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.