(This report was first published in April 2022. It is being republished as part of The Quint's special series HELLHOLE: The Reality of Manual Scavenging in India)
One day, Bijender Singh returned home from work with a fever, splitting headache, and nausea. He told his eldest daughter Khushboo that he had “inhaled the poisonous gases”.
Two days later, he returned to work – cleaning sewers in the national capital. In March 2021, Bijender, father of three minor girls, died while cleaning a sewer in Delhi’s Narela, a job he was doing for the Delhi Development Authority (DDA).
'Miss Our Father': Singh's Daughter
“We got a call from someone in the afternoon that our father had died. He had not been given any protective gear. He was cleaning the sewer and suddenly fainted. He had inhaled the poisonous gas,” says Khushboo.
Khusbhoo is the eldest of three sisters, the others being Sona, 13, and Anokhi, 10. Their mother passed away seven years ago due to a pregnancy complication.
“We miss our father. He would bring us snacks – momo, tikki, chowmein. He would miss our mother dearly. I remember that days before he passed away, he spoke about her to us,” says Khushboo.
Never Given Protective Gear
She says her father was almost never given any protective gear by contractors.
“I would tell my father to quit this job, it was risky. He would tell me that this was the only way to fill our stomachs. We miss him, we have no one now,” says Khushboo, whose studies came to a halt after her father’s passing away.
The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act, 2013, however, lists at least 44 pieces of protective gear that “any person engaged to clean a sewer or a septic tank shall be provided by his employer, protective gear and safety devices.”
These include breathing apparatus, chlorine mask, emergency medical oxygen resuscitator kit, a first-aid box, a face mask, full body wader suit, hand gloves, head lamp, life-guard pad, nylon safety belt, and safety goggles, among others.
'People Taunt Us For Getting Money From Delhi Govt'
Her sisters, too, have not been able to study properly as the only smartphone they had fell in the sewer the day Bijender died. The Delhi government has set aside a fixed deposit of Rs 10 lakh for the sisters.
"It’s a fixed deposit, we can’t take out a single rupee right now. People taunt us that we are rich now, that somehow, we have benefited from our father’s death. They don’t know what it’s like to grow up without parents,” says Khushboo.
From Bijender’s sludge-soaked pocket on the day of his death, a wallet with a few currency notes was found. “It’s his last memory, the last thing he left behind. We will never spend this money. Never,” says Khusbhoo.