Three workers cleaning the septic tank of Ram Mandir chawl in Malwani died of suffocation on Feb 16. The fire brigade was called in to inspect the site. Pics/Datta Kumbhar
Three workers cleaning the septic tank of Ram Mandir chawl in Malwani died of suffocation on Feb 16. The fire brigade was called in to inspect the site. Pics/Datta Kumbhar

Ramkumar Ramajayem barely beat death, but how will he escape a ruthless police machinery? The 28-year-old was one of the four workers who fell victim to toxic fumes from a septic tank of a Malwani chawl last week.

Also read: Three labourers die while cleaning manhole in Malad

While the other three died, Ramajayem has been declared out of danger. But the relief of having cheated death was short-lived. He now faces criminal charges for causing his co-workers' death.

Kashi Raman's's (inset) wife, Sumathi, and their 14-year-old daughter Divya
Kashi Raman's's (inset) wife, Sumathi, and their 14-year-old daughter Divya

On February 16, Murti Periyaswamy (33), Kashi Raman (45), Maya Kashi (24) and Ramajayem took a contract of cleaning the septic tank of Ram Mandir chawl in Malwani for R5,000. As Periyaswamy, Raman and Maya lowered themselves into the tank, toxic fumes began to knock them out one by one. Periyaswamy and Maya died on the spot, and Raman in the hospital. Ramajayem, who rushed to rescue the three and inhaled the fumes, was hospitalised but has now been declared out of danger.

The Malwani police then booked him, along with the chawl owners, on the grounds of causing his co-workers' death due to negligence. The charge has left Ramajayem's family and the Tamil community of Malwani, from which he hails, both befuddled and furious.

Murti Periyaswamy's (inset) wife, Satya, and their three-year-old son, Elango
Murti Periyaswamy's (inset) wife, Satya, and their three-year-old son, Elango

Uproar builds
"How can the police register a case against the victim?" asked Bezwada Wilson (50), human rights activist and national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan. "They should book the authorities concerned from the solid waste management department. If the police do not withdraw the case, we will move court."

To protest the police move, the Tamil community of Malwani refused to perform the final rites of the victims and gathered outside Malwani police station on Saturday, demanding that Ramajayem's name be withdrawn from the FIR. The mob dispersed only after the police assured them that Ramajayem would not be arrested. The funerals were then performed.

Maya Kashi (inset)'s mother
Maya Kashi (inset)'s mother

Deepak Phatangre, senior inspector of Malwani police station, however, clarified that since it was Ramajayem who got the other three the contract, it was his negligence to provide safety measures that was directly responsible for their deaths.

"We have registered a case under section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the IPC against the four chawl owners and Ramajayem, but no one has been arrested so far."

BMC charging clean-ups
While pinning the blame for the tragedy is still up for debate, residents of Malwani said the sight of manual scavengers cleaning septic tanks isn't uncommon in the area.

Britto Angelo, a resident of Karuna Bhavan Society near Ram Mandir chawl, accused the BMC of taking money for septic tank clean-ups. "Around 15 days ago, we got our tank cleaned, but the BMC authorities charged us R2,500 for it. They didn't give us a receipt for the work."

Parminder Singh Bhamra, sitting corporator of Malad West, said BMC's solid waste management department officials cannot charge for any clean-up work. Despite repeated attempts, Siraj Ansari, chief engineer, solid waste management department, BMC, was unavailable for comment.

Sole breadwinners
While Ramajayem braces himself for an uphill battle with the police, the other victims' families — all of whom live in new collector's office compound, around 2 km from Ram Mandir chawl — are staring at a bleak future.

Periyaswamy's wife, Satya, has been thrust with the burden of taking care of their three-year-old son, Elango, her mother-in-law and a 20-year-old unmarried sister-in-law, just three months into her pregnancy. "He (Periyaswamy) was a daily wage earner and the only earning member in the family. Who will take care of us now?" she rued.

Vishwanath's wife, Sumathi (36), took, has been left to fend for herself and their 15-year-old daughter. "We have no support. My husband was the only earning member of the families," she said.

Maya was single, but his engagement was scheduled to take place in a fortnight, said his elder brother, Gemini. A native of Salem district in Tamil Nadu, he lived with his mother, two brothers, and a sister. "Now, the entire family's responsibility lies on my shoulders. I need help from the government," said Gemini.

Give compensation
Nayya Swami President of Tamil Welfare Association, Mumbai
'No politician has visited the victims' families. Most victims were the only breadwinners of their families. The government as well as residents of the chawl should given them adequate compensation.'