxiated to death while cleaning an underground septic tank in Madurai on Wednesday noon.
The two young Dalit men, G Muniyandi (28) from Manjal Medu near Arappalayam in Madurai and D Viswanathan (25) from a village near Arani in Tiruvannamalai district, were employed by a contractor of the Madurai Corporation.
Both were involved in the cleaning of the septic tank in a Corporation lift station, a place from where sewage collected from nearby areas is sent to the pumping station, located at HMS Colony Main road coming under Ward 22 of the Madurai Corporation.
The only protective gear they were using was a low quality rope and no officials were monitoring the work. According to eyewitness accounts, Muniyandi got inside first and showed signs of asphyxiation due to inhalation of poisonous gas. In a bid to pull him out of the tank, which is around 20 feet deep, Viswanathan peeped inside and inhaled the gas in which he also lost control and fell inside.
Hearing the news, some Corporation officials rushed to the spot and alerted the Fire and Rescue team who came and recovered the bodies from the tank. Both the men were found with froth in their mouth. Viswanathan had blood injuries in the back side of his head and bruises near his abdomen.
Muniyandi, coming from a family of conservancy workers, is survived by his wife Mahalakshmi (25) and two children – a boy named Kalidas (3) and a girl named Umaya Kali (2). His relatives said that Muniyandi, involved in the work for more than seven years, incurred severe burn injuries around an year ago when he tested the presence of poisonous gas inside an underground drainage by lighting a match, a risky method called “theepetti adikiradhu” commonly used by workers as a precaution.
Viswanathan, who had plans of getting married soon, came to Madurai along with about 15 others from Tiruvannamalai. As many local workers refuse to do the work, these migrant workers were used by the contractors of Madurai Corporation clandestinely at night times to remove silt collected in the underground drainage system across the city to which toilets of households are also connected. While his fellow workers had returned, Viswanathan was held up as his salary was still pending with the contractor.
Bodies lay on the road for five hours
Soon after the incident, fellow conservancy workers, family members and members of various labour unions including Thozhilalar Viduthalai Munnani, affiliated to VCK, gathered at the spot. They did not allow the police to shift the bodies for postmortem demanding the presence of Corporation Commissioner, Mayor or District Collector at the spot.
Even as the bodies of both the workers were lying in the middle of the road, the Corporation Commissioner C Kathiravan reached the spot only after four-and-half hours. The Corporation Mayor VV Rajan Chellappa did not bother to come as he and the Cooperation Minister Sellur K Raju were busy taking charge as the district secretaries of the AIADMK in a grand function that choked the traffic in the busy Goripalayam area in Madurai on Wednesday.
The labor union members demanded that the concerned oficials including the city Chief Engineer A Mathuram, Assistant Engineer Mayilerinathan, Drainage Inspector Kannan and the contractor Das are added as accused in the police case. They also demanded that the compensation of Rs 10 lakhs, as per the Supreme Court ruling, be disbursed to both the bereaved families immediately.
AE Mayilerinathan faced angry rebuttal from the workers during the negotiation as he remarked insensitively that no one asked the workers to get inside the septic tank. Pacifying the workers, Kathiravan said that an inquiry will be conducted to identify and punish the officials responsible and assured immediate sanction of the compensation amount. The bodies were shifted to the Government Rajaji Hospital for postmortem on Wednesday evening.
Hazardous cleaning of sewers rampant in Corporation
The workers gathered at the spot alleged that the Madurai Corporation continues to employ workers in manual cleaning of underground sewers without any safety measures while simultaneously claiming that only jet-rodding machines are used for such work.
A.Bose of Thozhilalar Viduthalai Munnani said, “During our protest last month, we were assured in written that no one will be employed in the manual cleaning of underground drainage.”
S Pandivel from VCK, who was once a conservancy worker, said that the workers do not seek such work but are persuaded into doing it for a meager monthly salary of Rs 4,500 by giving them false hopes of getting a permanent job with the Corporation.
Corporation Commissioner however said that there are provisions to use workers in manual cleaning of sewers in certain situations with adequate protective gears and monitoring. He said that recently a demonstration exercise was carried out to educate the workers on using protective gears in which even the deceased Muniyandi participated.
No case under Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act
Despite demand by the workers to book the officials under The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act 2013, the SS Colony police in Madurai City registered the case under Section 304A of the IPC that is generally invoked in road accident cases for causing death through a rash or negligent act.
The police claimed that they have added CE Mathuram, AE Mayilerinathan, DI Kannan and contractor Das as accused in the case.
However, Deepti Sukumar from Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) said that the police ought to have registered the case under the Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act as engaging workers for manually cleaning sewers without safety measures is a cognizable offence under the act
Section 7 of the act says that prohibits engaging “either directly or indirectly, any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank.” Section 9 of the act says that the violation of Section 7 can be punished with upto two years of imprisonment or Rs 2 lakhs fine (for first contravention) and five years of prison or Rs 5 lakhs fine (for subsequent contravention).
Deepti Sukumar said that the act has not been invoked in a single case across the country despite repeated deaths of conservancy workers in similar incidents.
Cover-up by Corporation?
Meanwhile, there were reports on Thursday that the Madurai Corporation was attempting a cover-up for not ensuring adequate safety measures for the workers involved in hazardous cleaning.
Corporation has allegedly instructed all the AEs to submit a pre-dated (07.10.2015) intent letter requesting for protective gears for consevancy workers. AEs were also allegedly asked to create records in such a way that they had received safety uniforms before 14.10.2015.
Families refuse to accept the bodies
As on Thursday evening, the families of both the workers and the labor unions refused to accept the bodies after postmortem as the compensation amount was not disbursed and the police did not book the case under appropriate sections.
MD Pandian, state politburo member of CPML – Peoples Libreation party, said that they insisted on filing the case under Section 304 Part II of IPC instead of Section 304A and Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act. “We also wanted the police to arrest the concerned officials but the police did not accept our demands,” he said.
Bose said that while Commissioner assured immediate disbursal of the compensation amount of Rs 10 lakhs on Wednesday, the officials asked the families to submit the legal heir certificate obtained from revenue officials on Thursday to issue the cheques. “For Viswanathan’s family who had come from Tiruvannamalai, it may take weeks to get that,” he said.