Jashubhai Chaganbhai Gangadia, a Dalit sanitation worker, died while cleaning a manhole in Ahmedabad on October 23. Jashubhai belonged to the Valmiki community, a subcaste that is considered the lowest even among Dalits. The Valmiki caste is traditionally expected to do all menial work, including manual scavenging.
Jashubhai, a 45-year-old resident of the Bhootbhavani na Chapra slum in the Vejalpur area of the city, was called to clean a clogged sewage line in the Ashapura residential society in the same area. He had agreed to do the job for just Rs 500.
There seems to have been a problem with the society’s connection with the main sewage line of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC). Jashubhai entered a manhole in order get the job done.
However, he fell unconscious inside the manhole. People pulled him out and called the emergency health-line number, after which he was rushed to VS Hospital where he was declared “brought dead”. The primary cause of death, as of now, appears to be asphyxiation due to inhaling a poisonous gas.
Sailesh Gangadia, the son of the deceased, filed a FIR late at night on October 23 against Jaykar Agnihotri and Minesh Upadhyay, the chairman and secretary of the housing society. As the Atrocity Act has been invoked, the case has been handed over to J.D. Jadeja, assistant commissioner of police, M-division of the Ahmedabad police.
In a statement to the media after Agnihotri and Upadhyay were arrested on October 24, Jadeja said, “The duo has been arrested on the grounds of negligence. As per guidelines, no manual scavenger is to be allowed to enter the manhole without safety measures. The norm was violated in the case. There would be more clarity on the matter once the post-mortem report is submitted.”
Jashubhai had served as a sanitation worker in the AMC for more than 12 years. He was made permanent after the AMC workers’ strike in 2013. In all these years, his work mostly involved manual scavenging.
Jashubhai is not the only worker to die while cleaning a manhole. An RTI filed by the Manav Garima Trust, an organisation that works with the Valmiki community, revealed that 170 workers have died in Gujarat while cleaning manholes since 1992. According to a Supreme Court order that came on March 27, 2014, families of all workers who have died after 1993 are to be given compensation of Rs 10 lakh. However, none of the families of the 150 workers who died due to manual scavenging in Gujarat after 1993 have received compensation.
“Water and sanitation department of the civic body is responsible for these workers in the city. The irony is they don’t even call these workers manual scavengers, they call them sanitation workers. The death while manually scavenging is usually registered as accidental death,” said Manjula Pradeep, executive director of the Navsarjan Trust, an NGO that has been working with the Valmiki community for two decades.
“The issue is not limited to get these workers safety gear. The question is why for generations people of the Valmiki community are designated by birth to do such jobs. It’s an issue of the casteist mindset of society. The job of getting inside a manhole in itself is so inhuman and undignified, yet the Valmikis think it as their duty to do such jobs. That is how deep rooted the issue is. Even other Dalits would discriminate against Valmikis,” she added.
While men clean manholes and sewage pipes manually, the situation for the women of the Valmiki community is no better. In rural Gujarat, owing to the purdah system, a makeshift toilet is built for women of higher castes within residence premises. These are called dry toilets. Women of the Valmiki community manually clean these dry latrines.
The government of India had enacted the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act in 2013. Despite the Act and the order of Supreme Court in 2014, the Gujarat government has neither taken steps to implement the Act at the district and taluka levels nor initiated the process of compensation for the families of the deceased workers.
In a press release, the Gujarat Safai Kamdar Adhikar Andolan, an organisation that fights for rights and privileges of sanitation workers, said that there are about 200 spots in Ahmedabad alone where AMC forces its workers to clean human excreta manually. The organisation also stated that Gujarat had 34,000 dry latrines, as per government data from 2011.
“Prior to the Supreme Court order of 2014, the amount of the compensation was Rs 2 lakh. However, usually the civic bodies pay a small amount to settle the matter with the family of the deceased. Besides, the law brings no benefit to the workers as they are neither aware of the law nor their rights, just as they are not aware of the hazards and risks of the job. No civic body in the state has ever carried out an awareness campaign amongst these workers, who are mostly uneducated,” Pradeep said.
“The one time the Gujarat government ever took initiative to design a programme for the Valmiki community was many years ago, when Narendra Modi was the chief minister of the state. The state had organised workshops to teach the Valmiki community how to offer puja like a Brahmin. The whole idea is redundant as the caste hierarchy is so deep rooted in society that the community is barred from offering puja as well. Even Dalits of other sub-castes won’t allow a Valmiki to pray with them,” she added.
Noticeably, the Union government Act of 2013 also demands that a state-level monitoring community is formed under the leadership of the chief minister and meet twice a year. However, no such committee has been formed in Gujarat.
The case of Jashubhai’s death, however, has been taken up by Shamshad Pathan, a lawyer and activist associated with civil rights organisation Jan Sangharsh Manch.
“We will submit a memorandum to the commissioner of AMC demanding Rs 10 lakh as compensation and a job for the nearest of kin. We shall also demand that the workers henceforth are sent to work with due safety measures,” said Pathan.
The AMC is yet to provide safety gear to its sanitation workers. Usually, manual scavengers light a match stick and put it inside the manhole to check if they can climb in. They also, as a professional custom, kneel down and bow their head and pray for their own safety before they open the culvert. These are the only safety measures available to them, after all.