22-year-old Ranjithkumar stands forlorn outside a government mortuary in Royapettah, Chennai. Dressed in a black T-shirt, he runs his fingernails darkened by grime across his face, a vacant expression in his eyes. His hair is matted with muck, specks of which cover his clothing. But when a friend hands over a wet cloth to help him wipe off the dirt, he waves it off, choosing to keep the reminder of a traumatic night - one which he survived, but his brother Arunkumar did not.
On Monday night, it was close to 10.30 pm when Arun and Ranjith left their residence at Ice House in Chennai along with three other men, on the instructions of a 45-year-old contractor named Dhandapani. The task given to them was to clean two water tanks and a septic tank in basement number 3 of the Express Avenue mall in Chennai.
The two brothers have been engaged as manual scavengers for close to five years by multiple contractors and to them, this was yet another task to supplement the family income. While their mother was employed as a sweeper in a government hospital, their father could not work due to ill-health.
"We belong to a Dalit family and have faced a childhood of deprivation. So, I left school in the 6th standard and my brother in the 10th standard. We began working immediately after we dropped out," says Ranjithkumar, his tone even but voice low. "I am an electrician by day and Arun fixed spare parts on cars. Manual scavenging is not a regular job for us. We do it because we need the money," he adds, looking away.
When the group of five - Arunkumar, Ranjithkumar, Yuvaraj, Ajithkumar and Sreenath - all from Ice House reached the venue, they first worked on the water tanks. It was close to 3 am when they finally approached the septic tank for cleaning.
And what ensued next, at the basement of this mall, was both illegal and inhumane.
"The contractor made us wear the safety mask, gloves and boots provided by Express Avenue and pose for a photo," says Ranjith. "After it was taken, he told us to take it all off, before going into the tank. He said it would be wasted if we used it. This was a regular practice," he says, and slowly anger creeps into his voice for the first time during the conversation.
According to Ranjith, the pictures are clicked as evidence to show that the contractor has complied with the law. But they don't want the safety gear to become dirty and therefore remove it before workers get into the pits.
Ranjith then climbed down a ladder and into the tank and began work. Half an hour into his task, suddenly a valve in the tank opened, and sewer water flooded into the container.
"It was a yellowish colour liquid and within seconds, it was up to my thigh," recalls Ranjith. "The fumes from it made me dizzy and before I could even call for help, I fainted. The last thing I heard was my brother shout 'Thambi, Thambi'," he adds.
Arun immediately jumped in to save his brother and their friend, 21-year-old Ajithkumar, followed. While Arun went right to the bottom of the tank and pushed his brother up, Ajithkumar pulled him up and away from noxious fumes emanating from the container. But even as Ranjith was safe, Arun had already collapsed after the rescue.
"I went back in to rescue him," says Ajithkumar. "But I myself felt dizzy because of the fumes and blanked out for five minutes. When I regained consciousness I just about managed to pull myself out," he laments.
Was the mall complicit?
For close to half an hour after he was rescued, Ranjith says his limbs were frozen and while he understood the frenzied activity around him, he could not move.
"Dhandapani called the mall's safety officials and told them what had happened. Instead of rescuing my brother immediately, they were squabbling over who will enter the tank," he says. "They wasted close to an hour arguing, till Dhandapani was forced to go in himself. If they had acted sooner, they could have saved my brother," he says, his voice breaking.
But by the time he was lifted out, Arun was dead.
Ranjithkumar and Hemanth (friend of victim)
As per the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, the practice of using human beings to clean septic tanks and sewers is illegal in India. But Ranjith and Ajithkumar tell TNM that they were unaware that manual scavenging was banned.
"We have been doing this for years now and nobody has told us. The Express Avenue officials knew we were going to clean the tank. Why didn't they at least tell us?" asks Ranjith. "In fact if they hadn't opened the valve for sewer water when I was inside, none of this would have happened," he points out.
The caste factor
Tamil Nadu already has the ignominy of having recorded the highest number of deaths due to manual scavenging in the country over 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 with the second highest number of manual scavenging deaths.
D Samuel Velanganni, the Tamil Nadu State Convener of Safai Karamchari Andolan, an NGO that works in the domain of rehabilitation of manual scavengers, said that according to a small survey taken by the NGO, there are around 3,000 manual scavengers spread across just eight cities in eight districts in Tamil Nadu.
"And the numbers are unlikely to go down because the government is not giving the people the awareness required," he tells TNM. "Due to lack of programmes to spread the message, these men don't know about existing laws, that the work they are doing has been banned and that they are eligible for rehabilitation. In this year alone, 20 men have died while engaged in manual scavenging," he adds.
He further points to the strong caste-based segregation of labour in society, and the fact that almost all manual scavengers belong to Dalit communities. In fact, the five men who were employed to work in the mall on Monday, are all members of Scheduled Castes.
"It is because of the caste they belong to that the apathy towards them is even deeper," says Samuel.
When TNM spoke to other Dalit residents of Ice House, we found that contractors would come to the area looking for young men from the community for manual scavenging work. For some, it is a path to earn money before they can look for better work opportunities.
25-year-old Hemanth, a friend of the deceased, says that he was a manual scavenging worker for three years before he was employed as a bank clerk.
“It is common for us to clean water tanks and septic tanks. I have done it in hotels including Taj Corromandel, Le Meridien, Hablis, Marriott and The Park,” he alleges. “There is no other way to do it but to get in ourselves. Even if we use machines, they do not completely remove the grime present inside. We have to do it by hand,” he adds.
When asked whether he ever questioned the legality of the practice, Hemanth claims it was a ‘non-issue’.
“Whenever I went into these septic tanks, I always used safety gear,” he says, unaware that the hiring of humans for manual scavenging was banned. “I was very careful,” he adds.
40-year-old Mohanraj, who is now a contractor himself, says he became a manual scavenging worker at the age of 13. For the last 20 years though, he has only been hiring people from different areas in the city to do the job.
“We wouldn’t have to use people to do this job if we had a specific type of machinery available. It helps pump out the sewage and clean the tank. But this would cost upto Rs.1 crore,” he says. “The people who are actually carrying out this work, do not have the finances to buy machines that can thoroughly clean the muck. If the government can help us buy it, we can stop sending men in,” he adds.
The Anna Salai police have now filed cases against Dhandapani and unnamed safety officials of the mall under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, Atrocities against SC/ST Act and section 304 (1) (Punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder).
Dhandapani has already been taken into custody by the police, but for Arun's family, this provides no solace. Even as TNM entered the hospital, a young woman was being half carried out by relatives to a vehicle.
"That is Arun's wife Sukanya," says Ranjith. "They were in love for four years and have been married for three. She is completely devastated and was sitting here, beating her chest and saying she will die too," he adds.
The family was taking her back home, to the couple's seven-month-old daughter Diksha.
"Arun was a teetotaller and such a hard-working man," says his friend, 25-year-old Hemanth, who used to be engaged in manual scavenging too. "He was working all these extra jobs to save money for his family. After his daughter was born, he had really been pushing himself for the additional income," he adds.
And how much was his life worth?
"Rs 600," says Ranjith. "That is what they promised us."