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Labour Day: The Invisible and Dispensable Lives behind Swachh Bharat

Sanitation workers often resort to consuming alcohol to become numb to the stench of drains. All they get in return?  Delayed wages and stigma. Reena Ramteke reports on the scenes behind Swachh Bharat hoardings and songs.

To commemorate the hundredth year of the Champaran Satyagraha, the government recently held an eight-day-long extravaganza celebrating ‘Saytagraha to Swachhagraha’. The mega event marked the journey from Gandhi’s non-violent movement against colonial rule to the movement for sanitation for all, carried out under the banner of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or the Clean India Campaign. At the event, PM Modi addressed a gathering of 20,000 swachhagrahis or cleanliness ambassadors who are voluntary but paid community influencers amidst other Swachh Bharat employees and dignitaries; but none of them were actually sanitation workers and labourers, the invisible foot soldiers of the government’s flagship campaign.

Far from the tent-city of Swachhagram that was set up in Champaran for the event, Community Correspondent Reena Ramteke talks to a group of sanitation workers in Gariyaband, Chhattisgarh. These workers have little financial security, only conditional insurance in case of injury and illness and no access to information about their rights. And the stigma that sanitation workers face, doubly so because they also mostly come from the lowest rung of the caste hierarchy, is well known.

Mohan cleans the public drains of Gariyaband, unclogging them with a spade and his bare hands; on some days, he is also required to clean government offices if asked to. On paper, sanitation workers in the district are entitled to 9000 rupees a month, but they actually get around 6000 rupees, 33 percent less than their rightful pay. And this salary can come up to 25 days late, according to Mahesh Gupta, a labour supply contractor in the district whom Reena spoke to.

Gupta also says that the workers have an insurance cover under the ESIC (Employee’s State Insurance Corporation). But it works only if they contribute to the fund on a regular basis for two years; earlier, the rule mandated six months of regular deposits to the fund as opposed to two years. With salaries coming in almost a month late, and never in entirety, it is difficult for workers to set aside enough for the insurance scheme. The net result is that most medical expenses have to be taken care of by the workers themselves while government officials and contractors don’t even take preventive measures.

How often are workers given information about various schemes and safeguards anyway? The workers Reena spoke to didn’t seem to have any access to such information. In a similar report from Mumbai, Community Correspondent Amol Lalzare found that not only workers but even many contractors don’t seem to know what the law says about the rights and welfare of sanitation workers.

Reena asked workers and their employers the same set of questions-- whether workers are given protective gear. While the employers were convinced that they provide workers with gloves and masks, the workers replied with a resounding no.

“We only get our wages,” says Mohan when Reena asks him what he gets to do the work that he does.

The workers in Gariyaband have not been given any information about the rights and safeguards that they are entitled to, or even the protective gear they must have. News about awareness programmes designed for workers under the campaign seem to be few and far between.

Awareness campaigns aimed at government schools and citizens, at large, have been a staple though, especially on days like Gandhi Jayanti. Public addresses, too, abound. People, especially children, are “sensitised” to the importance of sanitation and told about Gandhi’s dream of a clean India. But there is little talk and sensitisation to the working conditions of the frontline workers.

Meanwhile, workers like Mohan resort to consuming alcohol to become numb to the stench that arises out of the drains.

In Amol’s report from Mumbai, migrant workers who save the city from being inundated with drain water and sewage, talk about how people call them dirty and even refuse to give them water. In another report from Nashik, informal waste pickers complain about people setting their dogs after them. The waste-pickers did not even have identity cards that entitled them to some protection for the longest time.

“Is Swachh Bharat only about clean roads? What about the people who keep them clean?” asks Abdul Shaikh, a contractor from Mumbai.

While photo-ops abound, the faceless workers behind the campaign appear to make news only in case of dramatic manhole deaths. Other slow and untimely deaths fail to even make news.

When Reena asks Mohan if he has considered taking up some other work, he says, with uncertainty, that he has never really worked anywhere else. With abysmal incomes and the stigma attached to their work and caste status, sanitation workers, especially manual scavengers (a practice outlawed only on paper), do not have access to jobs that may give them a life of better socio-economic opportunities and dignity of labour.

Moreover, for all the media hullabaloo around the milestones that the sanitation campaign has purportedly reached, the government has slashed down the budget for rehabilitation of manual scavengers from 448 crores to a mere five crores.

Swachh Bharat vans playing the theme song looking forward to “the festival of sanitation” are a common sight, especially in urban neighbourhoods. But if workers’ rights are not addressed, it is merely a celebration of empty rhetoric that overlooks rampant untouchability and stigma.

Reena is taking the demands of the workers to the Municipal Corporation of Gariyaband, asking for appropriate protective gear for contract-based workers and a health allowance. She is also helping them demand proper appointment letters when they are hired, permanent status as employees for financial security and proper reasons in case their services are abruptly terminated. Support the workers by calling the Municipal Commissioner of Gariyaband, J.B.S. Chauhan, at +91-7771819272 and urging him to meet the demands.

Video by Community Correspondent Reena Ramteke

Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team


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