A scene from the short movie "The Manual Scavengers of Mumbai". Image Credit: Screengrab

"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" and began sobbing. The man was yet another poor labourer who died in a Delhi sewer on Friday. His Family did not have money even for cremating him."

Simple yet moving words of a tweet that had since become viral — it shows the depths of human emotions and the reach of today's high-speed social media.

The "Papa" is Anil, 37, who died while working as a "manual scavenger", which in India means those class of people whose tasks include removing human excrement by hand.

The boy is Anil’s eldest son, Gaurav.

Anil is just another casualty in a long line of scavengers who died due to lack of oxygen while cleaning a manhole.

Manual scavenging is a term used mainly in India for a caste-based occupation involving the manual removal of untreated human excreta from bucket toilets or pit latrines — by hand, usually with buckets and shovels.

It has been officially prohibited by law in 1993 due to it being regarded as a dehumanising practice.

But that law seems to exists only on paper. But the practice reinforces the deeply-ingrained culture that millions of Indians are "untouchable", or innately polluted from birth.

Hired hand

Here's how the story was told: Along with 65-year-old contractor Ramesh, Anil was hired by Satbir Kala to clean a sewer in West Delhi’s Dabri. 

Kala gave the workers a rope and asked Ramesh to lower Anil into the sewer by tying it around his waist. 

Ramesh sensed that the rope was weak to sustain Anil’s weight and expressed his anticipation for a mishap. Satbir, however, overheard his concerns and ordered to go ahead with the work.

Midway into the job, the rope broke down and Anil fell deep into the manhole. As the hole was deep and only 70cm in diameter, rescuing Anil took a lot of time. 

The Hindustan Times reported that poisonous gases suffocated Anil to death.  

Journalist Shiv Sunny, HT reporter who sent out the viral tweet, later wrote: "As for the man booked for the death in sewer, he has fled after cops delayed his arrest. The man had complained of high BP after Anil's death & got himself hospitalised. After leaving hospital, he said he would visit the PS (solice station). But he didn't turn up, cops allege."

By the numbers: "Manual scavenging"

■ There are an estimated 1.2 million “manual scavengers” in India, 90 per cent of whom are women. 

■ 20 years: India has banned manual scavenging for last 2 decades

■ 634 deaths related to manual scavenging recorded in 25 years, according to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis data.

■ Despite the ban, India has 53,236 documented “manual scavengers” who handle human waste from latrines or sewers. Their numbers are growing, based on datat from official survey by a federal government task force.

■ A four-fold increase was seen from the 2017 data, made available to Indian media. The data, however, is incomplete as the survey has been carried out in only 121 of the country’s 600 districts.

■  The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act forbids the employment of any person for the task of manual scavenging by any agency or individual.