Amidst a charged Delhi election atmosphere with just a couple of days left for polling, Delhi’s manual scavengers and sanitation workers are leading a lonely battle to make their voices heard. In the narrow lanes of the 80 gaj colony of Delhi’s Tilak Nagar, over 8,000 sanitation workers will be casting their vote.
The colony finds itself right next to a huge open drain; open only to them- it is covered on either side of the main road but open only where it passes through the area where the sanitation workers live. “This is how we are ostracised. If the trash passes through our homes it is acceptable, while on the other side of the road where it passes through the houses of the rich, it is not. So, it is completely sealed,” says Virendra Singh of the Delhi Safai Karamchari Action Committee.
Close to 8,000 voters will be casting their vote on the 8th of February in the community hall, right next to the open drain. “The smell in the community hall is unbearable and we will have to stand here to vote. While we clean the entire city, no one cares about our living conditions or how we lead our lives. We live like insects,” said Revati, a resident of the area.
The lives of sanitation workers are at great risk, each time they go down the drain. Across India, manual scavenging and its allied forms — the manual cleaning of dry latrines, sewers, manholes and septic tanks, removal of debris from sewage canals and any interaction with excreta — are openly prevalent, defined as a "cultural occupation" attached to a few so-called lower castes — Hindu Dalits, a few Dalit Muslims and some converted Dalit Christians. In India, this occupation is hazardous, more than just unsafe.
Unsafe and unpaid: Life of Delhi’s sanitation workers
In just the last week leading up to polls, multiple deaths of sanitation workers have been reported. Days after Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the Centre is focused on eradicating manual scavenging, a 24-year-old sanitation worker died while cleaning a sewer in north-east Delhi’s Shahdara, earlier this week. The incident occurred on Sunday when Ravi, was cleaning the sewer with Sanjay, 35, near a BSES office at the CBD ground in Karkardooma.
While Ravi lost his life, Sanjay suffered from suffocation after inhaling toxic fumes, police said, adding that he was being treated at a hospital. Police said that a private contractor had engaged five workers, including Ravi and Sanjay, to clean a 15-feet deep sewer and that the work to clean it was given by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). The DDA, however, denied the allegation and said an enquiry committee has been constituted to investigate it.
While in Tilak Nagar’s 80 gaj colony, 40-year-old Anil who worked as a driver for the Delhi government’s flagship scheme of giving 200 machines to clean sewers passed away on February 1. “He was the only earning member in my family and he died because of low-quality gloves. He fainted after inhaling toxic fumes from the septic tanks.” said his wife. “We are very happy that the government has introduced machines for the cleaning but there are gaps in the implementation,” Jitendra, Anil’s nephew added.
As a symbolic attempt, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had introduced 200 sewer cleaning machines in a bid to eliminate manual scavenging, in March 2019. However, a spate of deaths continues. Gautam Panwar, a driver in one of the 200 machines said, “Today it was Anil. Tomorrow, it could be any one of us. We are on the streets now to make our safety an ongoing agenda that needs immediate resolution. No one has checked on us or even spoken about any compensation,” Panwar adds.
Data collated by the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA) has records of more than 180 deaths of manual scavengers with their names, ages, places of death, origin and other relevant information, as well as news reports between 2018-2019. The extrapolation of SKA's data reveals a horrific fact about the cleaning of sewers in India — that one manual scavenger dies every two days.
In their election manifestos, parties have given space to the issues of manual scavengers. While the BJP has promised permanent jobs, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has assured the workers of a compensation of Rs. 1 crore if a worker dies on duty. The Congress has promised for all arrears of the workers to be waived off while also giving them permanent positions. As the campaign picks up pace, over 700 workers are staging a strike outside the Delhi Jal Board office to ensure an end to contractualisation.
A worker says: “Our wages as drivers on paper are Rs. 38,000 but we only make less than half of it which is close to a meagre Rs. 14,000. Helpers get by with way more less. We are threatened by the contractors against speaking up. If we do there will be dire consequences.”
As NewsClick approached the Jal Board office to speak to officials, the doors were locked up by guards who said that they did so on the orders from ‘higher ups’.
“On their manifestos, parties are giving us sops and making this an issue. However, look at the reality on ground. Our houses are broken, the water is dirty and moreover, we risk our lives everyday for survival. What kind of a living is this?” asks Virendra Singh.