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Death of three workers in Surat sewerage plant: What's there to investigate now, wonder NGOs

By Our Representative
No sooner the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) constituted a committee to "investigate" if there was  negligence on part of the contractor, Enviro Control Associates, operating the sewage treatment plant (STP) at Singanpore, where three contract labourers died on July 9 because of suffocation in a chamber of the plant, voluntary organisations fighting for the cause of manual scavengers in Gujarat have declared it is an "eye-wash." The committee consists of three members -- city engineer Jatin Shah, former city engineer V D Patel and associate professor of L D Engineer College, C G Bhagchandan.
In a statement issued in the wake of the constitution of the committee on Sunday, Kamdar Swasthya Suraksha Mandal (KSSM) said "there is nothing to investigate", as the death has taken place as a result of negligence on the part of the the contractors. KSSM's Hoslaprasad Mishra added, "The KSSM and other organisations fighting for the cause of the manual scavengers have decided to come together and press on action against the culprits. We will go public with our demands. The committee has little meaning, as the contractor allowed workers to enter the chamber without protective instruments."
Four labourers had suffered poisonous effects of hydrogen sulphide and ethane gases. They had gone inside the 10-feet concrete chamber to open the valve placed near the clarifier at the STP. One of the labourers was shifted to a private hospital, where his condition has been described as "stable." Already, the Enviro Control Associates has admitted that he did not equip workers with proper breathing apparatus and other safety equipment at the plant. With the death of these three workers, the total number of who have died because of suffocation poisonous gas in sewerage facilities has reached 86 since 2005.
The death of the workers in Surat comes close on the heels of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) notice on the Gujarat government over the latter’s failure to pay compensation payable against the death of gutter workers in the state. The notice asked Gujarat chief secretary Varesh Sinha to provide “complete details” on why compensation has still not been paid to the kin of as many as 29 safai kamdars. Under an August 2009 notification, the Gujarat government was obliged increase the payment from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 2 lakh to the kin of those gutter workers who die on duty.
The NHRC notice is based on a complaint filed by a state-based NGO, Navsarjan Trust, which had complained that, between 2005 and 2012, as many as 80 gutter workers had died in the state while on work due to suffocation they suffered from on entering the underground gutters. Yet, so far, compensation had not  been paid to 29 workers. “This has come to light in a Right to Information (RTI) application filed by us", the trust‘s.senior activist Kirit Rathod said.
In 2013, as many as six more workers have already died due to suffocation -- one in the state capital, Gandhinagar on March 23, 2013, the second one in Godhra on April 20, 2013, the third in Gandhidham, at the Kandla Port Trust, on June 8, 2013, and three others in Surat a few days back. This has taken the total number of gutter workers against whom no compensation has not been paid to 36. Rathod made his complaint to NHRC on June 16, 2013, which made NHRC to issue the notice.
“In all, nine gutter workers die every year in Gujarat. The highest number of deaths have taken place in Ahmedabad, 18. We have been told that cases for paying compensation are pending before the Safai Kamdar Development Corporation“, Rathod said, adding, “In all there are 50,000 safai kamdars in Gujarat. There is a sizeable number of them who work as gutter cleaners. There are few who work even as manual scavengers, continuing with the despicable practice of cleaning nigh soil.”

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