Sewer lines killed four more in the city on Tuesday. Although the victims in northwest Delhi were not employees of the sanitation sector, the incident bears witness to the many abdications that have jeopardized work at sanitation sites across the country. Three telephone linemen accidentally fell into an open septic tank under the overhead cables they were repairing. Like the roughly 340 sanitation workers who, according to government data, died while working in sewers and septic tanks between 2016 and 2020, the victims of Tuesday’s accident were abandoned by their employers. They were not protected by the protective equipment mandated for such dangerous work by the country’s safety laws. An autorickshaw driver who jumped into the toxic cesspool to save the linesmen was the fourth victim. The tangled wires and noxious gases in the pit that hampered the rescue mission are testament to the dangerous working conditions in the sewer lines that all too often cause havoc.
One of the first important steps taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after taking office in 2014 was to end the culture of silence on sanitation issues. Unfortunately, however, the zeal that led to the achievement of most of the objectives of the first phase of the Swachh Bharat mission did not translate into a significant improvement in the working conditions of those who plumb the sewer pits. . Some local government agencies, including the Delhi Jal Board, have provided sewer cleaners with safety kits and attempted to mechanize the cleaning of septic tanks. Last year, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) advised that health workers be treated as “frontline health workers for all intents and purposes” and called for the responsibility for deaths to be determined on the sanitation sites. However, municipalities and government agencies continue to contract out work at sewerage sites to private contractors, many of whom are night shift operators, who do not keep proper records of their employees. The intertwining of work at sanitation sites with caste and the desperate poverty of some workers makes the problem even more intractable.
The NHRC has called on the Delhi government, the city’s police commissioner and the chairman of MTNL to submit a “detailed report” on the incident within four weeks. He demanded action against the responsible officers. There is no doubt that accountability must be fixed. But for too long, employers have ignored the dignity of workers at sanitation sites. It is high time to tackle this fundamental problem.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition of April 1, 2022 under the title “Unacceptable Toll”.