“I so wish wish I hadn’t pushed him to go that night”….
Widow Mariam Bibi, mother of six at the age of 32, desperately wishes she could turn the clock back.
“It was about 10pm on Sunday night and we were preparing for bed, so [my husband] Nadeem didn’t want to go at all. But I asked him to check what they wanted because [his supervisor] was threatening not to give him any more work.”
Thirty-eight year old Nadeem had worked as a trash collector for the local Corporation for 16 years. Despite his employee serial number, he was still working as a ‘daily wager’. Sunday was his one day off. But together with Faisal Masih, 28, late on 3 October he was urgently called into work by their supervisor – for emergency clearance of a blocked sewer on the Main Road, Chungi no. 9 in Sargodha, Punjab, about 200 kilometres from Lahore, Pakistan.
Michael Masih, 30, who’d recently been suspended from work for refusing to go down into sewage manholes (because he was already ill after working for weeks in a row) was, surprisingly, also summoned. He was not meant to work until the outcome of his disciplinary hearing.
Michael, both of whose names* betray that he’s a Christian in 96% Muslim Pakistan, explains to World Watch Monitor: “We are trash collectors, officially ‘sanitary workers’, and not even sewer cleaners, but we are forced to work in underground sewer lines without any PPE (personal protective equipment).
“When we arrived, our supervisors forced us to take off our clothes and put on shorts to get down into the manholes. We all three initially refused. But they insisted we would get no more work if we did not do as they demanded.”
Michael recounted that the three started to work in three separate manholes, about 500 feet apart, with other junior workers – also all Christians. “I removed the cover of a 20 foot deep manhole. I wanted to wait for half an hour so the poisonous gases could evaporate. However, only five minutes later, my supervisor Muhammad Amjad came. He insisted that I go down the manhole because there was a lot to do and we couldn’t wait any longer.
It was a wooden ladder down to the sewer line. Michael had to tie rungs with a rope as they were coming loose. “But the last four or five rungs broke under my weight. I fell into the sewage which immediately released gases, sending me unconscious.
“The other workers later told me [the supervisor] shouted at Nadeem and Faisal to rush to rescue me. First Nadeem came down; then Faisal – he was a bit reluctant. They tied my hands with the rope and the juniors above pulled me up. But the knot came loose as I was just a few feet up and I fell again, probably injuring the other two as well. They tied the rope around my waist and the workers successfully pulled me up. Sadly, by then, Faisal and Nadeem were exhausted and also overcome by the poisonous gases.”
By the time Michael was up, Punjab Emergency Service (PES) staff, commonly known as Rescue1122, had arrived with a crane and an ambulance. “They shifted Michael to hospital but refused to go down the manhole because of the noxious fumes, leaving Nadeem and Faisal to die,” said Mariam. (Alerted, she had rushed to the scene – only walking distance from their home).
Several others told World Watch Monitor, on terms of anonymity, that Nadeem and Faisal were still struggling for life when the PES rescuers arrived. After people started pressuring them, the PES staff broke up the manhole entrance to widen it. “Several bricks fell inside, hitting the two,” the eyewitnesses said. “One rescuer, fully-equipped – including a mask attached to an oxygen cylinder – went down a few rungs but returned, blaming the gas.”
Finally another Christian sanitation worker, Shahbaz Masih (38), arrived around 4 am. He descended – without any safety equipment – and brought out the bodies of Nadeem and Faisal.
Anonymous witnesses report that three SMC supervisors had fled the scene while PES staff did not help, even to pull up the bodies. Many witnesses informed WWM that when Shahbaz came up out, he told them Nadeem’s body was floating, while Faisal’s had drowned in the sewage. Mariam confirmed his account to her: “Shahbaz tied Nadeem’s body and others pulled it up. But for Faisal, Shahbaz had to dive into about six foot deep sewage because he’d drowned; almost half his body had entered the sewer pipeline.”
Shahbaz himself, however, refused to directly talk with World Watch Monitor, apparently after being pressured.
Deaths of sanitation workers are not uncommon in Pakistan, but no case for criminal negligence against employers has ever been filed before.
While Muslims from Pakistan’s majority do sometimes become sanitation workers, at times they can refuse some work, saying they cannot observe prayers after coming into contact with excreta or filth.
This plays a role in pushing minority Christians (and sometimes Hindus) into this occupation and the government of Pakistan still often advertises that sanitation jobs are only reserved for non-Muslims.
This is despite the fact that this practice was ruled ‘discriminatory’ six years ago after recommendations by Salman Sufi, of the Special Monitoring Unit of Punjab’s Chief Minister.
Sufi said the step had been taken in the light of the constitutional requirements and Pakistan’s commitment to the Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
Of Sargodha’s 4 million or so population, Christians account for about 1.7 per cent or 65,231. But, as in most of the districts in Punjab, the SMC website shows that most sanitation workers are Christian, dependent for their subsistence on this menial labour. They include not only Mariam and her now-dead husband, but also their 17 year old son Suleman and 27 year old nephew, Faisal. They go out into the dark at night, without headlamps or torches. The sewage workers don’t have dry suits or even steel ladders.
Sanitation workers are mostly actively avoided: no one likes to come close to them, eat or drink, or shake hands with them. A similar incident in 2017 in Umar Kot, about 1,200 kilometres from Sargodha, involved a Christian sanitation worker, Irfan Masih (36), who fell unconscious due to poisonous gases while saving his two co-workers. He died in hospital after doctors refused to touch him because they were fasting and Irfan’s body was smeared with filth.
