Yesterday, in a corner of Delhi-NCR known as Keshopur, a 22-year old sewage worker breathed his last, a final tortured breath inhaled inside a part of the vast network of sewage pipelines that map the city in their own cartography of waste. The pipeline was owned by the Delhi Jal Board, so its function was not simply to transport sewage, but to transform it into potable water through a portion of the pipeline that resembles a septic tank – a portion known as the ‘digester’.
That Vinay Sirohi, 22-year old contract worker with the Delhi Jal Board, who got married last year and had taken up part-time employment to help him get through college, lost his life in a part of the sewage pipeline called the ‘digester’ imparts something so grotesquely apposite to this tragedy that one almost doesn’t want to think about it. One often doesn’t, of course. One has the option of of flipping the page of the newspaper, of resting one’s eyes on more life-affirming images – English Premier League, Bollywood, Modi-Cameron Cameron-araderie…even Kejriwal’s homely navy-blue sweater and baggy trousers are a pleasant distraction. Anything that tells us that life as it was meant to be – humans wearing a clean sweater and trousers with a sofa to sit on after their stomachs and minds are fed and sated – is better than the thought of a body inside a pipe under the city. When I tried to save the image that you see above, the caption read djb_body_759. I don’t want to think about what that caption means. Does it mean the 759th body found inside the DJB’s sewage network? Does it mean the 759th body to have been recovered by the police this year, 2015? Does it mean the 759th body to have died in sewage pipelines across the country, or ever?
When I looked for the story online, I found just one comment below it – one Mr Jain from the United States writes,
Delhi Jal Board is under the control of Arvind Kejriwal, He is in the habit of blaming everybody,without seeing the malfunctioning of his departments.It is glaring that that there was neither any safety precaution arrangement, nor any supervisor to oversee such a dangerous work at a big sewage treatment plant. It appears that no close circuit cameras have been provided to oversee the functioning of the treatment plant, otherwise that would have helped in many ways. a young life has been lost, my heart goes with the family of the victim of negligence.
I was happy to see that on a medium that seems to attract a thousand commentators on big-ticket national issues, a person was moved enough to comment on the loss of a sewage worker’s life. The credit must got to the Indian Express, which instead of burying the story in proportion to the burying of the body inside the pipeline, or the burying of the problem of worker deaths (murders is more like it as I have maintained earlier) inside the opaque figures of national GDP, placed it on the ‘skyline’ above the newspaper flag on the front page, and followed it up with two reports including one of Sirohi’s mother and young wife on page 3. The credit must also go to this year’s Indian entry to the Oscars – the quietly brilliant Court, which refused to let us look away for the entire 116 minutes of its running length. Delivering a series of slow punches to our increasingly steel-lined stomachs, it reminded us why we are still a deeply screwed-up, grossly class-divided nation where even a well-meaning, liberal-minded judge has the option of looking away, of convincing himself of the rightness of his writ as he slumps into his well-deserved nap on his hard-earned family holiday…while a wrongly convicted man swelters in jail through the summer, and perhaps for posterity.
The problem however, with Mr. Jain’s comment is this. Before he expresses solidarity with the grieving family, before he acknowledges the negligence that took young Vinay’s life, he begins by blaming Kejriwal and scoring a brownie point for the opposition. Mr Jain’s excoriation of the Kejriwal government is absolutely correct and deserved. This is an event which must invite the highest action from the state government, on a scale that ensures it doesn’t happen again, and far more than the pathetic compensation of rupees 1.5 lakhs that has been announced. It must hold the DJB accountable, which is already showing signs of passing the buck to the contractor (According to DJB officials, Sirohi was a contractual employee at the STP and had been hired by VA TECH WABAG Limited, a private company, as a valve operator for the plant), or worse, back to Sirohi and to his own carelessness.
The Delhi Police in the meanwhile, unpublished but acclaimed authors of potboiler fiction, holy seers who know the result of the match before the first ball is bowled, have begun to say that since call records were deleted from Sirohi’s phone, they suspect foul play. Incredible! The police is willing to undertake responsibility for a criminal investigation assuming a personal enmity, motive and intent to murder instead of assuming the obvious – that another young life has been brutally cut down in its prime because nobody bloody cares about safety equipment for workers. That while the DJB piously maintains in its press statement after the death that nobody should go inside a sewage manhole or pipe without safety equipment, they are free to routinely neglect safety procedures by outsourcing the entire job to a contractor. That at the end of the day, if a life is lost, the Delhi Police can always be marshalled to ring up its favourite conspiracy theory about the secret enemies cultivated by Sirohi. That like “Court” shows, it is not the Kejriwal government or the Modi government or the Sheila Dixit government that is responsible, but a society in which life is cheap for the working classes. Consider the lack of safety equipment amongst municipal garbage workers for instance – a phenomenon that democratically spreads across every municipality in the country, and in the case of Mumbai is documented brilliantly in a documentary that the makers of Court watched during prep for their film – Jai Bhim Comrade. That sewage pipeline and manhole deaths are a nearly daily occurrence in this country, and over 95 percent of those entering these chambers of death with their noxious gases are Dalit and/or extremely poor, from families that don’t have the imagination, leave alone resources to sue the state. That these are murders, plain and simple, made possible by the structure of society. Like a ritual sacrifice demanded by the gods of the Indian development model.
I am culpable. You are culpable. Mr. Jain, you too are culpable. Let nobody insult the memory of Vinay Sirohi.