In its series, Patriot visits families bereaved by the barbaric practice of manual scavenging. Here is what some of them had to say.
Yusuf (51) and his wife Kesar Jahan’s fate took an unforeseen turn last August after both their sons died while cleaning out a sewage tank in East Delhi.
On August 12, 2017, Jahangir (30) and Ijaz (25) were given the work of cleaning out a sewage tank by a private contractor at Aggarwal Fun City Mall. Both of them spent hours cleaning the tank while their father waited outside. At one point, Yusuf ceased to hear his children’s voices coming from inside the tank. Worried, he decided to enter and check on them. But while trying to get inside the tank, Yusuf fell and hurt his knees.
A fireman soon arrived at the spot after cries for help echoed around the site where the accident had occurred, but he too collapsed after entering the tank, owing to the poisonous gases being emanated from it. Another fireman had to then rush to the spot and take out all three bodies.
Jahangir died on the way to the hospital, and his younger brother Ijaz didn’t survive the mishap either, leaving their family behind in a state of shock and with no hope to live.
Yusuf and Jahan have seven grandchildren: three from Jahangir, two from Ijaz, and another two from their daughter. Jahangir’s wife and daughter are currently in Bihar.
Even today, Yusuf works in the same conditions near the mall where his sons lost their lives. But he doesn’t take on work which requires cleaning tanks. The incident that ended the life of both his sons has left him with a weak heart, making life tougher for him. He works for more than 12 hours every day and was not at home when this reporter visited.
“He can’t do work which requires picking up heavy stuff,” says his wife Jahan. “He talks less as he can’t speak much due to his heart condition.”
She says there isn’t a single day that her husband can work without taking his medication. Every other day, they have to visit a doctor to get his blood pressure levels checked. Buying medicines for his treatment is another financial burden for the family. At times, they end up spending up to ₹800 on medicines.
The couple stays with their grandchildren and two daughters-in-law in a cramped house near Shalimar Garden, Ghaziabad. Half the lane where their house is located comes under Delhi and the other half under Uttar Pradesh. Their house barely has space for more than three people—it has a huge bed, a white mat on the floor and green walls with several scenic posters.
“You must be wondering why there is no picture of our sons on the walls,” says Jahan. She says this is because of a belief—superstition, rather—according to which it is not healthy for children to see photographs of their father whom they have lost at such an early and tender age.
Just like Yusuf, Jahan also goes to a place where all the garbage from weddings and other ceremonies is dumped every day. She segregates the garbage into various bins.
After Jahangir and Ijaz’s death, the family barely had any money to conduct a funeral. “Some relatives helped us. I realized that day what little we have left for our grandchildren…,” says Jahan.
The compensation money of ₹10 lakh, which the family received from the government, was helpful. The court had also directed the owners of the mall to pay ₹18 lakh as compensation to the family, a sum that was equally divided between the two daughters-in-law. “We bought some properties for our grandchildren so that they won’t have to face the same situation as their father. They should lead a clean and happy life,” says Jahan.
One property was bought in East Delhi and another one in Bihar, where Jahangir’s in-laws live. However, Jahan proudly says that whatever work her two sons did in their lifetime, they did it with utmost sincerity and always contributed to the family.
Yusuf and Jahan have another son, but the family has little to do with him. “He didn’t give (us) a single penny when we needed money for the funeral. In fact, even that day he was smoking up ganja from the money I had given him earlier,” says Jahan.
Not knowing that the practice has been deeply rooted in society since ages, she takes it as a given that her sons were meant to do this work and therefore, does not blame their deaths on the evil of manual scavenging. She doesn’t blame the government, society, the contractor or the owners of the mall for both her sons’ untimely deaths. The one factor Jahan does pin the blame on is destiny.
“Sab kismet ka khel hain. Agar achhi hai toh tum achhe, aur agar buri, toh aisi ghatnaye ho jaati hain (It’s all how destiny plays out. If it’s good, you’d be good, and if it’s bad, then such incidents happen),” she said. Taking a long pause, she continues: “Humein kisi ko dosh nahin dena. Sarkar ne humein muhawza de diya ab aur maang rakh ke mujhe apne bacho par kisi ki haaye nahi chahiye (We don’t want to blame anybody. The government gave us money and now by asking for more, I don’t want to bring hate to my sons).”
Taking care of their grandchildren gives them a reason to live. “We didn’t take a single penny from the compensation money. We don’t have much time left,” says Jahan. “Parents die from within when they lose their children. Apart from taking care of our grandchildren and spending time with them, I don’t think we have anything to look forward to.”
The responsibilities on the family are more than what they were earlier. However, their earnings remain erratic. Sometimes the couple earns ₹300 a day, and on a few lucky days—when there’s a big wedding—they end up making ₹1,000.
There are times when Jahan wants to blame somebody for the death of her two sons—after all, she’s only human. “What will I get from it?” she asks, stifling a sob. “These innocent kids should not invite hate on them. Maybe this was God’s plan. I believe that Allah is with us and hope that Jahangir and Ijaz always stay happy..”
(This story was first published in Patriot.)