Clap Mitras of Andhra Pradesh Serve 250 Houses in 4 Hours, but Payments Never Come on Time
Bommanahal, Anantapur: Dressed in a lungi and shirt with a headscarf tied around his head, Gonduru Ondrappa Bhimlinga (60) starts pedalling the tricycle provided by the panchayat around 6 am. A dedicated Clean Andhra Pradesh Mitra (clap Mitra), he aims to collect waste — dry, wet and hazardous — from houses lining the four streets that he serves in Bommanahal block (mandal) of Anantapur district.
He works only from 6 am to 10 am, but his job is quite challenging if one considers the number of households he is supposed to cover within those few hours. Every clap mitra is responsible for door-to-door waste collection from 250 households, or 1,000 people, every single day.
Bhimlinga has to stop at each house. Since most villagers go to their fields before dawn, they keep the waste bags outside. But those unwilling to comply just throw household waste on the road. He clears it but does not hesitate to counsel people not to discard waste openly as he moves around with the tricycle.
"I have been working as a clap mitra since 2019. I try to finish work in one street within an hour. A lot of waste accumulates during marriages and cultural events. I need to collect waste from primary school, high school, village secretariat, clinic, rythu bharosa [a state government scheme to financially assist farmers] call centre and shops," Bhimlinga told 101Reporters.
By the time he finished his duty, he would have visited the dumpsite located on the village outskirts thrice to empty the tricycle. Despite his good work, he has not received his monthly payment of Rs 6,000 for the last 11 months. Even otherwise, regular payment is a luxury as clap mitras are paid every three or six months only. According to Bhimlinga, two weeks ago, clap mitras submitted a memorandum to Anantapur District Collector M Gowthami seeking the immediate settlement of dues.
Local YSRCP leader Padma Chandra Sekhar Reddy asserted that clap mitras in Sreedharaghatta panchayat were getting payments every month.
"We collect Rs 2 per day from each house in the panchayat to make their payments before the fifth of every month." Unfortunately, this arrangement is present only in Sreedharaghatta.
Bhimlinga said the authorities in the village where he worked had discontinued the services of two other clap mitras, citing fund constraints. The lack of funds seems to have a lasting impact on waste management efforts. As a result, open dumping and burning of waste are prevalent in the villages of the block.
Locals admit that they dump all sorts of waste — be it domestic, agricultural or livestock — separately in a nearby dump site. This very act forfeits proper waste management as the chances of them getting mixed are quite high. On top of that, the locals burn all the accumulated waste once a month, upping air pollution to a great extent.
No doubt, locals know nothing about IEC (information, education and communication) on waste management. It is compulsory to hold grama sabha (village assembly) at least four times a year to create awareness in the community on several fronts, including waste management. During the last grama sabha on October 2 (Gandhi Jayanti), the panchayat president and Panchayati Raj officials addressed only the water and power supply issues of some villagers.
A former clap mitra claimed the situation was similar during all grama sabhas.
"The meeting is just for namesake purposes. No one says a word about waste management there," he said on condition of anonymity. Incidentally, the Clap Mitra system was launched on October 2, 2021.
Some residents have not even attended the grama sabha once. "We neither attended nor received the respective blue, green and red bins for dry, wet and hazardous waste," they said. In short, waste collection is poor in many areas and no data could be accessed on whether the households take up waste disposal practices.
According to the Panchayati Raj Department, Bommanahal block has 19 panchayats, 14,245 households, 72 clap mitras, 11 sheds, 59 NADEP composting pits and four incinerators. However, some areas, such as a street near Kuruvalli Road, streets near a steel factory and Devagiri Cross, do not have a waste collection system in place. "We dump waste on the street corner and burn it once a month," said Chakali Naganna (45) and four others.
In Bommanahal village, a rivulet has turned into a dumping spot. A mosque and an English medium school where over 1,000 students study are beside the water body. "The rivulet is full of reeds, rushes and waste. We will clean it soon by engaging an excavator and clap mitras," Bommanahal panchayat secretary Sheik Baba Fakruddin told 101Reporters.
Many households and small shops do not have access to waste collection services. So, they throw the wastewater onto the roads, wash their clothes and even bathe their children there. Waste from individual households, tea shops, chicken stalls, garages and general stores still leads to unsightly streets.
