Five men have died after being sent to clean a massive septic tank in New Delhi, India, with no protective gear or special training.
According to the Associated Press, the Indian government has ordered an investigation into the accident, in which the workers were asphyxiated by toxic fumes.
The cleaners were sent to clean a septic tank at a housing complex in the Indian capital on Sunday, Deputy Police Commissioner Monika Bhardwaj told AP. Four men were declared dead on arrival at a nearby hospital, while the fifth died Monday.
The Times of India said two men, named as Sarfaraz and Pankaj, were sent into the 30ft-deep septic tank first, while the others waited outside. The men had only their own clothes to cover their noses and mouths against the overwhelming smell and fumes.
When the two men were not heard from for some time, a second pair—identified as Raja and Umesh—were sent in to find them. When no one came out, the fifth man—Vishal—was told to go and check on his fellow workers.
When he began screaming for help, firefighters and police were called to help get him out. Though Vishal was pulled from the tank alive, he died the following day.
The Times quoted witnesses who claimed the contractor responsible for the job fled the scene before police arrived. The newspaper also said the manager of the complex sewage treatment plant, 33-year-old Ajay Chaudhary, has been arrested as the investigation into the incident continues.
Gopal Rai, India’s labor minister, has requested the results of the inquiry to be presented within the next three days. She told AP the government intends to pursue criminal charges against anyone found to be responsible for the deaths.
The complex is managed by a company called DLF Capital Greens, but the company said sanitation is the responsibility of a firm named JLL, whose representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Though a 2013 law banned workers in India from clearing septic tanks of solid waste by hand, such jobs are still carried out by members of the country’s lower castes. The law said such work was “dehumanizing” and the results of a “highly iniquitous caste system.” Despite the new law, around 40 people in Delhi die each month while clearing septic tanks by hand, according to The Independent.
Vishal’s sister told the Indian Express her brother had been hired as a cleaner for a private company with a salary of 12,000 rupees ($165) per month. But she stressed his job was not to go inside the tanks, and suggested someone must have forced him to do so.
Bezwada Wilson of the Sanitation Workers Movement group told AP more than 1,800 Indians have died in such situations since the country’s Supreme Court issued a 2014 ruling to strengthen the 2013 legislation. “Those in power are not taking these events seriously,” Wilson warned.