Death with indignity

Death with indignity

It’s not just civic agencies which send untrained workers into septic tanks.

By Mihir Srivastava

Published on :

Five young men — Vishal, Sarfaraz, Pankaj, Raja and Umesh — died inside the sewage tank in an affluent colony in Delhi. They were untrained workers in the age range of 18 to 30 years. They did not have any protective gear that could have saved them when they were assigned the job of cleaning the sewage tank of building ‘P’ in West Delhi’s DLF Capital Greens. The mishap occurred at around 3:30 pm on September 8. All of them were staying near the apartment complex, so near and yet so far from a life of dignity.

DLF Capital Green is a West Delhi township of luxury apartments with 23 highrise towers overlooking 100 acres of green area under DDA’s protection. These tall buildings are in contrast to the surroundings, which lie in a state of neglect. The developers, nevertheless, claim no 1 rank among its competitors because of  “several things which were accomplished in many sleepy and forgotten neighbourhood of Delhi NCR”.

The facilities are certainly impressive: ‘lavish clubhouse, indoor games & cards room, reading lounge, swimming pool, rainwater harvesting, landscaped parks, round the clock multi-tiered security, and basement car parking.’

Behind this impressive façade, however, hides a sordid reality. And that reality surfaced when five untrained men were lowered into the 30-feet-deep sewage tank in the basement of the building. Only their dead bodies emerged. Preliminary investigations suggest they died of inhaling toxic fumes – a known byproduct of sewage and a well-known hazard.

When Patriot reached there, the whole complex was heavily guarded. Three sanitary workers were outside the building. Their mouths were covered with surgical masks. A pipe was jutting out of the underground drainage and the work of cleaning the sewage tank was accomplished, according to those three men present. There were no signs of any police tape marking the scene of the crime.

The guard at the entrance of the ‘P’ tower, a skinny man in his fifties, was bewildered when he came to know that a media person had come this far despite heavy security. He called for his supervisor.

The supervisor, who identified himself as Kuldeep ‘with no surname’ was wearing a red t-shirt over blue trousers and sported a moustache. His cryptic ‘not allowed’ did not hide his concern that a reporter had reached so far, just a few yards away from the disaster site. There was resistance to letting the reporter leave, but some of the residents present intervened to allow a safe passage out of the complex. “What is there to hide?” asked one resident.

Of course, the residents were told it’s a breach of security – and residents should feel completely secure. The security arrangement is the first line of defence to ensure a safe burial for the whole controversy.

Who says only bureaucrats are good at passing the buck? Housekeeping of the ‘best place to live in Delhi at very reasonable price points’ has been outsourced to JLL. DLF spokesperson was seen defending JLL — ‘one the largest facility management companies’ — rather than expressing dismay at what had happened. “JLL is known for its high-quality safety standards and service. We are still awaiting the detailed report from JLL on the unfortunate incident. We are sure that JLL will take all measures to take care of the families that have been affected.”  

Preliminary investigations by Delhi Police show that it may be a case of sheer negligence, as police has already established that the men were not wearing safety equipment. The cleaning staff, e-rickshaw drivers (who provide a free service to commute inside the campus) and some of the guards Patriot talked to outside the compound at a tea shop near the Satguru Ram Singh Marg Metro station, spoke along the same lines.

They talked about their salaries, which are Rs 12,000 to 15,000, harsh working conditions, lack of training, absence of protective gear, and constant pressure to perform more tasks. They also stated that they are ‘forced to do these menial works’, which came as a rude shock as they weren’t briefed about it at the time of recruitment.

These workers, who are in desperate need of work, also end up doing manual scavenging. They assured the police of full cooperation in the investigations.

The residents are made to think this was an ‘unfortunate’ accident. Some tragedies just occur, no one is really guilty,  circumstances are sometimes beyond human control. The workers, of course, don’t subscribe to this view.  

“There’s lot of filth at the bosom of these tall white buildings,” says a 27-year-old man who has performed the task of cleaning septic tanks regularly, “It could be me tomorrow,” he says. His wife has asked him to quit if they ask him to do it again as “It’s better to starve to death than die like this.”

“Will there be a coverup?” asks a 45-year-old electrician who is in touch with some of the families of the deceased. He connected the reporter on his phone to Sarfaraz’s family. “Leave us alone,” responded the hoarse voice on the phone without confirming his identity, “Our life and death is a pile of shit.”

Since five people have died, somebody has to be held responsible. The police probe is underway. DLF is a big fish and has anyway passed the buck to JLL.

JLL on their part has maintained stoic silence for three days, until one of their engineers was arrested on charges of negligence. In its statement, the company said: “We are cooperating with all the relevant authorities and government agencies as they investigate this tragic case and have also launched our own comprehensive incident review.’  

Delhi Government has ordered a probe and has announced Rs 10 lakh compensation to the next of kin. Inside DLF Capital Greens, life is back to normal, if it was ever disturbed. The only indication that a tragedy of this proportion occurred a few days ago is a constable sitting on a chair in the shade just inside the main gate.