Manual Scavenging & Dalit Rights: Why We Must Know Who’s Rishi Pal

“What has happened to him should not happen to anyone,” said a distraught Jyoti, daughter of Rishi Pal.

3 min read
Hindi Female

All roads inside the state-run Lok Nayak Hospital in New Delhi's Daryaganj lead to the Drinking Water Pumping Station, tucked in the farthest corner of the hospital.

The security guard sitting outside the station gate said that on a regular day, this would be the most innocuous part of the hospital. But 20 August, he said, was unlike any other day.

From policemen to hospital authorities, government officials, and social activists, everybody inside the station complex was waiting for the body of Rishi Pal, the 45-year-old sanitation worker who lost his life on 20 August.

Pal, a permanent employee of the hospital, was hired to clean a sewer inside the Lok Nayak Hospital. Within minutes of entering the sewer, without any protection gear, Pal fell unconscious and was immediately admitted to the hospital. He was soon declared dead.
“What has happened to him should not happen to anyone,” said a distraught Jyoti, daughter of Rishi Pal.
A crowd gathered outside the Drinking Water Station at the Lok Nayak Hospital.
(Photo: The Quint

A Father Lost

As TV crews lined up at the hospital, Jyoti Pal, the daughter of the deceased, politely refused to speak to the media.

An NGO worker, who did not want to be named, said:

This is a personal issue for them, and the family does not want any intrusion. However, we are trying to make them understand that this is a bigger fight, a fight for a bigger cause. If we do not speak out now, we have to remain silent forever.
“What has happened to him should not happen to anyone,” said a distraught Jyoti, daughter of Rishi Pal.
Rishi Pal’s family at Lok Nayak Hospital.
(Photo: The Quint)

Twenty-two-year-old Jyoti, who is currently pursuing her graduation, is the eldest child of Pal. Her brothers, Aditya and Yogesh, are in Class X and XII respectively.

Pal was the sole breadwinner in the family.

“He encouraged us to study well and never made us feel his financial burden. It has happened to him but it shouldn’t happen to anyone else,” said Jyoti.

Pal’s wife sat in a corner with her daughter and son. As soon as the Sub Divisional Magistrate arrived, the crowd, including Pal’s family, rushed towards him, demanding justice.

“The law will take its course,” the SDM said.

Jyoti quietly whispered, “But law isn't going to bring my dad back.”

“What has happened to him should not happen to anyone,” said a distraught Jyoti, daughter of Rishi Pal.
The Sub Divisional Magistrate speaking to Pal’s family. Also seen in the picture are Pal’s daughter Jyoti, son Yogesh, and his wife.
(Photo: The Quint)

10 Deaths in a Month, but No Action Taken

Pal is one among the 10 lives lost due to manual scavenging in the national capital. Leading the charge against these spate of deaths was Bezwada Wilson.

The Magsaysay Award winner and the national convenor of Safai Karmachari Andolan submitted a petition to the National Human Rights Commission demanding justice, not just monetary compensation. He also wrote a letter he said, to “everyone” including Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

While his letters have been acknowledged, he said no action has been taken by the government yet.


Lack of Data, No Policy Framework

Speaking to The Quint, Wilson said that no one understood the meaning and purpose of the Employment of Manual Scavengers Act in 1993.

It was only after relentless lobbying and passing of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Act in 2013 did some awareness emerge on the issue.

The society is intentionally killing Dailts knowing that they are “weak”. The fight for Dalit rights is very real and that all those who are involved in the death of the manual scavengers will be punished, he said.

Any developed country has its own sewerage and septic tank system. In no other country do people die everyday due to manual scavenging. And there is no data on the deaths due to manual scavenging. The number we have with us is much lesser than the number of people who actually die.
Bezwada Wilson, National Convenor of Safai Karmachari Andolan

The rampant practice can be stopped, said Wilson, only if deaths due to such "inhumane practices" are acknowledged by the government, and policies are made that can be implemented at the grassroots level.

India must announce a smart sanitation system which does not require human intervention. Even if it is required, it must be mechanised.

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