"He said that we would decide today's dinner once he was back home, but he never returned."
On December 24, 2019, three sanitation workers entered a septic tank in a private housing society in Mumbai, never to return alive.
Two years later, the Bombay High Court granted compensation to the wives of these men, who succumbed to the evil practice of manual scavenging
Bar & Bench reached out to Vimla Govind, one of the three widows who fought the battle before the High Court and got justice after nearly two years.
A December day that changed everything
On that fateful day, at around 7:00 PM, Vimla, Nita and Bani came to know that they had lost their husbands - Govind, Santosh and Vishwajeet.
"I was waiting for my husband to return home, but apparently he never came back. We rushed to the local hospital and two of us (me and Nita) fainted in the hospital."
Bani was pregnant at the time.
A ray of hope from the Bombay High Court
On September 17, the Bombay High Court directed the District Collector of Mumbai Suburban to award compensation of ₹10 lakh each to the three widows of three deceased manual scavengers.
The Bench of Justices Ujjal Bhuyan and Madhav Jamdar also directed the Maharashtra government to ensure that the "shameful practice of manual scavenging" is discontinued at the earliest.
"Despite strict legislative intent, this shameful practice continues and this should shock the collective conscience of the society,” the Bench remarked.
The Court also asked the State to apprise it about the status of the first information report (FIR) lodged by police in relation to the these deaths. The matter has been kept pending to monitor the issue to ensure that the Court's orders are implemented.
On being asked about the compensation order, Vimla says that the "fight was never about money."
"We never wanted money, we want justice for our husband(s) and hope the same for those who are struggling to get it."
He died like a martyr, I hope many widows like me get justice
On being asked about her husband's unfortunate death, Vimla said,
"He died like a martyr for us and I hope many widows like me get justice. It's high time now. If we remain silent, then no one will come forward to help."
On the issue of manual scavenging, she says that it is disheartening that people are forcing poor workers into such septic tanks, for money.
"This practice is already prohibited under the law, as far as my lawyer told me. It is cruel that some rich people send poor labourers like us under the ground, just in exchange of some money.
My husband was a very noble soul and he would've never did anything for money, I can count on that," she added.
While expressing grave concern over the non-implementation of safety measures, Vimla alleged that all three men who went into the septic tank/gas chamber were not provided basic safety gear.
"My husband was a simple man who used to take up small contracts. He never went down into a septic tank before, neither did the other two. No safety gear was provided. When we saw our husband(s) in the hospital, they were partially naked," added Vimla.
Thankful to the lawyers
The petition before the Bombay High Court was filed by Advocates Isha Singh and Abha Singh.
"Due to gross violation of law on the Maharashtra government's part, the petitioners lost their primary breadwinners and were rendered without livelihood jeopardising the family's future," the plea filed before the High Court stated.
On being asked about their legal battle, Vimla said that from day one, they had all the support from their lawyers.
"There are very few people who actually keep their promises. Everyone says that we are there for you, but in reality no one is there. We are really thankful to our advocates (Isha Singh and Abha Singh) who made this possible."
Isha Singh took a dim view of the averment of the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in Parliament that no persons have died from manual scavenging. She said,
"Parliament saying that no persons have died while cleaning septic tanks and sewers leads to erasure of struggles faced by safai karamcharis. Data from the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis reveals that Maharashtra has never paid the ₹10 lakh compensation, as mandated by the Supreme Court in Safai Karamchari Andolan v. Union of India, in any case before this. Hopefully, this will encourage safai karamcharis across the country to approach their respective High Courts and District Collectors to secure their rights under the law."
'Mere liye baccho ki education sabse important hain'
Vimla has three children - one girl and two boys - who have been partially struggling to get stable education.
"Mere liye baccho ki education sabse important hain," she said, (For me the most important thing is my children(s) education)
Bani has two children, one boy who was 20 days old when her husband died, and one girl. Nita has two children, both boys.
While applauding the Bombay High Court order, Vimla laid emphasis on the fact that there are thousands of widows who are still struggling to get justice.
"We are poor people and we have to speak up for ourselves. I don't want money to be honest, I want to get justice."