KVSS is affiliated to New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI). KVSS works in participation with organisations and colleges like Nav Jivan Samiti, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Maharastra Municipal Kamgaar Union, Sarv Sramik Sangh, etc. KVSS has presence in Mumbai, Nashik, Thane, Solhapur, Kolhapur and expanding everyday by becoming part of every SAFAI KARAMCHARI throughout Maharashtra.
MANHOLE OR FATALHOLE?
What happened? The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has been cleaning drains in preparation for the monsoon. For this, the civic body had appointed contractors to thoroughly clean out storm water drains (SWD) and work was going on in full swing across the city. The work is undertaken every year by the BMC to save the city from possible flooding. This year, contractor RPS Mehta was awarded the contract to clean up storm water drains at Kalachowkie. On Thursday, Umakrishnan, Pandian and Anil Londhe, 24, followed the usual procedures, but did not wait long enough. They were asked to enter the drain without any safety equipment like gumboots, hand gloves, masks or oxygen cylinder. The two, Umakrishnan and Pandian, quickly entered the manhole on instruction of the supervisor and this haste proved fatal for them. When they did not return back for quite some time, Londhe was asked to follow suite and he went inside. Within seconds Londhe came rushing out feeling dizzy. But Umakrishnan and Pandian could not make it out and became unconscious due to inhaling of poisonous gases and fumes. They were rushed to KEM Hospital, but both were declared death soon after admission on 20th May 2010.
Where do they come from? Today slum dwellers make up 60% of Mumbai's population that is approximately 7 million people. Slum inhabitants constantly have to deal with issues such as, constant migration, lack of water, no sewage or solid waste facilities, lack of public transit, pollution and housing shortages. High mortality rate is also a common problem. Umakrishnan(24) and Pandian(23) hail from a similar slum area near Ray road station which is mostly inhabited by natives of Tamil Nadu and a considerable number of Dalit population stay there. The water problem here is such that they pay 30rs per drum of water almost every other day in spite of the fact that they are eligible for free supply of water through the municipal corporations. Large amount of epidemic has also taken lives of many people staying here. Both Umakrishnan and Pandian had been in the same slum since their grandparents relocated to Mumbai. They both had not studied beyond 5th standard and didn’t have any job in hand. They rarely used to work for a living. Umakrishnan’s family consisted of his wife and a 1 ½ year old child which was supported by his old mother who used to work at a construction site. All men in the family – his father and brother - had died with T.B. Similarly, Pandian was married to a young girl who was 5 months pregnant. They had a love marriage and had married only 1 ½ years back with no opposition from either of the families. What led them to do this work? 1. Their economic conditions: The poverty forced them to do such inhuman jobs which nobody else dares to even think about doing it. If we look at some numbers, at 350 deaths per year from among 22,000 permanent sanitation workers in the BMC, the mortality rate (MR) is 16 for every 1,000 Safai Karamcharis 2. Caste Discrimination: The word "Dalit" comes from the Marathi language, and means "ground", "suppressed", "crushed", or "broken to pieces". In the context of traditional Hindu society, Dalit status has often been historically associated with occupations regarded as ritually impure, such as any involving leatherwork, butchering, or removal of rubbish, animal carcasses, and waste. Dalits work as manual laborers cleaning streets, latrines, and sewers. This is one of the main reasons why in the first place they agree to do such jobs because they are then not left with any other option to earn. 3. Support the family: Both of them had a family to support and did not have a permanent job in hand. Trying to earn this minimal amount for cleaning manholes, they took up this job for the first time through the contractors who pick them up from the slums. What is the condition of the family today? Staying in those small slum houses and with tears rolling down their faces while talking to them, one thing was clear that there is nothing compared to the lives of their loved ones. There is no word like ‘compensate’ for them. The families initially were not even aware of the fact that they were eligible for any financial compensation. Only when their relatives and few other people told them, they asked for it. BMC had put down their hands saying that it was the contractor’s (RPS Mehta) liability and not theirs. Also, initially the contractors refused to pay any compensation to the families of the victim but due to little media attention that the case got and repeated demand from the family, they gave 6 lakhs compensation each towards their wives. While Uma’s wife took the money with her and went back to her own family, Pandian’s wife gave 2 lakhs to her mother-in-law and has kept rest of the money aside for her child yet to be born. However, money is not the factor that will sustain these families with small children. They believe that giving jobs to the wives will ensure constant money in the family. The issue of unemployment in this section of the society (even hard labor) with no more male support makes them worried about the sustenance of their lives. What are the issues in this case? 1. No ownership: Soon after the death of the two workers, the BMC refused to take any ownership for it. The High Court has given clear cut guidelines to the BMC, while giving such contracts, but the rules are hardly followed. Each time there is an accident or casualty, the guidelines are followed for few months only. Also, without the media attention and the FIR case, contractors did not bother to own the fact that it was due to their negligence, lives of those 2 men and many lives associated with them were ruined. 2. Lack of implementation of procedures: Even after the High Court order, which directed that no state departments (municipal corporations, municipalities, gram panchayats) as well as private person or companies should let any person enter a manhole to clean it except when it is inevitable — contractors continue to refute the order. The order further stated that in such a case, the employer is required to check the extent and types of gases present in the manhole. If found safe, the employer should provide equipments like oxygen mask, helmet, gumboot, air blower, torch, safety belt, etc. while one enters the manhole. However, in actual, the workers are forced to get into these manholes without any clothes and without any proper training. 3. Illiteracy and Poverty: Since illiteracy and poverty are tightly tied up, this leads to a great amount of ignorance. If only these men knew what they were entitled for and what are the hazards of going down that manhole without any safety measures, this case could have been avoided. Also, while speaking to one of the wives and looking at their bank account summary, she mentioned she did not understand the figures or what was written in the death certificate. In such a case, there is a great possibility of being cheated by the officials or anybody. What is the solution? It is not the lack of funds or technology that poses problems. If technology can be used to launch satellites and the Rs 386- crore Chandrayaan (the mission to moon), why can it not be used for garbage and sewage? The Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNURM), hatched by the Ministry of Urban Development in 2002, envisages spending Rs 1,20,536 crore over seven years on urban local bodies. Of the projects approved so far under the JNURM, 40 percent have been allotted for drainage and sewerage work. Why does so much money get spent on laying/relaying pipes and drains that are designed to kill? India’s urban planners, designers and technologists have never felt the need to conceive a human-friendly system of managing garbage and sewage. Instead, they rely on an unending source of disposable, cheap, Dalit labour.
Bibliography 1. Mumbai Mirror, 21st May, 2010. 2. Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 47, Dated Dec 08 , 2007
Anisha Joseph I Year, M.A Social Work Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai