In September 2011, Community Correspondent Rohini Pawar documented the plight of the sewage workers in her village. After two years, her constant efforts have brought the sewage workers the protective gear they had wanted for 20 years. Here is an account of how this slow process unfolded.
“There are four sewage workers employed by the Council of my village, Walhe. The two men and two women have been doing this job for twenty odd years. In all this time the council had flatly refused to give them any kind of protective gear while they worked to keep our village clean.
As is the case across India with sewage workers, the workers in my village also come from the Dalit community. The association of them being ‘impure’ has gotten so hard-wired into society that when their rights get violated, no one gives it a second thought.
With few other options to earn a livelihood they brave the situation, picking up rotting waste and human excreta and cleaning sewers with bare hands and feet. As sewage worker Ganesh Namdeo told me, feeling disgusted or inferior was not an option for them. Changing the practice however, is an option.
After making the video I started trying to get an appointment with the Village Council head. This proved to be a massive challenge. They just would not listen.
Sometimes I would show up at an appointed time and they’d ignore me. When I tried to force my way into the office, I was told to go away.
‘What is your problem? You don’t have to pick up the sewage, so let it be’— is a statement I often heard. Things were stuck. I felt embarrassed when I’d see the sewage workers because I hadn’t managed to get them what I had promised. And then an opportunity arose and we grabbed it.
It was time for a Village-head election in mid-late 2012. Since the present incumbent had proved useless in most matters, people were looking for another candidate to vote for. Kalpana Gole, who was standing for elections, seemed like a promising candidate.
The women’s group I work for promised to vote for her if she could assure us that the sewage workers would get their protective gear. Lucky for us, she did come to power. Though there were still a few obstacles to jump over, like convincing the entire council, I was pretty sure that things would now move fast. In August 2013, the gumboots, gloves and masks were finally distributed.
I know that this is not a war we’ve won, just a battle. In my neighbouring villages alone, there are other sewage workers who continue to work without protective gear. Now that they have heard of the video I made in Walhe, they want support too. So that is now my next project, trying to see how I can mobilise the communities to get proper rights for the sewage workers in neighbouring villages. Hopefully, it will have a ripple effect. One video at a time, that’s how the saying goes right?”