Monish Waghela, a 17-year-old boy, describes the nightmare he had gone through during the time he cleaned public toilets on a temporary basis during Wari, a cultural and religious festival. It takes place in Pandharpur, which is 350 kms away from Mumbai. Over 15 lakh devotees visit the pilgrimage centre during those 15-20 days.
Monish, says “I was having difficulty breathing throughout 13 days while cleaning human waste on the first floor of Darshan Mandap that is outside the Vithal Temple. The contractor who hired me did not provide any equipment like a facemask, gloves or boots and I had to clean 7-10 toilets, 3-4 times a day, for 13 days.” Unaware that he should not have been hired as labour and also not to be told to clean human waste that is banned under The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 or M.S. Act 2013, Monish, is now just waiting for ₹3,900 for the work he had done.
“He was later admitted to a hospital due to fever and cold. We had to spend over ₹1,000 for two days in a hospital,” says Vatsala, his grandmother, who was also sweeper with Pandharpur Municipal Council. She says after the death of her son, her eldest grandson Monish keeps taking up odd jobs to support the family of her four grandkids and daughter-in-law.
“15 lakh devotees visited Pandharpur during those 15 days. Beside 30,000 devotees visiting the town on weekends, festivals and so on. Overall one crore devotees visit Padharpur every year. This year we have availed 5,732 public toilets that include 4,339 permanent and remaining 1,393 mobile toilets. For that, we have hired 937 labours in addition to our permanent staff of 353 to clean the city. Cleaning includes sweeping city and also cleaning toilets,” Dr Sangram Gaikwad, head of Health Department of Pandharpur Municipal Council. He said, “We have procured face masks, gumboots, gloves to each and every labour.”
But sweepers who were employed to clean toilets have a different story to tell. Dipak Goel, a 19 years old school dropout and a resident of Gujarat Colony, had also cleaned human waste at the first floor of Darshan Mandap for 13 days. He said, “Without equipment, I had to clean toilets that included human waste.” Pawan Solanki, 17 years old, was also another boy employed for the same work during Wari.
Guru Dodiya, a sweeper with Pandharpur Municipal Council on a permanent basis, and a social worker said, “the council claims that there are no manual scavengers. But the ground reality is in contrast to it. They call us a sweeper or cleaner or safai karmachari. But what we do is cleaning human waste at public toilets unlike earlier when we would do it at open spaces.”
He added, “Due to extreme load at the permanently built public toilets on 65 acres beyond the river, manholes and chambers get overflowed. Human waste starts flowing on the road and can move towards the river. To avoid that, all sweepers- permanent and temporary, have to get down into drainage lines connected to public toilets. This overflow happens 8-10 times a day for 15 days of Wari.”
He added, “This gumboot and mask have become a photo opportunity for the council. It floats tenders of a crore or more, and they click photos with all equipment. But most of the sweepers don’t get a single equipment.”
Pawan Solanki, 17, is another sweeper who was hired temporarily. He said, “Nobody uses public toilets properly, and human waste is spread in toilets and around toilets. Who cleans it? We do that. The council claims that we have availed toilets, but that doesn’t mean manual scavenging has become a thing of the past. It is still a reality for us.”
Dodiya added, “We have three well-educated boys, and they have studied MA, BA. But the PMC employed them as sweepers. When we asked why don’t they hire these educated boys as clerks or peons, they answer who will clean the city then?”
Pradip More of Campaign against Manual Scavenging, said, “We carried out a survey this year during Wari and found out 306 women were temporarily hired to clean toilets and areas around the toilets. Local Mehtar community that has been doing this work for generations has become aware of their rights, and hence many of them tend to deny that work. Hence the council through contractors had hired women from nearby blocks who were in need of money. But the council or contractor didn’t provide basic facilities to them.”
Dilip Hathibed, member of Safai Karmachari Commission at the national level, said, “Manual scavenging is the crime under MS Act. We will do enquiry. If people have videos and photos, then they can come forward to give them to us. If anybody is found guilty, we will recommend punishment under the act. That can be officials from the Municipal Council.”