New Delhi: One accused was arrested on Monday in connection with the deaths of five workers who were ordered to clean a sewage treatment plant without any safety equipment at DLF Capital Greens residential complex.
Police say they have arrested the plant in-charge and are looking for another engineer believed to be involved in the case.
According to a co-worker of one of the deceased, the workers were forced to clean the sewage tank even though they had no prior experience of the work.
The incident occurred at Tower P in phase two of DLF Capital Greens. Five workers — Vishal, Sarfaraz, Pankaj, Raja and Umesh — had descended inside a sewage tank on Sunday at the upscale residential complex in Moti Nagar, West Delhi, and died due to asphyxiation after inhaling toxic gases. The deceased were not wearing any safety equipment.
"It was not even our job. We were employed for house-keeping and garbage collection," said Devender Kumar, another worker who was present when the incident happened. Kumar works for CREST commercial projects limited, one of the companies hired to provide services on a contract basis by JLL. The DLF had outsourced the work of maintenance and security services at the residential complex to JLL.
One of the deceased, Umesh, worked for CREST and the other four worked for Unnati. "A process engineer from Unnati told Vishal to go and clean the tank. He threatened that if the workers refused, he'd complain to authorities higher up and they would lose their jobs," Kumar said.
Vishal, without any gas masks and safety equipment, went inside the tank, the rest followed him in to save him," Kumar said.
According to Kumar, the process engineer employed by Unnati is on the run and police is looking for him. "When the workers started fainting, the engineer ran off. They were inside the tank for one and half hours, before police and fire brigade came and pulled them out," Kumar said.
The accused arrested by police on Monday, 32-year-old Ajay Choudhary, is the supervisor who works for JLL. Choudhary had told the Unnati engineer to get the sewage tank cleaned. "None of us had ever done sewage cleaning before," Kumar said.
According to the police, the accused has been charged under section 304 (punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 304A (causing death by negligence) of the Indian Penal Code, and also under sections of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The case has been registered at Moti Nagar police station.
Kumar and other workers employed at DLF Capital Greens said the company has promised compensation to the families of the victims.
"First, they are getting us train tickets to take Umesh's body back to his village in Uttar Pradesh," Kumar said.
Questions have also been raised over the continued practice of manual scavenging, which has been prohibited by law since 1993 because of its dehumanising nature. Most manual scavengers belong to lower castes and are employed to clean sewage tanks, open drains, manholes and latrine pits without much safety equipment. Indian Railways is the biggest employer of manual scavengers in the country, due to the presence of dry toilets on many trains.
Bejwada Wilson, activist and National Convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, condemned incident and said the authorities were passing the buck.
"The problem is whenever an incident like this happens, everyone washes their hands off it. According to the 2013 Manual Scavenging Act, the District Magistrate and the government are responsible. The MCD said it is under Jal Board, the Jal Board in turn said it’s DLF's responsibility, and it can't interfere because it is a private firm. Who gave DLF the permission to build the septic tank in an unsafe manner and then send people to clean it? Who is responsible for the lives lost?" said Wilson.
According to him, the issue has a larger question of right to live with dignity. "This is a gross violation of human lives and a constitutional failure. I have written to the L-G and the CM before over similar incidents in Delhi, but I never got a response. It seems letters don't work, we might have to agitate," he said.