Mariam believes the rescue service staff acted on the same premise as the doctors in Irfan’s case -especially when Shahbaz, without safety equipment, was finally able to bring the bodies out.
“The PES official oath states the rescuers will ‘treat all victims without any discrimination of caste, region, colour or religion’”. If the rescue staff, who are well-trained and well-equipped, had rescued them in time, my husband would be alive today. That is why, the day we were protesting, we equally demanded action against the PES. It seems they only wanted to avoid close contact with the workers due to social stigma.”
This time, witnesses were so angry at the relevant agencies that they placed the two bodies in the middle of the Main Road and burned tyres, refusing to move them until a criminal case was filed with police by Nadeem’s nephew. (Many of the Pakistani Christian community share ‘Masih’, from Messiah).
To disperse the protesters, Sargodha Assistant Commissioner Omar Daraz Gondal negotiated to accept the families’ demands, including compensation, making those employed by the SMC permanent and benefits such as a widow’s pension for Mariam. This would mean Nadeem would be posthumously given ‘employee’ status; he’d already filed a lawsuit in the Sargodha Service Tribunal against the SMC to regularize him. (It’s a common practice with sanitation workers to keep alive the threat of ‘termination’ in order to force them into the dehumanizing and life-threatening working conditions).
The criminal case was against the SMC three supervisors who had been present, but had fled. Registered with the Satellite Town Police, it invoked Pakistan Penal Code’s Section 322, which under Islamic law requires payment of a diyat (compensation) to the heirs in the case of murder. The Finance Ministry sets the diyat roughly equal to USD 25,000. The case is currently being heard by the Sargodha District and Sessions Judge Imran Shahzad.
“On behalf of Sargodha Commissioner Ms Farah Masood, her deputy Gondal promised she would personally visit us,” Nadeem’s nephew told World Watch Monitor. “He assured us a detailed inquiry would be conducted and the families would be heard, that Ms Masood would provide maximum compensation and punish every culprit responsible. But all the promises proved to be only a tactic to end our protest; we’ve not been included in the inquiry.”
Now, over a month on, Mariam says that they now face the threat of no work if they keep on with their criminal case.
“The SMC Chief Officer Khaliq Dad Gara and union officials have conveyed that I should receive 500,000 rupees (c. USD 3,000) as compensation and not pursue the legal case”. (Faisal’s widow Anam Bibi (17), a mother of two, would get c. USD 11,000 as compensation). “But we are fighting for justice, and it has a cost. Every day, I wake up at 3 am to clean roads so that I can bring bread to our table.
But since Nadeem’s death, I wasn’t able to go to work. My children cannot go to school: we are on the verge of starvation. I borrowed from relatives, thinking I would repay them from Nadeem’s September salary – which would not arrive until the end of October. But the SMC has deducted more than half, saying he took leaves, which is completely false. I think the SMC is sending a message that we shouldn’t try to seek justice or our employment will suffer. I don’t know how to go forward with the case, especially in this state of affairs when they can suspend or terminate me anytime because I’m not a permanent employee.”
If criminal negligence were to be established in court, each family would receive roughly USD 75,000.
“If the case proceeds, the total amount of diyat will be USD 150,000 if each supervisor pays for each victim, as specified in the Pakistan Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC),” said Mary James Gill. The former parliamentarian and rights lawyer, who runs a unique campaign “Sweepers Are Superheroes”, explained to World Watch Monitor “The diyat is quite hefty for Pakistani standards, especially considering a sanitation worker earns less than USD 100 a month. At the same time, we’re not sure if the families would be able to bear the pressure and take the case to its logical end.”
The Sargodha Commissioner’s office has already investigated and found two of the three SMC supervisors and the staff of Punjab Emergency Service (PES) guilty of criminal negligence. (It found the third had only come to meet the other two and had had no part in the ensuing events).
But the criminal case was only filed against the SMC supervisors. If charges were to be pursued against the PES too, the compensation amount would at least double.
World Watch Monitor contacted SMC Chief Officer Gara for his version of events: “Michael was wearing a gas mask but he removed it after entering the manhole. We heard the ladder was broken but we have inspected it and it is not damaged.” He was, however, unable to explain why Nadeem and Faisal were sent down if Michael was already unconscious.
Gara said the Punjab Rescue Service had recently trained the sewage workers. However, defending the inaction of the rescue staff, he said, “The Punjab Emergency Service is not specialized in rescuing workers from a manhole.”
Mariam was angry that “The police did not arrest the suspects; they still perform their duties, despite the SMC officially suspending them. Seeing the culprits roam freely makes us feel how powerless and worthless we are.”
But the Satellite Police Investigation Officer Muhammad Musadiq denied this “The suspects obtained pre-arrest bails and have joined the investigation, so there’s no legal justification to arrest them.” He, however, could not report if any developments had taken place.
Sargodha Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Asghar Joya said the inquiry report had been forwarded to Commissioner Masood. “I know the report found the two SMC supervisors and PES rescue staff guilty of negligence, but I do not know if any action was taken,” Joya told World Watch Monitor.
Joya also pointed out that, since October 17, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had restored a local government system so the Commissioners had not much role to play anymore. “Now, I am much less relevant and the mayor holds power.”
On November 1, Mayor Malik Aslam Naveed visited Mariam and Anam to give them 50,000 rupees (c. USD 300) each. “I believe a sanitation worker is worth more respect than us. I will help the families get justice,” he told World Watch Monitor. “I will further ensure to provide maximum support within my capacity.”
*Many of the Pakistani Christian community share ‘Masih’, from Messiah.