Lives Digested By Delhi’s Sewers

On Diwali day this year, 22-year-old Vinay Sirohi, a valve operator working on contract for a water treatment plant of the Delhi Jal Board, went into the sewage pipes to fix a leak. He never came out. His body was found the next day in the section of pipeline known as the ‘digester’: the section that treats waste water and turns it into drinking water.

What followed was a bizarre theatre of the absurd. Much as authorities in the recent film Court declared that a worker’s death in a drain amounted to suicide because of the ‘suspicious’ circumstance of his lack of safety gear, the DJB insinuated that Vinay’s death was not an accident, because he violated “protocol” and “suspiciously” went into the sewer alone and without safety gear, to do a job that was not officially his!

According to one estimate (‘Whose City, Indian Seminar, Dunu Roy), “an estimated 100 workers die every year while entering the confined space at high temperatures, with slippery walls and floor, and in the presence of toxic gases, sharps, chemicals, and insects.”

A 100 human lives digested by Delhi’s sewers every year. That suggests a regular digestive system and diet – not an occasional ‘suspicious’ murder/suicide/accident! Most sewer line workers are Dalits from the Valmiki community.

The Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that sewer line workers be treated as manual scavengers, and that requiring workers to enter sewer lines without safety gear should be treated as a crime. It also ruled that the families of all manual scavengers who have died in sewerage work since 1993 be paid compensation of Rs.10 lakh. The DJB has paid Vinay’s family a mere Rs 1.5 lakh. Denying any role in the crime of sending Vinay into the sewer minus safety gear, the DJB shrugs and points towards the contractor – the Indian MNC VA TECH WABAG Limited. ‘No one’ sent Vinay into the sewer line – the DJB and the contractor point out that cleaning sewers was not his job. But the ‘dirty secret’ is that if he were to refuse to do the work of cleaning a sewer line, he, as a contract worker, would likely lose his job.

‘Down the Drain’, a January 2014 study prepared by Praxis in collaboration with the National Campaign for Dignity and Rights for Sewerage and Allied Workers (NCDARSAW), found that at least 43% of DJB workers are contract workers – but few of them have any written contract to show. Permanent workers receive wages between Rs 12,000 - 20,000; while contract workers are paid wages as low as Rs 4000/- per month. The contractors and sub-contractors falsely treat the work as “unskilled work” to evade the obligations towards skilled workers.

The study quotes workers referring to the contract system as “Third degree” exploitation. It notes that thanks to “Government sub-contracting to private contractors,” “contractors exploit them to a great extent by paying less, and often giving them no remuneration for certain tasks. It is a kind of feudal system, where the contractor pays just half the salary that is allocated to the workers. Unlike the earlier feudal system, here the workers recruited have no knowledge of who their contractors are.”

One worker quoted in the study narrates how he fainted in the sewer due to noxious gases but was rescued and hospitalised by his fellow workers. The study noted that “nobody from DJB nor any contractor came to help him or enquired about his health. Furthermore, he was shocked when he got his salary with a deduction of the days when he was hospitalised and under treatment.”

Why did Vinay have to work on Diwali? According to respondents in the study, DJB contract workers “do not get any leave or holidays and even work on Sundays. In case they are not able to work on any national holiday or festival, their salary gets deducted.”

Contract workers have no protection – neither of safety gear, nor of labour laws, nor of the right to unionise. The AICCTU had organised 25 contract workers of the Narela Water Treatment plant, all of whom were being paid half of even the stated salary. After they approached the labour department with their demands, the contractor removed them from work, but was forced to reinstate them thanks to an agitation. But when the contract year was up, the contractor did not renew the contract, and left the workers hanging without even paying back wages. AICCTU leaders met the Kejriwal Government’s Minister Kapil Mishra who is chairman of the Delhi Jal Board – he is fully aware of the life-threatening situation. Yet, why has the Kejriwal Government failed to keep its promise of making contract workers permanent? Why does the DJB under Kejriwal continue to violate the Supreme Court directives on workers’ welfare and safety issued in 2011? The Modi Government boasts of its Swacch Bharat campaign. The AAP that rules Delhi has a broom for its party symbol, and got votes of Delhi’s poorest workers and sewer/sanitation workers. Why can’t these Governments ensure a total stop to the criminal deaths of workers in the sewers of Delhi and the country?

Liberation Archive