An official in India was recorded on video telling a man that he should sell his wife if he cannot afford a toilet. Time

NEW DELHI — Chandra Kanta shudders when she thinks about how she will explain her son's death someday to her 6-month-old granddaughter. 

Mohanlal Kanta, 22, died from asphyxiation in August while cleaning a blocked sewer line without a gas mask or other protective gear, as required by laws rarely enforced. 

“The police came to our house with Mohanlal’s photo and said there had been an accident,” said Kanta, holding her granddaughter on her lap. “They didn’t mention anything about criminal charges against his employer for letting him work in violation of safety rules. 

Mohanlal is the latest victim of widely flouted laws that have led to at least 750 deaths across India since "manual scavenging" was outlawed in 1993, including 75 this year. The large human toll casts a light on the deplorable working conditions here — even in the capital. 

In 2013, the Indian government increased penalties up to $7,700 in fines and five years in prison for employers who let their workers clean human solid waste by hand or build latrines that require manual maintenance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has launched a massive Clean India campaign that has built more than 80 million latrines to improve public health by discouraging Indians from relieving themselves in the open.

But the plight of sewer and latrine cleaners remains largely unchanged, said activist Bewazda Wilson of the non-profit Sanitation Workers Movement.


...  it’s an open secret that government agencies — in this case the Delhi Water Board — regularly employ contractors knowing they send people into sewers to clean illegally, Wilson said. 

Modi's government aims to build 210 million latrines by 2019. But the government has not improved sewage systems at the same pace. Even before the project began, only a third of urban toilets were connected to sewer lines. Many of them dump directly into rivers and canals. That’s already causing environmental problems, in addition to harming the cleaners.

“Urban India is already floating on sludge,” said Mamata Dash of WaterAid India, an aid organization with offices across India. “The problem has only increased many fold.”