Ground Report: What Does a Day in the Life of a Sanitation Worker in Delhi Really Look Like?
“Some years ago, I went down a sewerage pipeline. I felt I was suffocating. I would have died if I had been down there for another 10-15 minutes.”
“Imagine going to work every day with the uncertainty of losing your job, when you have an entire family to look after. This fear of being sacked forces us into more exploitative positions,” says thirty-eight-year old Suresh, a sanitation worker who lives in Kusumpur Pahadi, a slum near south Delhi’s upscale Vasant Vihar area.
Suresh, along with many others in the area, has been working under a sanitation contractor for over a decade now. They are among thousands of men and women, mostly Dalits, who are forced to live in filthy conditions without basic amenities at Kusumpur Pahadi. Almost all of them have migrated to Delhi from across the country and are all involved in some kind of sanitation work.
Since 2014, the Narendra Modi government has emphasised on building toilets and cleaning public spaces under the Swachh Bharat Mission. However, the government has failed to improve or even acknowledge the working conditions of sanitation workers, when millions of them are the key to making the much-hyped programme successful.
Exploitation of Contractual Workers
A regularised sanitation worker, who works for the Municipal Corporation Of Delhi, revealed on condition of anonymity that he gets a salary of Rs 24,372 rupees per month.
However, a large proportion of sanitation workers are employed by contractors working for municipal corporations. This arrangement breeds exploitation as most workers earn less than half of what they would if they were employed directly by the corporation.
The sole bread winner of her family, thirty-six-year-old Urmila had her contract terminated by Messors Rakshak Security in October 2018. The contractor cited unfair behaviour and ‘involvement in union activity’ to terminate her services.
Urmila had been working at the Jawaharlal Nehru University since 2005 where she cleaned the toilets and swept the floors of Shipra Hostel.
Explaining that she had been fighting for basic rights for a long time, Urmila told NewsCentral24x7, “Initially I was getting paid much below the minimum wage. After several protests and strikes, the contractor increased our salary to 11,000 per month in 2012, which is still a pittance.”
“On 17 September 2018, the court ordered to give us paid leave, sick leave, bonus, weekly paid leave and equal payment. When we demanded these benefits from our contractor, he terminated our contract,” she added.
Along with her colleagues, Urmila has filed a case against the contractor. Last month, the court-ordered reconciliation failed. The case is now pending before the Industrial tribunal. Urmila feels confident about winning the case.
“Most of us are unaware of the terms and conditions of our employment because at the University and everywhere else, the contracts are given without making us aware about our rights. This is structural exploitation,” she said.
Urmila is unimpressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s gesture of washing the feet of sanitation workers during the Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj. She says “Sab dikhawa tha (It was all for show).”
She said that the Swachh Bharat Campaign has mostly been about politicians and higher officials taking selfies, not putting an iota of effort to improve the conditions of sanitation workers.
Forty-one-year-old Sunita lives in a slum area called Bandhu Camp, with her 23-year-old unemployed son, Rohit. Sunita too started working at JNU in 2006. Along with Urmila, she was also sacked by the contractor for demanding basic rights.
“We (Sunita & Urmila) haven’t got our salary for the last four months. It is becoming almost impossible to look after my family,” she told NewsCentral 24×7.
Many such workers have been working on contractual basis for years, in the hope that one day the fear, exploitation and intimidation that they face will end and they will finally get jobs with more dignity. They now feel cheated by the Modi-led government.
Health & Welfare of Sanitation Workers Nobody’s Priority
Health is a major concern for sanitation workers. Some of the common ailments they face are skin infection, malaria, dengue, back and knee pain, asthma and tuberculosis.
As reported by The Indian Express, municipal corporation data shows that as many as 2,403 sanitation workers died in Delhi alone, in the last five years, before reaching the age of retirement.
“Some years ago, I went down a sewerage pipeline. I felt I was suffocating. I would have died if I had been down there for another 10-15 minutes,” said Jeevan (name changed), who does not want to reveal his identity fearing that his contractor might sack him.
Jeevan told NewsCentral24x7, “I often suffer from throat, skin and eye irritation. When we go to the hospital they give us two anti-irritant tablets that costs 2-3 rupees. That’s it. Once the hospital learns that we are sanitation workers, they mistreat us.”
He adds that contractors don’t provide the workers with safety gear. “I know it is prohibited by law but when septic tanks or sewer lines are blocked, we have to clear them. We are not provided adequate equipment. When we protest, they only give us shoes,” he said.
Jeevan explained that the conditions of sanitation workers does not feature on the government’s priorities. “It is all a matter of priority. We are making rockets, but so far we have not shown any willingness to make a machine which ensures that no human being has to descend into a manhole to clear the clogged pipes,” he said.
Forty-six-year-old Amit told NewsCentral24x7 that even the few times that masks and gloves are provided by employers, they are of poor quality and not user-friendly.
Amit lives in Dakshinpuri and works under a contractor named Max Maintenance Limited. He says, “There has been hardly any change in our daily work in the last 9 years.”
Trapped at the Bottom
Thirty-six-years-old Sunil Kumar, who lives in a one-room house with his 3 children, finds it impossible to break out of the profession that he inherited from his father.
“If not this, what are we going to do? I cannot get a job anywhere because of the social stigma attached to my caste,” he told NewsCentral24x7.
Kumar is not a fan of PM Modi’s feet-washing photo-op either. He added “It (the stigma) won’t wash away by just washing the feet of sanitation workers.”
In these slums of Kusumpur Pahadi, people are involved in sanitation work only to sustain their lives. There is nothing spiritual about this experience, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has claimed in his book. It is impossible to imagine the degradation human beings experience when they descend into a manhole or sewer.
Instead of PR exercises aimed at getting media attention, sanitation workers need concrete steps to restore dignity to their working lives as well as living conditions. The government needs to enforce a better, fairer contractual system or hire sanitation workers on permanent basis and ensure them medical treatment, provision of leaves including paid maternity leave as well as fair and regular wages.