Son’s reaction to sewer cleaner’s death sparks outrage in India

Photographs of a boy crying next to the body of his father who died while cleaning a sewer last week in India prompted social media users to raise nearly $70,000 to support the family.

The photos, tweeted by a New Delhi-based journalist on Monday, showed the 11-year-old child sobbing next to his father Anil at a local crematorium.

A “manual scavenger” – or worker who cleans sewers by hand and often without proper equipment –
Anil died on Friday when the rope around his waist snapped, causing his fall into the seven-metre deep sewer. Police told the local media the rope was unable to bear his weight.

“The boy walked up to his father’s body at a crematorium, moved the sheet from the face, held the cheeks with both hands, just said ‘papa’ & began sobbing,” posted journalist Shiv Sunny, who works for an English-language newspaper in New Delhi, along with the photographs on Twitter.

“The man was yet another poor labourer who died in a Delhi sewer on Friday. Family did not have money for cremating him,” the journalist added in his post, which was shared more than 15,000 times so far.

Local media reports said 37-year-old Anil was the only earning member in his family and is survived by his wife and three children. The family lost an infant daughter to pneunomia last week.

Anger and sympathy

The death of yet another manual scavenger, a practice that continues in India despite a 2013 Supreme Court ban, angered many in India. At least six such deaths occurred in New Delhi last week, 11 across the country.

A report released earlier this week by the National Commission for Safai Karamacharis, a government agency, said one manual scavenger has died every five days in India since January 1, 2017.

As soon as Sunny posted the photos on Twitter, social media users began writing back to him, asking how they could help the family. He shared their bank details, and as more people, including a famous film actor, shared his post, money started trickling in.

Soon, a crowdfunding campaign was launched by Rahul Verma, founder of a non-government organisation called Uday Foundation, with the help of Ketto, a crowdfunding platform. He said the campaign has so far raised nearly $70,000 (five million rupees).

“When I saw the pictures on Twitter, I got in touch with Anil’s son. That little boy used to stay near that open manhole in the sewer, guarding his dad’s clothes and shoes. For him, the sewer was his dad’s office. His words horrified me,” Verma told Al Jazeera.

“People were getting emotional online, but my main concern was: there is no bread-earner left, what happens to this child, this family? Our attention spans are limited. I thought people might move on after 24-48 hours of outrage. So, I thought we must raise funds immediately so that this boy’s childhood is not lost,” he said.

Activist Bezwada Wilson, who launched the Safai Karmachari Andolan – a campaign against manual scavenging – in 1995, told Al Jazeera there is no political will to end the practice, which primarily engages the lowest rungs of the Dalit caste.

“There is a law in place but nobody will punish anyone here. Law enforcement is weak because there is no political will. Budget allocation shows sanitation workers are not a priority at all,” said Wilson.

“It’s getting difficult for this community to survive because they are already marginalised. Any person can call for a worker to clean their sewers. Neither can they refuse to work nor are they safe in those manholes. This is a vicious circle. In the past four years, more than 1000 people across India have died while cleaning sewers,” he added.

Verma added: “I shudder to think about what happens to other families when such deaths occur away from the media glare.”

Zeenat Saberin contributed to this report from New Delhi

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