Mystery shrouds the death of two sanitation labourers, who went to clean an open drain in the Basavanakote village of the Jagalur taluk in the Davanagere district of Karnataka on Monday, 20 March.
What’s worse is the local panchayat offered their families the same cleaning jobs in which the two men died – as compensation to their families.
While a group of villagers associated with the two deceased men — Sathyappa (45) and Mylappa (42) — alleged that they asphyxiated by inhaling toxic fumes or gases from the drain, a few other villagers informed the police that the two had consumed alcohol from a villager’s house nearby and something went fatally wrong with them while they were working.
However, the Bilichodu police from the Jagalur circle of the Harapanahalli sub-division in Davangere registered a case of unnatural death under CrPC Section 174 on Tuesday. CrPC section 174 is invoked for an unnatural death under suspicious circumstances.
The cops did not invoke sections under the Manual Scavenging Act as firstly there was no complaint on that front, and secondly, they said the deaths prima facie did not appear to be of asphyxiation due to toxic fumes from a manhole or a closed drain.
The open drain was only around two feet in depth, and the cause of death from the post-mortem report was crucial in this case, police sources told South First.
“We are awaiting the post-mortem and FSL reports to conclude on the cause of the deaths. However, if anyone comes with a complaint against the village panchayat officials for engaging the labourers in manual scavenging, we will register a case accordingly,” a senior police officer told South First.
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According to the police, the incident happened on Monday when the Basavanakote Gram Panchayat Development Officer (PDO) Shashidhar Patil, with other panchayat members, decided to get the open drains in the village cleaned for the Ugadi festivities.
Due to the recent mango showers, the drains were filled with silt and dirt, causing blockades.
“As there was only one permanent civic worker in the village, Parasappa, the panchayat member asked him to rope in a few more sanitation labourers for the work of cleaning the drains, and the work was going on over the past three days,” Zilla Panchayat CEO Channappa C told South First.
On Monday morning, while three-four labourers were working at an open drain in the village, Sathyappa and Mylappa all suddenly complained of dizziness and fell unconscious.
The panchayat members, who were in a meeting, were immediately informed about the incident. They stopped the meeting midway, rushed to the spot, and shifted both workers to the nearby Arisikere government hospital.
As the workers’ condition worsened, they were shifted to Davanagere district hospital, where the duo failed to respond to treatment. One died at 3.30 pm and another at 6 pm.
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The Bilichodu police were informed about the deaths and the cops went to the spot for conducting an inquiry.
They were apparently told by a few villagers that the two labourers had consumed alcohol at the house of one of the villagers before they started work.
“In the hospital, the doctors said that the two patients had bouts of vomiting and later failed to respond to treatments,” said Channappa, adding: “The Basavanakote village does not have any manhole or closed drain. All we have are open drains, and the police suspect that if the deaths would have been caused by toxic gases out of the drain, it would show up in the post-mortem report and FSL tests.”
A woman panchayat member told the cops that there were four-five people cleaning the drains in the village over the past three days, and only two experienced giddiness because they were drunk and were taken to the hospital, while two-three others were without any symptoms as they were not drunk.
Meanwhile, the village panchayat members invited the ire of the family members and friends of the deceased by promising them two sweeper jobs — one for each family — as there were two sweeper job vacancies in the Basavanakote panchayat.
The family members asked how the panchayat members could offer them the same kind of cleaning jobs in which their breadwinners had lost their lives.
Joined by a few Dalit organisations, they threatened to protest if the village panchayat members did not facilitate a decent compensation package from the government: ₹20 lakh for each of the deceased along with two government jobs for their family members.
A member said that the panchayat could provide compensation only according to guidelines put forth by the state government.