Three months after Namami Gange manual-scavenging deaths, no compensation or cases filed

The parents of 18-year-old Mohammed Iqbal Hussain, who died in May 2021 while cleaning a sewer at the Namani Gange site in Bihar’s Beur. To expedite the project, officials appear to have rushed them in without legally required security precautions. Courtesy Mehboob Alam
15 September, 2021

In May 2021, two Muslim labourers died after entering a manhole at a site for the union government’s Namami Gange project, in Patna’s Beur locality. According to three labourers working on the site, who asked to remain anonymous, the labourers were forced to enter the manhole without requisite safety gear. One middle-aged labourer told me he saw an engineer with Larsen and Toubro—the contractor of the Beur site—rush them in without safety precautions because he said it was a “very urgent job.”  The board outside the site said that the project was to be completed by 5 April 2020. To expedite the project, officials appear to have rushed them in without legally required security precautions. Yet, by mid September, no culpable homicide case had been registered. The families of 20-year-old Saddam Hussien and 18-year-old Mohammed Iqbal Hussain, the two deceased workers, had not received any compensation either.

The Namami Gange programme is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, a part of a mission to depollute the river Ganga, which was approved in June 2014. It includes, among other things, improving sewage infrastructure and treatment; monitoring crematoriums near the river; removing sludge; and restoring the natural flow of the river. On 27 December 2018, Nitin Gadkari, the union minister for water resources at the time, promised that within three months, between seventy and eighty percent of the Ganga would be cleaned, and that by 2020, the Ganga would be fully clean. The ministry of water resources allocated Rs 20,000 crore to arrest the pollution, rejuvenate and conserve the river.

However, progress on the programme has been incredibly slow, with a majority of projects, particularly in Bihar, still incomplete. A July 2021 press note from the Jal Shakti ministry—the official name for the water ministry—states that by 30 June 2021, only 158 of the 346 projects sanctioned under Namami Gange had been completed. Of the 53 projects sanctioned for Bihar, only 11 had been completed.

The hurried work on such projects often includes forcing workers into manual scavenging, which is illegal in India. Despite its illegality, manual scavenging, and deaths associated with it, are widespread across India. On 30 July, speaking in parliament, Ramdas Athawale, the union social-justice minister, denied that there had been a single death by manual scavenging in the past five years, despite government data showing at least 472 deaths in this period. In such cases, the police rarely register cases of culpable homicide against engineers or overseers as they are legally required to. Legally mandated compensation is also rarely given to the families of the victims. Saddam and Iqbal’s deaths mirror this trend.

On 6 April 2017, the Jal Shakti ministry sanctioned Rs 398 crore, to fix sewage infrastructure, river diversion and river-front beautification projects in a 180-kilometre stretch in Beur. The ministry made the Bihar Urban Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd, or BUIDCo—a state government owned infrastructure company—the executing agency for the project. BUIDCo gave the contract for the project to the multinational conglomerate Larsen and Toubro, in 2017.

In mid-May, Nayan Raza, a contractor from Murshidabad district in West Bengal, came to the Beur area with a group of 25 labourers to work on the sewage line as part of the Namami Gange project. Larsen and Toubro had sub-contracted the work to him. Saddam and Iqbal, both of whom were residents of the Bhagwangola town of Murshidabad, were part of the team of 25. They were both also the only breadwinners of their respective families.

Labourers who worked at the site told me that, in May, the Larsen and Toubro engineers who led the project constantly told them about the urgency of the work. “My work was just mixing sand and cement, so they did not ask me to speed up work,” Razibul Haque, a 36-year-old worker who worked on the project, told me. “But my other co-workers told me they were told to finish the work as soon as possible. The work conditions were not good and there was a serious risk we would get injured also. So, I left the work mid-way and returned home.” When I visited the site on 13 July, I saw a board put up at the site by the Jal Shakti ministry and the Bihar department of urban development which noted that the project commenced on 6 April 2017 and was due to be completed by 5 April 2020. While Raza, the contractor, told me that he did not rush any of the workers and that Larsen and Toubro did not put any pressure on him, statements from the workers contradict this.

The middle-aged worker in the team, told me that an engineer from Larsen and Toubro had urged the workers to enter the sewer on 31 May because the work was urgent. “There were two engineers on the spot,” he told me. “One engineer had clearly said that there is no necessary protective gear to get into the sewer, so it would not be right to engage labourers in sewer-cleaning work. But after he left, the other engineer said that the sewer would have to be cleaned, that this is a very urgent job. He forcefully sent them into the sewer.” According to the middle-aged worker, Saddam was first sent down to clean the sewer line, but when he did not come out, Iqbal was sent in. The other workers at the site told me that Saddam and Iqbal likely choked inside the sewer. Neither the middle-aged worker, nor the other labourers on the project I spoke to, knew the names of the two Larsen and Toubro engineers.

Ketan Bondre and Amit Biswas, who are listed as media contacts on the Larsen and Toubro website, did not respond to emailed questions about the incident. The police also claimed not to know the identity of the two engineers. Amit Kumar, the station-house officer of Beur police station, told the Hindustan Times that the Larsen and Toubro engineers fled the scene following the deaths of Saddam and Iqbal.

Nairu Hussein, Saddam’s elder brother, was also working on the same project. “I was called by the contractor and told that two laborers had died of suffocation in the sewer,” he told me. “When I reached there, I saw that my brother was one among them. I can say with certainty that it was the engineer who forcibly sent my brother into the sewer. All the other workers there also told me that it was the engineer who asked him to. This is outright murder, isn’t it?”

After the incident, police personnel reached the spot with an earthmover, which was not useful in the situation. They had no rescue team with them. Dhruv Kumar Thakur, a 40-year-old local, told me that he had helped bring out Saddam and Iqbal’s bodies. “I was buying some stuff in a shop, when I heard the noise and went to the spot,” Thakur said. “I got into the sewer with a rope and after holding my breath for a minute, first tied a rope to a dead body and then came out.” Despite being in the presence of police, Thakur was given no safety equipment either. He continued, “The dozen workers present outside pulled the rope and took out the dead body. After this, I landed in the sewer for the second time and this time too, holding my breath, tied a rope to the dead body and immediately came out.”

“There was horrific poisonous gas inside and neither of them were wearing any protective gear,” he continued. He said that the sewer had been closed for three or four years, with toxic gasses building up inside. “This is sheer negligence and I see elsewhere also that even after so many deaths, laborers are being engaged in sewer works without safety equipment.” Saddam and Iqbal were taken to Patna Medical College and Hospital, where they were declared dead on arrival.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, clearly states, “No person, local authority or any agency shall … engage or employ, either directly or indirectly, any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank.” Section 8 of the act talks about the penalty if anyone engages a person in cleaning of septic tanks and sewer. It says, “the contravention be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine which may extend to fifty thousand rupees or with both, and for any subsequent contravention with imprisonment which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to one lakh rupees, or with both.”

The act does not specify under which section of the Indian Penal Code such arrests should be made. However, courts later clarified this. The judiciary set clear guidelines on the processes that must be followed by the police following a manual-scavenging death. In a landmark judgement in September 2019, the Supreme Court said, “Case should be filed against the supervisor and officials (if any worker dies in a manhole due to poisonous gas).” In previous cases, this has meant booking contractors under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code, which is non-bailable offence pertaining to culpable homicide not amounting to murder, rather than section 304 A, which pertains to causing death by negligence.

Bhasha Singh, a senior journalist who has written a book about manual scavenging, told me, “Both the law and judgements since then are fairly clear, this is not negligence but a case of culpable homicide.” She continued, “An FIR should be lodged against all those responsible for forcing labourers into manholes, particularly without safety gear. Until the culprits of such incidents are booked, this practice is never going to stop.”

But the Beur police did not file a case of culpable homicide after Saddam and Iqbal’s death. On 1 June, the police took sou-moto cognisance of the death and filed a case of unnatural death, but it made no mention of the engineers who are accused of forcing the two workers into the sewer. Kumar, the SHO, agreed that it should have been filed as a case of culpable homicide, but claimed that he did not have the power to file the case under those charges. “A case of culpable homicide should be registered, but we cannot register an FIR by taking suo-motu cognisance,” he told me. “I am still waiting for someone to come and file a case of culpable homicide. We will investigate it. Many NGOs came after the incident, a committee of Patna High Court had also come, but no one lodged a complaint. If the relatives of the deceased also come and complain, we will register the complaint.”

This explanation does not hold up to scrutiny. If sou-moto cognisance was taken to file a case of unnatural death, following an investigation, the same could have been applied to register a case of culpable homicide. On 1 June, activists and lawyers from the Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch—an Adivasi and Dalit-rights organisation—and the Loktantrik Jan Pahal, a Patna-based human-rights organisation, had conducted a fact-finding inquiry into the deaths of Saddam and Iqbal. Their report argued that the police had shown a complete lack of initiative in investigating the case.

“On the basis of circumstantial evidence, the fact-finding team is of the view that the company and the contractor is directly responsible for the deaths of laborers,” the report said. It, however, did not specify what the evidence was. “Therefore, this is a case of cognizable offence; police should have taken cognizance and lodge an FIR against the company and the contractor. Yet, the police knowingly lodge a case … which is contrary to the Supreme Court ruling that if someone died due to working in sewerage, it is a killing.”

The report continued, “As the laborers were outsiders there was no local pressure which gave police a free hand to make the case as light as possible in the favor of the company. Thus, the fact-finding team reached the conclusion that police are working at the behest of the company and contractor.” Section 174 of Code of Criminal Procedure empowers the police to determine the cause of a death. Under this section, police investigate the cause of a death and corroborate it with eyewitnesses. Following this, the police have the power to register a case of culpable homicide. Kumar, the SHO, told me that he had seen the post-mortem and that it indicated that “suffocation due to gas” was the cause of death.

A 2014 Supreme Court order mandated that when a person engaged for cleaning sewers or septic tanks dies, his family is entitled to Rs 10 lakh in compensation. Both Saddam and Iqbal’s families told me that they had received no compensation so far. Iqbal was the only son of 55-year-old Samayan Hussain. Samayan has three daughters, two of whom are married. Samayan told me over the phone that the two marriages had sunk him into debt. He told me that he had previously sustained severe burn injuries on his right hand, as a result of which he could not work.

“Iqbal had passed the matric examination this year and enrolled for his eleventh standard, but due to the lockdown, our family income was badly affected,” he said. “So, Iqbal decided to stop studying. He joined the group of local youths, whom Nayan Raza was taking to Patna. The contractor took him away saying that there was foundry work in Patna, but he was forced to enter the sewer.” He continued, “My son had never done sewer work. Earlier too he had worked in Patna for two weeks, but it was pipeline work. The sewer was three or four years old and full of poisonous gas. The engineers should not have forced my son to clean the sewer. It is their fault he is dead.”

Samayan told me that the family were on the verge of starvation following Iqbal’s death. “I had only one son and the house was run by his earnings,” he said. “Since his death, I am not able to figure out how our life will go. How will my third daughter get married? I don’t even have agricultural land with which I can feed my family.”

Saddam’s mother, Naysan Bibi, does not have any cultivable land either. She told me over the phone that her family survived solely on Saddam’s earnings. “Since the death of Saddam, the people of the neighbourhood give us something to eat and the little money we had saved earlier is keeping us alive somehow,” she said. “But, how will the rest of our lives pass, I do not know. My son has died while doing government work, so the government should think about us. The government must ensure our livelihood.”

Following Saddam and Iqbal’s deaths, Raman Kumar, the managing director of the Bihar Urban Infrastructure Development Corporation, constituted a three-member committee to investigate the matter. It included NK Tiwari, the chief engineer of the Namami Gange Project; Satyendra Kumar, the superintending engineer of BUIDCo; and Lata Chaudhary, the environment and safety officer of BUIDCo. The committee submitted its report to the National Mission for Clean Ganga within a week, but all three of its members refused to divulge anything about what was in the report or the course of action that they had recommended.

“You are a journalist, so you must know that every office has a decorum,” Choudhary told me when I asked about the recommendations. “I am not authorised to make any statement in front of the media. I am a technical person. The project is part of the National Mission on Clean Ganga, so we have sent the investigation report to them.” Rajeshwar Singh, the district magistrate of Patna, and Kumar, the managing director of BUIDCo, did not respond to repeated calls or emails.

When I visited the site of the incident, on 13 July, less than two months after the deaths of Iqbal and Saddam, I found that the sewer has been covered with soil. The temporary colony where the labourers had been living lay vacant. The security guard of a nearby colony told me that they had left ten days earlier. “The work there was completed,” he said. Raza, the contractor also confirmed to me that the work was completed before 13 July. Yet another project had been quickly ticked off the long list on the Namami Gange website, constructed in a record 45 days.