Lindsay Pereira: The dead we choose to forget

Published: Jan 20, 2018, 06:14 IST | Lindsay Pereira

Manual labourers continue to die in appalling conditions across and beyond our metropolis. When was the last time we cared?

On the first day of the year, five workers fixing a sewer line underground were killed. Manhole cleaners in other cities died too. File pic for representation
On the first day of the year, five workers fixing a sewer line underground were killed. Manhole cleaners in other cities died too. File pic for representation

Rajendra Pal, a 20-something labourer from one of the thousand small towns that dot rural India, was impaled by two iron rods a week ago, while working at a construction site in Nariman Point. They didn't puncture any vital organs, so Pal survived, but I have been looking for media reports since that accident, trying to figure out why it occurred and whether or not anyone has been held responsible for Pal's well-being and obvious inability to get back to work for a while. Will his family be taken care of? Will he be assured of work when he recovers? Will he be capable of going back into manual labour, for lack of an option, after those stitches are removed? I have failed to find answers.

The problem with Pal, of course, is that he doesn't matter. He is not someone we care to consider, because he occupies a lower rung in the strata that defines who we have to speak up for and who we must ignore. He, like a million others, belongs to a group of faceless ghosts who exist only to prop up our slowly sinking city.

A few days before this incident, three labourers were killed and two injured when part of a crane fell on them in Powai. They were supposedly digging a pit for a sewer line at the time, and were employed by a private contractor working for the BMC. I failed to find reports identifying the dead, and couldn't track any action against the contractor either. Looking for repercussions at the BMC was pointless, because everyone who lives in Bombay knows that regular flights to the Moon are a stronger possibility than the BMC accepting responsibility for its inaction.

Here's something you probably haven't heard of, considering it was lost in a flurry of headlines devoted to Deepika Padukone's midriff and whether or not we ought to stand for the National Anthem before watching an item number on the big screen. Seven manual scavengers died during the first week of this year. On the first day of the year, five workers fixing a sewer line underground were killed. Manhole cleaners in other cities died too, all conveniently swept under the rug. In August last year, a 45-year old sanitation worker in Delhi was asked to clean a hospital sewer without any protective gear. He fell unconscious within minutes and died soon after. According to Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay Award winner and campaigner for eradication of manual scavenging, over 90 workers died from manual scavenging between April and December 2017 across the country.

People supposedly running our country have responded to these avoidable deaths - shouldn't they be classified as murders? - by slashing the budget allocated for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers (also known as sewer workers, even if the government refuses to accept this) from over Rs 400 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 5 crore in 2017.

In February last year, three people died while cleaning a sewage tank in Malad. Activists working with these disadvantaged people say there have been over 30 deaths in Bombay since 2014, after workers have been forced to enter sewers without safety equipment. Looking for nation-wide data on these deaths is a waste of time, because it simply does not exist. In 2013, a law was amended, making it a criminal offence for people to be asked to work in unsanitary or unsafe conditions. Think about the existence of that law the next time you spot a labourer looking up at you from a hole in the ground, trying to fix something without gloves, masks or protective headgear. Ask yourself why the richest municipal corporation in India can worry about creating selfie spots across the city, but can't find the time or money to ensure that the poorest among us are offered a measure of protection for doing jobs none of us would condescend to do.

On paper, municipal and casual workers are protected by the law. They are supposed to be equipped with everything from harness belts to gas masks, and underground sewers are to be unclogged with mechanised equipment procured by the BMC with our many taxes. Why, then, are human beings still lowered into the ground armed with boxes of matches, with which they must gauge whether or not the air around them is toxic? Would you, literate reader, want a member of your family to work in such conditions? Why should millions of people have to? Do the Rajendra Pals of India not deserve better?

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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