On Sunday, February 24, a photo went viral on social media showing Prime Minister Narendra Modi washing the feet of safai karamchari (sanitation workers) at the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj. These are the same safai karamcharis who have been raising their voice against the Modi government for their rightful pays since December last year. They had also held few protests demanding increase in their daily wages but the workers have alleged that the Mela administration had threatened them.
These sanitation workers were initially getting paltry wages of Rs 295 per day. Even after several protests, the administration increased their wages by a meagre "Rs 15", making it Rs 310, which is still less than the minimum wage.
Dinesh, a sanitation worker whose entire family is on duty in Kumbh Mela since November last year, told NewsClick, "A young sanitation worker died on December 24 in Kumbh because of the negligence of the administrators. He died due to the unavailability of equipment and warm cloth. Before the incident, we met several times with the Mela officials with three demands- to increase daily wages up to at least Rs 500, accidental bima (insurance), and to reduce work hours from 14 hours to 8-9 hours and provide proper equipment. But they did not take notice and now, a labour lost his life. The Kumbh Mela is about to end and these workers are returning to their homes with only an increase of Rs. 15 which is very pathetic. I do not have any idea when this government will understand our concern."
Dinesh further added, "More than 20 thousand sanitation workers are on duty since November last year, from before the Mela started and have given their best to keep it clean but our basic demands are not met. This cleaning feet of our colleagues is nothing but drama.”
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Speaking with NewsClick, Anshu Malviya, a social activist who was detained by the Prayagraj Police for raising the voice of sanitation workers, said, "We have been campaigning since December last year when the Mela started, with two basic demands - Roti and Respect. We met the Mela officer with our memorandum and he assured us that our demands will be met but till last week of January, we did not get any response from them. After meeting five times and handing over the memorandum, they increased from Rs 295 to Rs 310 which is a mockery of poor people. The sanitation workers have now started making fun that the government has increased Rs 15 to eat 'tobacco'. When we approached the administration, they promised again that they will look into this matter and will increase the daily wage but again they kept silent.”
Talking about the administration’s approach, he said, “On February 2, we held a protest with a large number of sanitation workers and after few hours, the administration called us for a meeting. I along with another social worker, Avinash Mishra and three sanitation workers went to meet. When we entered the room for the meeting, they started threatening us to book under National Security Act (NSA) as we are provoking these sanitation workers for increment. When we did not relent, they gave us time till February 6 and said that the demands will be taken care of. Today is February 25, and still their demands are not met."
Anshu further added, "On February 7, I was detained by the local police along with another person, but we were kept at different police stations. Then Senior Superintendent of Police Vineet Tiwari threatened that to book us under NSA and that he will take action against us. They did not book us or lodge an FIR because the news of our arrests went viral on social media and were forced to release us after few hours. Again, on February 14, we tried to meet the Mela District Magistrate (DM) but he did not meet us. Instead of washing their feet, the government should meet the demands of the workers immediately. Kumbh is going to end and these workers are returning with empty hands."
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Apart from their daily wage, there is another issue which the sanitation workers have been facing at the Kumbh Mela. Talking about the rampant issue of caste discrimination, a sanitation worker told NewsClick, "The sanitation workers are also facing caste discrimination at the Kumbh Mela. Recently, a sadhu had broken the hand of a sanitation worker because he comes from a lower caste. So, washing our feet instead of giving our rights is only a political stunt by the Modi government."
Zero Funds for Manual Scavengers’ Rehabilitation Under Modi Government
The Modi government has completed nearly five years but has not released any funds for the manual scavengers, according to a Right to Information (RTI) filed by The Wire. According to the report, ironically, “the BJP government has spent only half of the funds allocated by the UPA government. According to the RTI, Rs 55 crore was released in 2013-14, by the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.”
A total of Rs 226 crore was released between 2006 and 2013, under the ‘Self Employment for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS)’ scheme. However, since the Modi government came to power in 2014, no further money has been released by the Modi government.
From the funds released by the UPA government, the BJP government gave cash assistance of Rs 40,000 to 8,627 people in 2015-16. However, only 365 manual scavengers have received cash assistance this year.
Sanitation workers across the country, for the past several decades, have been fighting for payment of better wages, regularisation of their services and dignity of work but instead of listening to their concern, PM Modi chose a photo-op with them.
Attacking the Modi government for photo-op with sanitation worker, Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA), told NewsClick, "105 people have been killed in sewer and septic tanks in 2018 alone, but PM Modi kept mum and is now engaging in political stunts like washing feet. For a community that has been oppressed for centuries, one should have spoken about equality, justice, and respectable wages. One should have spoken about the effective ban on manual scavenging, and about how the sewer deaths can be stopped altogether. Instead of this, the PM resorted to a mere symbolic gesture of washing the feet of a sanitation worker.”
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