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The Protectors Of Humanity - Deep into the Pit Surrounding

  0 comments   |     by Sheshu Babu

Deep into the pit
Surrounding dark sewage and dirt
With nauseated stench
Whole body drench
With human urination
And defecation
Manual scavengers clean
Risking lives
Leaving family bonds

Sitting in cozy toilets
And air-conditioned rooms
Pass our wastage
Into long winding drainage

We talk of technology
Development and ecology
With their bare hands, legs and misery
And no help of machinery
Work hard for their living
Dreaming of their families blossoming
We lack sympathy and sensitivity
For the protectors of humanity

(In memory of safai karmacharis who lost their lives in cleaning septic tanks)

Sheshu Babu is a writer from anywhere and everywhere

Do you know who are Karamacharis in India ?. Read this


By Sindhu Menon

The state of Gujarat is frequently cited as one of the most developed states in India but that hasn’t stopped some of its inhabitants being condemned to medieval lives.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Creation of Dry Latrines Act of 1993 finally made the “the world’s worst job” – the manual cleaning of non-flush toilets (also known as manual scavenging) – illegal.

To strengthen it, last year a new law was passed to make local authorities directly responsible for its implementation.

However, there are still hundreds of thousands of ‘night soil workers’ in India – those who physically remove human excrement from ‘dry’ toilets.

And there are millions more who perform the task of clearing human waste and general refuse by hand.

This work is usually performed by the ‘lower-class’ Dalit community. In Gujarat, the work is done by the Valmikis (also known as bhangis).

Around 80,000 Valmiki families help keep Gujarat clean: they sweep roads, clean sewage drains and public toilets, manually removing human excreta.

Hitendra Kumar Purushotam Das, also known as Hiten, is one of them.

He is employed as a sanitation worker, a safai karmachari, by the Ahmadabad Municipal Corporation (AMC).

His wife Maheshwari, brother and sister-in-law are also safai karmacharis.

“We are the ones who clean the city and keep the people away from diseases, but people shoo us away because of our caste.”

According to the 1993 Act, the employment of workers to remove or carry human excreta, or to construct dry latrines without proper drainage facilities, can lead to imprisonment of up to one year and/or a fine up to 2,000 rupees (US$33).

The 2013 Act has extended the prison term to up to five years and the fine to up to 500,000 rupees (US$8300).

But this hasn’t stopped the centuries-old practice from existing, or seeping into more conventional forms of waste disposal work.


Denials and discrimination

Sanitation is a major issue in India. According to World Bank data, 10 per cent (768,000) of all deaths in India are related to poor sanitation.

In addition, over 600 million people without access to proper sanitation are thought to practice open defecation in India.

In cities across India, the practice of sending safai karmacharis to unclog filthy gutters without any protective gear is still common. And these workers are either directly employed or contracted by state governments.

The work is dirty and dangerous. Every year, thousands of Dalit sewage cleaners die in accidents or from exposure to noxious gases like carbon monoxide.

The state government denies that there are people still working as manual scavengers in Gujarat, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

“Manholes are being cleaned by people, and deaths are happening. When the government itself takes a defensive step on this issue, how can manual scavenging ever be wiped out from the country?” asks Bezwada Wilson, who heads Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA), one of the NGOs leading the fight against manual scavenging in India.

According to the Indian constitution, it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their caste but it is not by chance that most people in India involved in sanitation are from the Dalit community.

And the work they do is difficult, dangerous and degrading.

“Our work starts at 6.30am,” says Hiten.

“We clean the roads and public toilets. Defecation outside the toilets is a common practice – we have to clean that as well.”

Hiten says the workers are often badly treated by members of the public – and their employers.

“Things become unbearable when we are abused. People call us bad names based on our caste. Our women colleagues are also not spared from such abuses,” he says.

Earlier this year, Hiten and 5000 of his AMC colleagues went on strike for 28 days, turning the textile heartland of Gujarat into a land of accumulated waste and filth.

They were striking for a living minimum wages, weekly days offs and protection against the oppression and indignities that go with the job.

“The AMC has a policy which emphasises that any contract worker will be given the same wages as regular employees. But, for the last two decades, safai karmacharis on contract were paid 100 rupees (US$ 1.63) for four hours of work and 200 rupees (US$ 3.35) for eight hours,” says Amrish N Patel, the secretary of Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha (GMS), the trade union which led the strike.

“But there are workers, whose service experience varies from seven to 22 years, who work still on contract, without any entitlement of regularity of job, provident fund (pension) or weekly paid days off,” he says.


Job insecurity and poverty wages

Hiten has worked for AMC for nine years but he is still on a temporary contract, as is the case for many of his colleagues. This, he says, has a major impact on the lives of safai karmacharis.

“I am lucky enough to have a small house of my own, but a large number of my colleagues live in pitiful conditions. There are around 2000 Dalits here who live in slums without any running water or proper toilets,” says Hiten.

Another worker who asked to remain anonymous told Equal Times that they are forced to work long days without any breaks.

“We work for 26 days, with four compulsory days off. But off days means no wages for us. How can we think of moving to a better place when we struggle daily to make ends meet?”

Education is also an issue for the children of safai karmacharis.

“Our children refuse to attend school, saying ‘to carry and clean garbage we only need to learn how to use the broom,’” says Hiten.

Traditionally, the children of sanitation workers are discouraged by society as well as their own families from going to school as the expectation is that they will follow their parents’ footsteps.

“But, our 28-day agitation has opened the eyes of the majority. It will help change this attitude,” says Patel.

The strike, which began on 31 December 2013, was finally called off on 28 January 2014, after the union came to an interim agreement with government officials.

But not before workers and union leaders endured several arrests at the beginning of the strike and threats throughout.

In the end, AMC officials promised a number of concessions: a wage hike for both full-time and part-time workers of 1500 rupees (US$25) and 750 rupees (US$12), respectively; four paid days off monthly; and permanent contracts for all full-time workers, as well as full-time work for part-time workers.

On one hand, the strike was a massive success. It was great example of unity and solidarity amongst workers, according to GMS, and their peaceful demonstrations managed to garner the support of other organised workers across the city.

But Patel is reluctant to say the battle is over for Ahmadabad’s safai karmacharis.

“We consider the strike as only a partial success. The positive stand taken by AMC should be taken with a pinch of salt. Elections are coming and the acceptance of demands could be an election gimmick,” he says.

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