“They don’t allow us to touch because our hands and feet are dirty. They say we stink. They yell at us, hit us, ask us to go away.” Nana Kale recounts how he is treated after working at his job: cleaning the sewers of Mumbai, before the monsoons. He travelled nearly 500 kilometers, with his wife and two-year-old daughter, to work in the city-wide cleanup to prevent floods in Mumbai. Employed by contractors under the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), he is compelled to enter the sewers without gas masks, protective gloves, shoes and suit. He picks up plastic and solid refuse with his hands and de-silts the drain using a spade and his bare hand. His wife helps him while their daughter plays around in the putrid black water, inhaling the noxious fumes of methane, ammonia and other gases. “She had once fallen inside the gutter. The contractor was right there, but he didn’t do anything. He said keep her away. Where will this child go?” says Nana Kale.
Under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, employing individuals, directly or indirectly, to manually clean sewers, without protective gears or other cleaning equipment, is a punishable criminal offence. In December 2016, ruling in favour of contractual sanitation workers under the BMC, the Bombay High Court ruled: “Residents of the city have a fundamental right to a clean environment… But in a welfare state, cleanliness for one class of citizens cannot be achieved by engaging in ‘slavery’ of the others.”
And yet, this blatant criminal practice continues with impunity. Nana Kale is among the thousands of migrant workers who get brought to the city by the contractors on the meagre wage of ₹300 per day. Not only do they not have protective gear, they are also responsible for medical costs if they happen to get injured or fall ill.
Abdul Shaikh is a subcontractor who oversees the work of the sanitation workers. “Our only responsibility is to see that they work well. Contractors do not give any safety equipment, nor do they provide any facility like shelter, food or even water. If they fall ill doing this filthy job they are asked to go to the municipal hospital. But even that, only after the work is over or their wages are deducted. People will starve if their wages are reduced, the pay is so low. For this kind of work even ₹1000 per day is too little,” he feels.
The BMC is India’s richest civic body with a budget exceeding ₹25,000 crores. Can it really not take better care of those who perform such an essential job for the city? Are the lives of these sanitation workers dispensable because they are Dalits? According to BMC’s own admission, 1386 conservancy workers have died in the six years since 2009. Research reveals the appalling life expectancy of conservancy workers – only 52 years. As Abdul Shaikh eloquently puts it, “Modi ji talks about Swachh Bharat. But I want to ask this government, is the cleanliness of the streets the only important thing? What about the people who do this work?” Through the Swachh Bharat Cess, the government collected over ₹9000 crores till October 2016. And yet, the plight of sewer workers remains unchanged.
The floods in Mumbai, less than a month back, receded within a day, thanks to the efforts of these migrant workers. We have seen a lot of outrage against the BMC over lives lost in the flood, and a lot has been said about the ‘spirit of Mumbai’. But as we congratulate each other over social media about the generosity of the Mumbaikars’ spirit, spare a thought for the 12-year-old Anil who has to be submerged waist-deep in the sewers all day, cleaning up after all of us.
90 conservancy workers have already died this year. But it’s not just the noxious gases and putrefying sludge that’s killing them – it’s also our apathy as we turn our faces away from this catastrophic human tragedy.
This post was first published on Video Volunteers’ blog.