Mumbai: Govind Sangaram Chorotiya, Santosh Kalsekar and Vishwajit Debnath.
Those names would have disappeared, like those of countless others killed cleaning septic tanks around the country, had it not been their partners decided to take legal action.
The wives of the three men – Vimala Chorotiya, Nita Kalsekar and Bani Debnath – moved to the Bombay Supreme Court shortly after their deaths in December 2019 to seek compensation and rehabilitation, as outlined in the Manual Scavengers Prohibition Act (PEMSA) of 2013 guaranteed.
The court in Bombay called the case an “eye opener” and on September 17 ordered the Maharashtra government to pay the families compensation within four weeks, as well as an elaborate rehabilitation plan for the families.
This is perhaps the first case in Maharashtra where the court has held the state accountable for compensating family members of septic tank cleaners despite being killed while on a private assignment.
Bombay HC instructs the Maha government to pay compensation from The Wire to Scribd
Along with the compensation, the court has been honored with reference to the landmark 2014 ruling in Safai Karamchari vs. Andolan.
Although prohibited, manual cleanup is widespread across the country. Most local authorities shamefully use subcontractors to evade legal obligations – as in this case when the three men were found dead in the septic tank. Govind had sustained a head injury; the other two were killed after inhaling toxic gases in the tank.
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Vimala Chorotiya, the lead plaintiff in the case, says the litigation was by no means easy. “But it had to be fought for the future of my three young children, who were suddenly deprived of a parent,” she says.
Vimala, along with Nita and Bani, is also pursuing criminal proceedings against the treasurer of the housing association in Chembur, central Mumbai, for having involved the deceased in an illegal and dangerous cleaning of a septic tank. The defendant, Pawan, was convicted of negligent homicide only under Section 304 (A) of India’s Criminal Code and was immediately released on bail.
The women, through their lawyer Isha Singh, are trying to push for relevant sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act and the PEMSA laws in this case. The Chorotiyas and Kalsekars belong to the Planned Castes. The Debnaths come from an OBC (Other Backward Class) community, originally from a small village in Northern Bengal.
Vimala, an uneducated woman from Nagaur District, Rajasthan, married Govind when she was just 16 years old. The couple lived in Mumbai’s Chembur neighborhood and did odd jobs to look after their three children. “My husband was a naka kamgaar who worked on construction sites and buildings. He never did any cleaning work. I still can’t understand what must have happened and how he finally accepted a septic tank cleaning, ”says Vimala.
Vimala is certain, however, that it was simply the location of the caste that made it easy for the contractor to push her husband down the “gutter”.
Born in the mochi (shoemaker) community, which is classified as a planned caste in Rajasthan, Vimala says that no one in the family has ever worked as a manual scavenger.
Nita and Bani also say the same thing. Nita’s husband Santosh and Bani’s husband Vishwajit had also only worked as manual workers before this incident. “My husband was a trained plumber. But on days when he couldn’t get a job, he worked as a loader. Cleaning toilets and gutters was taboo, ”says Bani.
It is crucial that none of the three septic tanks had cleaned.
“They were not equipped, their safety was not taken into account, and yet they were sent there to do such dangerous work,” said lawyer Isha Singh. Singh says that women have been wronged on too many levels.
“First, the men were hired by a private contractor for a job they’d never done before. After her death, the police let go of the perpetrators with an ineffective FIR. The state has also shirked its responsibility by abandoning women, ”says Singh.
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When the lawsuit for compensation was filed, the government tried to wriggle out of it. Government spokesman PH Kantharia had drawn attention to the government resolution passed by the state of Maharashtra a few days before the incident, according to which the state would not be liable for damages if such a death occurred while working with a private contractor. The resolution passed by the Ministry of Social Justice on December 12, 2019 stated that the government would only assist in compensating the private contractor.
“This government decision clearly violates the 2014 Supreme Court ruling in the Safai Karamchari Andolan case, which holds the state accountable. It is up to the state to see that this heinous practice is put to an end. If they don’t do that, they have to make sure that the families of those killed are taken care of, ”Singh argued in court.
The three widows say that the compensatory allowance ensures that their children continue their education. Months after the incident, the pandemic broke out and the women relied on charities to survive. Over time, they accumulated. Now Vimala is making imitation jewelry with a relative to make a living. Nita and Bani are domestic servants.
Bani is 28 years old and the youngest of three. Just 20 days before her husband’s death, Bani had given birth to their second child. “I’ve moved three houses since I couldn’t pay the rent. Now I live with my husband’s friend’s family, who were kind enough to accommodate us. This money will at least give us a roof over our heads, ”says Bani.
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This case, says lawyer Singh, is just the beginning of a bigger battle.
“The state must both stop the manual cleanup and take responsibility for rehabilitating families,” said Singh, who is also pending a public interest litigation before the Bombay High Court. As part of her petition, she found out about the number of deaths from cleaning septic tanks and sewers. The Bombay Municipal Corporation had blatantly lied in its response. “It has been claimed that no one has died since 2014,” says Singh.
Similar claims have recently been made by the Ministry of Social Justice and Union Strengthening. In response to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Social Justice Minister Ramdas Athawale claimed that 66,692 people in the country have been identified as manual scavengers, but no deaths from manual scavengers have been reported.
In her petition, Singh called for the 2014 Supreme Court ruling to be implemented. “The Supreme Court has presented an exhaustive list of the measures to be taken. From the establishment of a monitoring committee to the elaboration of a sophisticated restructuring plan. But for this to happen, the states must first recognize that there is a problem. Only then would all of this be possible, ”she says.