Chandu, 20 (in blue t-shirt), a rag picker from Bihar who works at Eco Green Energy earning about Rs. 200-300 per day.
Naresh, 34, a safai karmachari (sanitation worker) in Haryana’s Faridabad, is excited. He, along with hundreds of other safai karmacharis, have been called by the city’s Municipal Corporation officials. It’s October 2, and this year the day marks the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and the ‘target’ year of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much-hyped programme – the Swachh Bharat Mission. Too many motives, all at once in the run-up to the Assembly elections, to acknowledge the services of the safai karmacharis in keeping the city clean. However, as absurd as it may sound, these safai karmacharis were commemorated with track suits, while many entering in the city’s sewage holes, as reported, don’t have any safety equipment.
“We are permanent karmacharis (workers),” explained Naresh to NewsClick, “we have been given masks and gloves, and a broomstick to carry out our duty of collecting garbage and disposing them.”
“As winter is approaching, the track suits have now been awarded to us to keep us safe from cold,” he added.
It was easy to get fooled by this episode, taking home the story of how the voices of safai karmacharis are finally getting heard in the state of Haryana. However, not easy enough to erase the figures of deaths of manual scavengers, suffocating to death in the ‘gas chambers’. Eleven sewer deaths in Haryana have been reported in the first six months of this year alone.
Also read: 2 Workers Die While Cleaning Septic Tank in Gurugram
Several questions arise, Who enters the sewers, if not the safai karmacharis who are being awarded with track suits? Are those entering the sewers not considered as safai karmacharis? What allowed the state administration to prioritise track suits over safety gears? The answer to all these questions lie within the employment terms.
“They are contract workers,” answered Sompal Jhinjhotiya, general secretary of Faridabad’s Municipal Safai Karamchari Sangh (MSKS) – a safai karmacharis’ union, adding, “They can’t wash their hands off the job to clean the city’s sewers, otherwise they will lose their job.”
The words held a deeper meaning, providing an insight to the most demeaning job of this nation that has killed hundreds. The reason behind these deaths were not caste identities alone, it is the exposure to the vulnerabilities, resulting from their employment arrangements, that forces contractual safai karmacharis to enter the sewage holes. Owing to the poor socio-economic background, these workers cannot afford to refuse to enter the sewers, even when no safety equipments have been provided to them. In addition to this, by the very nature of their labour arrangement, contract labourers do not get any protection under the law.
Currently, over 2,500 safai karmacharis are employed by the Municipal Corporation of Faridabad. Out of which nearly 1,400 are on contractual basis while another 297 are outsourced, according to the MSKS.
Also read: Mounting Sewer Deaths: What Spar Between NCSK and Delhi Government Shadows
The situation of the rural safai karmacharis is much worse. In the state of Haryana, there are nearly 11,000 rural safai karmacharis who are employed by the village panchayats. According to some estimates, the number is as low as employing only one safai karmachari for every 2,000 people. This set of safai karmacharis face the most brutal forms of caste oppression, as a result of which even their deaths usually go unreported, depriving the families of any compensation under The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.
Speaking of manual scavengers’ deaths, let’s have a look at the official data set. Up until October 2017, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had identified 13,384 manual scavengers in 11 states. This number made a four-fold jump the next year, when an inter-ministerial task force counted up to 53,226 manual scavengers in 12 states. In the state of Haryana, 1,040 manual scavengers were registered, however, interestingly enough, the state government—falsely denying the existence of such practices—reported none. The National Commission for Safai Karmachari
(NCSK), in addition to this, had recorded 70 deaths in Haryana since 1993 till July 2019. Though, it is the only agency in the country to maintain records of manual scavenging deaths, the numbers by its own admission are a gross underestimation. The most important reason being the prevalence of outsourcing of the work of cleaning sewers and drains to private contractors.
The Faridabad constituency currently has a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA. Minimum wage of Rs. 15,000 and equal pay for equal work were among the major promises made by the BJP in the run up to the 2014 Assembly elections. NewsClick met with several safai karmacharis who admitted to have voted for BJP in the last state elections. However, rewarded with nothing but broken promises, the safai karmacharis are not interested in casting their vote in BJP’s favour again. One safai karmachari, who didn’t seem affected by the developments at the central level, raised the slogan, Modi tujhse bair nahi, Khattar teri khair nahi (We don’t have anything against Modi, but Khattar won’t be spared). Incidentally, such slogans were heard during the last Rajasthan Assembly elections as well, which concluded with Congress’s victory.
Reiterating similar emotions, a three-day strike in the month of August this year was observed by all sections of the safai karmacharis in Haryana. One of the several demands was to end contractualisation of labour that has forces the safai karmacharis to engage in manual scavenging.
“Our demands were accepted then,” Suresh Kumar, 45, another member of the union who participated in the strike, told NewsClick, “however, for the safai karmacharis in the rural areas of Haryana, it is still a far off dream.”
Also watch: Sweeping Sanitation Workers’ Issues Under the Rug
The strike was also joined by the sanitation workers who are employed by a private waste management company Eco Green Energy. In retaliation, around 400 workers were terminated by the management. Since then, the workers have been observing a protest demonstration in front of Faridabad’s Municipal Corporation office, demanding their reinstatement. Eco Green Energy was awarded a contract by the municipal corporation in the year 2017.
NewsClick had earlier met Prem Pal, 52, an Eco Green Energy employee who was terminated, during the workers’ convention held in New Delhi. He participated in the convention, hoping his cry would be heard by the state.
“Not all safai karamcharis in Haryana are equal,” Prem Pal told NewsClick. His words, about a job that has been marked with years of caste oppression, holds a truth that is only reinforced by a few being wooed with track suits—while others are not even being heard—that only some votes matter to BJP.