Sewer workers in Delhi demand recognition for risking their lives

The “roundtable with sewer workers” was organized by Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch (DASAM) on Saturday in Tahirpur, Delhi, where sewer workers throughout the national capital region came together along with worker unions and government bodies.

“There is a constant threat to lose work if we raise our voice against the system,” say the sewer workers in national capital Delhi.

The “roundtable with sewer workers” was organized by Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch (DASAM) on Saturday in Tahirpur, Delhi, where sewer workers throughout the national capital region came together along with worker unions and government bodies. The workshop was attended by more than 50 sewer workers.

Ena Zafar, national coordinator of DASAM informed the workers about the statement made by Union Minister Ramdas Athawale where he has distinguished between manual scavenger and sewer workers. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Act 2013 defines a ‘manual scavenger’ as someone who is engaged or employed by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises before the excreta fully decomposes in such a manner.

It further adds that if the employed person is provided with protective gear to clean excreta, he shall not be deemed as a manual scavenger. The exemption of considering the practice as manual scavenging on the basis of ‘protective gears’ is delusional and the workers have to enter the sewer, drains or open pits without any gear. It is a rare incident where the workers are provided with any gear.

The discussion was open to sewer workers. Their names are not being disclosed as they fear that they will be removed from their jobs. They highlighted several key points:

Many in the meeting alleged that they receive no safety equipment for their work.

“Money is deducted from our salary for non-working days such as Saturday, Sunday, and other public holidays,” they said.

The wages are different throughout Delhi. “We at some stores receive a salary of Rs.145000 in Bank out of which we have to return the money to the Junior Engineer (J.E.) as the J.E. deducts the money for non-working day i.e. Saturday, Sunday and other public holidays and calculates the wage as Rs.400 to be given per working day,” sewer workers raised the issue in the meeting.

While sharing the brutal ordeal, the most discriminated group of workers claimed that , there is complete uncertainty of the job despite risking their lives.

As a worker said “we do not know if there will be food on our plates the next day.”

The workers demand recognition for risking their lives.

They have demanded equal wages throughout Delhi. Adequate medical facilities and other facilities which are provided to permanent employees need to be extended to workers employed under the contractual system, they urged the authorities.

Ashok Kumar Taank, national coordinator, DASAM emphasized the need for the workers to unite and raise their voices against the continuous harassment they face from their stores.

He highlights that the workers who have gathered are below 50 years of age, but what will happen when they are deemed unfit for cleaning sewer? How will they then survive?

He also allleges that continuous efforts have been made by the government to make the sewer workers invisible so they are not held accountable for the continuous deaths taking place within the sector.

Sanjay Gehlot (Chairperson, Delhi Commission for Safai Karamchari), Ved Prakash Bidlaan (President, Delhi Jal Board Sewer Department Mazdoor Sangathan), Susheel Chandel (General Secretary, Delhi Jal Board Sewer Department Mazdoor Sangathan), Virender Godh (President, Municipal Workers Lal Jhanda Union, CITU) and Sushil Kaim (Jal Mal Kaamgaar Sangharsh Morcha) were the panelists in the roundtable meeting.

The panelists asked the workers to come together and struggle for their rights. “Since the nature of work is permanent, the workers should be allotted a permanent position by the government for their work. Governments come and go and talk about abolishing the contractual system but it has continued and workers continue to lose their lives in this system,” panelists said.

Gehlot recalled his struggle when his mother used to work as a sanitation worker and he used to pitch in to help her. “How the one who cleans the street to make city cleaner faces all kinds of dirt while at work,” he asks.

He raised his concern towards the uncertainty of job under the contractual system and promised the workers who were present at the Roundtable that adequate steps will be taken for the issues which were raised at the table.

The DASAM has worked on the social, economic, and working conditions of the sewer workers in Delhi, especially among workers working under the contractual system.