A deceptive silence engulfs Nagadevanahalli near Kengeri on the outskirts of Bengaluru. A small crowd of residents gather near the rajakaluve (storm water drain), where fire rescue personnel pulled out 7-year-old Rakesh's lifeless sewage-covered body after a three-hour operation on Wednesday.
The locals point to the spot where Rakesh sat on Wednesday evening to defecate. Just moments later, he slipped and fell into the drain, leaving behind a plastic mug and his slippers as the only signs that he had been there.
The air carries the thick stench of sewage, garbage and death.
Migrant Labourers Without Toilets
Rakesh, a student of Class 1, was the son of construction labourers Bheemappa and Nagamma, natives of Kalaburagi in Karnataka. Rakesh, who lives with his grandparents in Kalaburagi had come to stay with his parents in Bengaluru ten days ago, some residents say. The family stayed in a shack adjacent to the under-construction building Bheemappa and Nagamma worked in, till they returned to Kalaburagi on Thursday with Rakesh's body.
On Wednesday, a little after 5pm in the evening, Rakesh went up to the rajakaluve close to the shack, with a mug full of water. The shed where the family lived did not have a toilet. For the people in the neighbourhood, construction labourers (mostly migrants like Rakesh's parents) going to the rajakaluve to relieve themselves is a common sight.
“They would come here early in the morning and late in the night, as none of the construction sites here have sanitation facilities for their workers. What can we do? The labourers come in batches to work at the sites, they stick around for a few days and move on to other sites. Only the people change, not their everyday routine of sitting on a slab on the rajakaluve to defecate,” says Rao, a resident of the neighbourhood.
Fourty eight-year-old Jyothi says she continues to feel the horror of watching the fire rescue personnel pull out Rakesh's body. "None of us saw him go there at the time. Even if we had, we wouldn't have stopped him, since we are all now used to how they lead their lives," Jyothi says.
After Rakesh's death triggered anger against BBMP among the residents, the civic body has initiated measures to load mud on either side of the rajakaluve, so that access is closed off.
Though residents complain that they have often pointed out the safety hazard of the easily accessible rajakaluve to officials, an Assistant Engineer of the BBMP did not seem to feel that they had woken up a few hours too late. Asked why the access to rajakaluve had not been closed off despite multiple complaints, the official simply said that this was what they were doing now.
Speaking to TNM, West DCP Anucheth said that the Kengeri police has registered a case of unnatural death.
“Since the rajakaluve comes under the purview of the BBMP, we have submitted a report to the civic body. There are also allegations of the rajakaluve being built on encroached land. We have mentioned this in the report as well. If the encroachment allegation is proven right, we will proceed to book the persons responsible,” the police officer said.
Sanitation an Elusive Luxury for Construction Labourers
For the many workers at the Nagadevanahalli construction site where Rakesh’s parents worked, open defecation is a normal way of life. Sampath, who works at the same construction site, says that he has long ago grown used to the absence of toilets.
"Most of the sites do not have a facility for us to take care of our needs. A rare few of them will have toilets that we can use. It's all part of the job, we seldom complain," Sampath says.
Rakesh's death, however, came as a huge shock for Sampath, whose five-year-old son studies in a school in Bihar.
"I have a son of his (Rakesh’s) age, and I used to wonder why Bheemappa brought him to the site. I would never bring my child here, it is so unsafe. Though we have to face many difficulties, our children should not," Sampath says.