"When my father was leaving, the dog suddenly barked. It was a bad omen and I told him not to go," says Kuppamma, swaying in grief. "But he left. He went into the septic tank and didn't come out," she laments.
On Thursday, Kuppamma’s father Rajappan, along with two other colleagues, joined the growing list of manual scavenger deaths in Tamil Nadu. It was close to 9 am when the 38-year-old entered the septic tank at a pig farm in Coimbatore. When he went in, two others, both named Vediappan, followed him – to their deaths. The task given to them was to clean the septic tanks filled with the faeces of 30 pigs present at the farm.
According to a police report on the incident, Rajappan first succumbed to poisonous gas emanating from the septic tank. When they saw him struggling, the other two men, rushed to rescue him but fell prey to the fumes as well. They died inside the tank.
While employing labour for manually cleaning sewers is prohibited by law, the practice is still widely prevalent across the country. And despite severe criticism regarding the practice, it allegedly continues to thrive. Coimbatore, in fact, saw two manual scavengers deaths even in January this year.
"We have demanded that those who hire people for such work must be punished severely to prevent this from happening," says Sivagnanam, the general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front. "But both the district administration and police have been lax about this, leading to so many deaths," he adds.
When TNM contacted the Coimbatore police they confirmed that the owner of the pig farm, 70-year-old Subramaniam, has been apprehended.
"This happens in the city," admits an investigating officer. "But for the first time we are seeing such deaths in rural Coimbatore," he adds.
Tamil Nadu already has the ignominy of having recorded the highest number of deaths due to manual scavenging in the last five years. The death count in Tamil Nadu stood at 144 – more than double the number of casualties reported by Uttar Pradesh, the state that recorded the second-highest number of deaths.
This information was released by the Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Ramdas Athawale in February in Lok Sabha to a series of questions posed by Mullapally Ramachandran, a Congress MP from Kerala.
The MP had requested the Minister to provide the number of deaths of workers engaged in sewer cleaning in the last five years (till December 31, 2018). In the list provided by the Union Minister, Tamil Nadu recorded 144 deaths from 2013 to 2018 followed by Uttar Pradesh which recorded 71 deaths in the same period. The Minister also stated that out of the 144 deaths reported from Tamil Nadu, compensation of Rs 10 lakh each has been disbursed to the victim’s families in 141 cases. The reply also mentions that except Karnataka, Rajasthan and Delhi, no other state has filed FIRs on the employers for engaging people for manual scavenging.