"There are 1,152 households, seven clap mitras, 24 NADEP pits and one shed in our panchayat. Even if households do open dumping, clap mitras collect the waste. So, there is no open burning in our panchayat," Darga Honnur panchayat secretary Madamanchi Kullai Naidu told 101Reporters.
Tied down by lack of funds
A solid wealth process centre (SWPC) functions at every panchayat in Bommanahal block. It is actually a dumpsite where segregation of solid and wet waste takes place. A clap mitra functions as a 'shed man' who segregates solid, wet and dry waste. The compost generated is sold to third parties to maintain cleanliness within the panchayat. The revenue received is invested in community awareness programmes on waste disposal.
"Almost all the residents are farmers. Most of them compost the wet waste generated in their households and use it in their fields. Hence, not even 150 gm of wet waste comes here from each house. So, there is not much work in the shed," Naidu told 101Reporters.
"We use livestock waste as manure in our fields. If there is a surplus, we sell it for Rs 4,000 per tractor," Kattebasanna Hunumantappa (65), a resident of the block, added.
The sheds in Bandur, Bollanaguddam, Gonehal, Haresamudram, Kolaganahalli, Nemakallu, and Untakallu panchayats do not have power or water supply. The shed in Bommanahal panchayat became inoperative after it was gutted in a fire a year ago. There are no sheds in Elanji, Kuruvalli, Lingadahal, Siddarampuram, Singanahalli and Upparahal panchayats. 101Reporters tried to contact the respective panchayat secretaries thrice over the phone. One of them avoided saying the mobile battery was out of charge, and the other sent an SMS saying he was attending a Google Meet.
According to the Panchayati Raj Department, lack of funds and other priorities are behind the poor condition of SWPCs. Each panchayat has its own priorities, such as concrete roads, drainage construction, water connections and motor repairs. The panchayat president usually decides the priorities while considering the opinion of the majority of grama sabha attendees. Moreover, SWPCs are not prioritised because they are more labour-intensive but without much return.
YSRCP leader Reddy's words attest to this fact.
"Sreedharaghatta panchayat has 720 households, four clap mitras, 11 NADEP pits, and one shed. Under the Grama Sachivalayam Fund and Gadapa Gadapaku Mana Prabhutvam scheme, the panchayat has been sanctioned a total of Rs 30 lakh. Most of it will be used for drainage systems and some for waste management," he said.
The 15th Finance Commission recommends that 30% of the tied grants of rural local bodies should be earmarked for sanitation and maintenance of open defecation-free status, including management and treatment of household waste.
Shadow of Caste
"There is no separate allocation of funds/budget for waste management in panchayats. We utilise some amount either from the general fund or as per the guidelines laid down by the 15th Finance Commission to buy broomsticks, soaps, masks, gloves and safety jackets. Priorities are decided through grama sabhas and funds utilised accordingly," Sheik Shakila Begum, Mandal Parishad Development Officer, Bommanahal, told 101Reporters.
However, clap mitras begged to differ. They said they had not been getting detergents, bath soaps, gloves and masks for months together. Safety jackets and uniforms are also not provided. "We have no weekly off, holidays, social security and periodical health checkups."
While acknowledging that clap mitras have remained unpaid for the last 11 months, Dulla Vijayamma, Extension Officer of Panchayati Raj and Rural Development, told 101Reporters that they were issuing periodically whatever was required for waste collection. "Overdue salaries will be settled as soon as funds are available," she said.
The National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj's 2016 guide on solid waste management clearly states that sanitation workers should undergo periodic health checkups and get a weekly off-on-rotation basis. Along with their monthly wages, they should be supplied with two detergents and two bath soaps.
A few Scheduled Caste clap mitras claimed they were being subjected to caste discrimination.
"Though the caste system was abolished in 1948, the two-tumbler system is still prevalent. For cutting hair, we have to go elsewhere. This is our reality. As recently as in 2020, the then-district Collector, Gandham Chandrudu, directed the officials to rename their colonies after social reformers and freedom fighters. As many as 480 colonies in Anantapur district have been renamed," a former clap Mitra, who is a graduate, said on condition of anonymity.
"Clap mitras do the job that others cannot do, but they do not get social respect and opportunities. Others cannot do this cleaning work, but they get social respect and opportunities," a volunteer who is part of the Village Volunteers System of Andhra Pradesh summed up.
(Paul Babu is an Andhra Pradesh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
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