Two months after two men died while cleaning a sewer line in Delhi’s Bakkarwala, the compensation due to their families is held up as different government entities squabble in court.
Caught between this back and forth, the families wait for justice.
The two men, Rohit Chandaliya and Ashok Gulia, died on September 9 after they entered a manhole in DDA flats – government housing provided by the Delhi Development Authority. As per a 2014 judgement of the Supreme Court, which had abolished manual scavenging in India, their families are entitled to Rs 10 lakh compensation each.
On September 12, the Delhi High Court took suo motu cognisance of the case. Six hearings took place from then to November 15. The question of who will pay has bounced between the Delhi Jal Board, the Delhi Development Authority, and the Delhi government.
Meanwhile, Rohit’s family told Newslaundry they are “clueless” as to the status of the case – they only learn about developments from newspaper reports. “Nobody has told us what is going on in the court,” said his wife Pinky. “Nor does anybody invite us to present our thoughts.”
Here’s how events unfolded.
On September 9, Rohit and Ashok died inside a manhole while cleaning sewage lines at the DDA flats in Pocket D of Bakkarwala’s Lok Nayak Puram. Rohit had worked as a sweeper, with no prior experience or training in cleaning sewers. He was allegedly urged into the manhole by the building’s pradhan.
When he fell unconscious, Ashok, who worked as a security guard in the building, climbed into the manhole to rescue him. He died as well.
The Delhi High Court took suo motu cognisance of the case three days later.
The Delhi Jal Board, which is in charge of cleaning and maintaining sewer lines in Delhi, denied liability in the case. On September 21, it submitted to the court that the site “was occupied by the DDA”.
On October 6, after scrutinising a compliance report filed by the DDA, the high court directed the DDA to pay Rs 10 lakh to each family “in order to provide immediate relief”, given that both Ashok and Rohit were the sole earning members of their families.
On November 14, the court noted that the DDA had not only missed the court’s 30-day deadline to pay the compensation but had also disobeyed the court order that the DDA vice-chairman be present in case of non-compliance. The court said the DDA’s “apathy” was “egregious”.
The following day, the DDA submitted that it was the “duty” of the government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi to pay the amount and that the DDA “is not responsible for payment of the same”.
Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma , “My head hangs in shame...We are dealing with people who are working for us so that our life is made comfortable. And this is the manner and method they are being dealt with by authorities.”
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Pinky with newspaper clippings of the case.
Meanwhile, the Delhi government had already paid a sum of Rs 1 lakh to each family – not under the 2014 judgement but as part of a separate cabinet decision taken in March 2020. Under this decision, the Delhi government would pay a total of Rs 10 lakh to each family.
The government’s counsel also criticised the DDA for “attempting to mix up the compensation which is to be paid” under the Supreme Court judgement.
As things stand now, the Delhi government has said it will pay its amount in the next 15 days. The next hearing is scheduled for December 2.
‘Victims should get justice’
Rohit is survived by Pinky and their five-year-old son Niku. For the last five years, since their marriage, they’ve lived in a one-room house in JJ Colony, Bakkarwala.
Her life has turned upside down in the two months since Rohit’s death. “Earlier, I had little idea outside household chores,” she said. “My job was limited to taking care of our son and cooking food. Now, from rent to fetching water, everything has to be done by me.”
She added, “It doesn’t feel like he is dead. It is like he’s here and will soon return home. Every time I cook something he liked, it reminds me of him.”
Pinky and Rohit had lunch together on the day he died. As Newslaundry , he received a call asking him to return to his place of work to clean the sewer line. After he left, Pinky took a nap until her aunt woke her up, saying she’d heard someone had died at the DDA flats.
“I got scared and dialled Rohit’s number but received no response,” Pinky recalled. “My heart started pounding.”
She went to the flats and saw a crowd gathering. Her husband was being shifted into an ambulance. The police told her Rohit was breathing and that he was being taken to a hospital. But when Pinky reached the hospital, Rohit’s body was being taken towards the mortuary.
“That’s when I saw his face for the last time,” she said.
Days later, a contractor with the DDA offered Pinky a contractual job to sweep and clean the authority’s project office at Lok Nayak Puram. She would be paid Rs 15,000 a month. Pinky accepted.
It should be noted that on October 6, the high court directed the DDA to consider granting “compassionate appointment to the families of the deceased persons”. This is separate from the contractual job that Pinky was given. Officials at the DDA project office confirmed to Newslaundry that Pinky works there but refused to speak further since the case is being heard at the high court.
Pinky then got Rs 1 lakh from the district magistrate’s office – part of the compensation being paid to her by the Delhi government. Residents of the DDA flats also collected and handed over Rs 1.3 lakh.
Pinky used the money to enrol Niku in a private school nearby. But she’s still struggling to make ends meet “with inflation”.
She’s also worried about the contractual nature of the job. “There is no certainty as to how long this will go on,” her mother Rani pointed out. “It is private. They have not given any documents that prove she’s an employee.”
Since the district magistrate’s office had given her Rs 1 lakh, Pinky submitted documents with this office to receive the remaining Rs 9 lakh. “They always say it’s under process,” she told Newslaundry.
Officials at the office told Newslaundry the matter is indeed “under process” but pointed out the confusion playing out in court over the compensation owed to Rohit’s family.
Sanjeev Kumar, the secretary of the Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch, which helps families of sewer cleaners get justice, told Newslaundry this is “nothing but an unnecessary delay to harass the families who are already going through a tragedy”.
“Victims’ families get their rightful compensation after much hue and cry,” Kumar said. “...Why don’t they arrest and punish the guilty? At least victims should get justice. But that has never happened.”
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