On December 13 last year, the union government that 48 people died in 2022 due to “accidents while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks”.
Of the 48, the highest number of deaths were reported in Haryana (13), followed by Maharashtra (12) and Tamil Nadu (10). Importantly, this is different from the legal definition of manual scavenging in India, which involves cleaning human excreta from dry latrines.
Thirteen deaths in Haryana is bad enough, especially since the state reported zero deaths in 2020 and only five in 2021. But Newslaundry’s own research revealed at least 24 deaths last year due to “accidents while undertaking hazardous cleaning of sewer and septic tanks”. All these deaths took place before the government presented its data on December 13.
Our research was based on news reports and inputs from local police stations in Haryana. We counted two deaths each in the districts of Palwal, Gurugram and Nuh; one each in Panipat and Bhiwani; six each in Faridabad and Jhajjar; and four in Hisar.
This is not an ad. An ad would never fund a story like this. Would you? Pay for free, fair, robust journalism that isn’t influenced by advertisers.
A worker cleaning a sewer line in Rohtak.
And the number of deaths may actually be much higher than this number. Naresh Shastri, the president of Haryana’s Nagar Palika Karamchari Sangh, said several cases don’t even make it to the media since they’re “covered up”, because the Supreme Court banned manual scavenging 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, an official with the Haryana state commission for safai karamcharis said it was “difficult to quantify” the actual number of deaths because not all cases “came under the record”.
And the official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, agreed that the number is likely to be higher than the union government’s claim of 13.
How did we arrive at the figure of 24?
In , four people died while cleaning a septic tank at QRG hospital in October last year. In the same district in , two sanitation workers died while cleaning a septic tank in Huda market.
In , four people died in August while cleaning a septic tank in Rohad Industrial area. In , two died after drowning in a septic tank in Modern Industrial Estate in the same district.
In , a sanitation worker died and three others fell unconscious while cleaning a tank in April. In in the same district, a sanitation worker suffocated to death while cleaning a sewer.
In March 2022, brothers Javed and Zahid died while cleaning a tank in a sewage treatment plant in . In , a sanitation worker and a tailor suffocated and died while cleaning a septic tank in October.
In April, sanitation workers Billal and Sunil died in and respectively while performing the same tasks. In the same month, four men died in after inhaling toxic gas in a sewage tank.
Officials at the state department for the welfare of Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes told Newslaundry they had recorded deaths in Faridabad, Nuh, Jhajjar, Panipat and Gurugram, but that “protocol” did not permit them to disclose further information.
None of the officials agreed to speak on the record.
The official at the state commission for safai karamcharis said authorities were unable to “certify” whether only 13 deaths had officially taken place. It’s unclear how the union government settled on the figure of 13 since it did not provide a breakup of deaths.
Nagar Palika Karmachari Sangh’s Shastri pointed out that since manual scavenging is banned, strict action must be taken against perpetrators and the families of victims are entitled to compensation of Rs 10 lakh.
“But by giving the wrong figure, the government is depriving victims’ families of both compensation and justice,” he said. “There may be some instances of arrests or sending people to custody. But none of them were punished. This is because the government has no intention of doing anything good for safai karamcharis.”
Action taken in the cases
Shastri isn’t wrong about delays in justice. For instance, the local police in Panipat and Bhiwani told Newslaundry no FIRs had been registered in connection with the deaths of Billal or Sunil last year.
When asked about the deaths of Ravish and Arvind in June, the police in Jhajjar’s Bahadurgarh said no FIR had been filed because it had been an “accident”. The two men, both of whom were originally from Bihar, had been hired to clean a septic tank.
The mother of Arvind, who died in Bahadurgarh.
Family members of the four victims outside QRG hospital in Faridabad.
Additionally, their families told this reporter they did not receive any compensation from the government. However, the contractor who had hired them paid each family Rs 1.75 lakh.
“The contractor was also a local so there was a lot of pressure on us from local villagers,” said Ravish’s brother Vikash Pashwan. “I felt very alone. No case was registered.”
After the four deaths in Faridabad’s QRG hospital last October, the victims’ families received Rs 25 lakh each and the wives of the victims got jobs as hospital staff. The police arrested the owners of the company that employed the four victims; the company had a contract with the hospital to provide “grease trap and sewer sump pit” cleaning services.
However, in November, a local court granted bail to the accused and reprimanded the police for not investigating the role of the hospital in the case. Describing the accused as a “scapegoat”, the court said, “It appears that all has been done just to project that some action has been taken.”
In Hisar, where four men died at Budha Khera village last April, an official at Uklana police station told Newslaundry the case was closed after the victims’ families agreed to a “compromise” initiated by villagers. Two of the men were sanitation workers who were made to enter the tank; the other two were locals who tried to save them but died too.
“We called a panchayat and ensured the families got compensation and a government job,” said Rakesh Manda, a resident of Budha Khera. “In return, they agreed not to pursue a case against anyone.” Family members of the victims confirmed to Newslaundry that they received the compensation of Rs 11 lakh from the government and contractual jobs in state government departments.
The police official said, “We follow a certain procedure. Once an FIR is lodged, we go meet the victim’s family to record their statements. If they don’t accuse anyone, how will the case sustain?”
Such compromises are common in the state. Families of victims often sign affidavits confirming they received government compensation and no longer want to pursue the case. In 2021, for example, Vipin Kumar signed an affidavit like this after his brother Vikrant died while unblocking a sewer line in Hissar’s Lahoria Chowk. The affidavit said that officials of Haryana’s public health engineering department were not responsible for Vikrant’s death and that Vipin did not want to pursue criminal proceedings against said officials.
Vipin, whose brother Vikrant died in 2021, with the affidavit he signed.
Vipin also signed a second affidavit that said the department had paid him compensation of Rs 15 lakh and that the family was “forever grateful” to the department officials. Newslaundry accessed copies of both affidavits.
Vipin confirmed to Newslaundry that his family received the compensation. He said he also wanted a full-time government job, which was verbally promised. Instead, he got a contractual job at the public health engineering department but hopes to get a regularised job someday.
Bezwada Wilson, convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, said these compromises show the state’s failure in taking responsibility for atrocities against marginal communities.
“It is not necessary that family members have to file a complaint in such cases,” he said. “Family members are already vulnerable and not in a position to fight against authorities or dominant castes. So the state and police have their responsibility in these cases. If the police don’t do due diligence, there could be many more deaths which aren’t reported. The police’s responsibility is to see such atrocities against marginal communities.”
On state compensation, Wilson said, “They are pricing the value of the citizens of this country. The right to life is a constitutional right. This is nothing but a complete failure of the state.”
Importantly, the National Human Rights Commission had taken cognisance of the incidents at Faridabad’s QRG hospital and Hisar’s Budha Khera village. But in both cases, the commission’s action was limited to issuing notices to the state government seeking reports.
In response to an RTI filed by Newslaundry, the NHRC said it received a report from the DGP of Haryana in connection with the QRG hospital case but the “requisite report has not been received” from the Haryana chief secretary for the Budha Khera case. The NHRC added that “both the cases are under the consideration of the commission”.
But is this enough?
Wilson said, “The NHRC has the power to pass orders. When it comes to the most marginalised, the NHRC has to take suo motu cognisance of such incidents. It does so, but it doesn’t call for any inquiry. Thousands of deaths have taken place in India over the years. Why doesn’t the NHRC appoint a special commissioner for this?”
A weekly guide to the best of our stories from our editors and reporters. Note: Skip if you're a subscriber. All subscribers get a weekly, subscriber-only newsletter by default.