“The sanitation workers are compelled to work for several months without receiving any payment,” says Shubham Kothari, a member of Jan Haq Sangharsh Samiti (JHSS).
On 15 September, a press conference convened at the Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh in Fort, shedding light on the plight of sanitation workers in Mumbai and their fundamental rights. JHSS, in an extensive six-month collaboration with these laborers, has embarked on a mission to spotlight the challenging conditions they endure in their line of duty.
In 2013, The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act was passed. The law prohibited all government or private organisations from employing manual scavengers in urban and rural places. The Act, especially, enforces itself against manual scavenging in septic tanks and sewers that contain human excreta. It also accounted for a survey that the Municipal Corporation of a city will conduct to register sanitation workers formally, preventing contractual basis employment.
The work of JHSS focused on the contractors who employ sanitation workers for cleaning before the monsoon arrives. Mumbai witnesses water logging in major areas during monsoon every year. Every year, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) informally employs workers through contractors to clean rivers, gutters, stormwater, and drains, as per the organisation’s findings. The workers are from Dalit, Tribal, Buddhist, Muslim communities, and Vimukta Jatis. Their employers are mainly from dominant caste and religious groups.
The contractors do not provide their workers with the proper safety gear needed to do the work. The workers are forced to continue working in manholes, which carry household waste in large quantities through sewage, reveals the JHSS report.
“When they work, the waste sometimes falls directly on them. The weak gear, like the thin jacket and boots, cannot protect the workers from that waste,” said Kothari.
Sakubai Kale is one of the sanitation workers who was employed before the monsoon through a contractor, she was the first to speak from the workers during the conference.
Sakubai recounted the challenging working conditions she faces and lamented her contractor’s failure to compensate her for the past three months.
“We have to work in septic tanks with whatever kit they give”, she said. “They pay a daily wage of 750 rupees for a ‘couple’.” Contractor pays sanitation workers in pairs, for women workers, they pair their husbands or brothers. If no man in relation exists, they pair women workers with any other male worker.
With Yashodhara Salve, a member of JHSS, Sakubai brings forth the difficulties she has faced as a woman worker.
“People, especially men, often come and urinate in the places where they are working, despite us asking them to leave. They are not treated with respect. They face various forms of sexual violence while working but cannot speak about it openly. As they work on the streets, they are frequently subjected to harassment,” Yashodhara shared with Maktoob.
The second to speak was Mapanna ‘Anna’ Maien who works as a sanitation worker in Sadharma Jan Sewa Sansthan. Swachha Mumbai Prabhodan Abhiyan began in 2013 as a cleanliness drive focusing on cleaning Bastis of the city. Anna’s organisation was hired by the BMC through a lottery system for a duration of six months in Ekta Nagar. “Our work is to do door-to-door garbage collection, gutter cleaning, and road sweeping in our assigned areas”, says Anna. “For this work, we get 5400 rupees a month.”
Since 2013, the payment has not increased for Anna. His work is unaccounted for by the authorities as his organisation is not counted as formal employees but as “Swayam Sewak” (Volunteer). JHSS said it has filed several RTIs demanding a survey list of registered sanitation workers by BMC, and called to add workers like Sakubai and Anna to the survey list to protect their rights, but there has been no affirmative action from the authorities.
There is no social security for the sanitation workers. They remain outside the purview of the state because of inaction by the BMC in registering them as formal workers. Their wages remain unpaid and low, which keeps them below the poverty line. There is no inspection by the authorities of the conditions they are working in. Even when it comes to availing of medical treatments and assistance, given the conditions they work in result in life-threatening accidents and diseases, they are ill-treated by hospital authorities. Such is the case of Awadhesh Yadav’s brother, Jagveer Yadav.
On 11 June this year, a video went viral of a car running over a sanitation worker while working in Kandivili West. Jagveer Yadav was hired by a contractor to clean a manhole near a residential society. According to Awadhesh, the society had asked for the gutter to be cleaned, which they later denied. Jagveer entered the manhole to clean it but was given no proper equipment or kit for the work.
Awadesh recalls the aftermath of his brother’s accident, when he had stayed for 8-9 days in a hospital but was shown no concern by the doctors regarding his condition. “His condition started worsening, the hospital did not tell us he needed an ICU and when we asked, they asked us to go to another hospital where the doctors again refused to admit him. They made us run here and there for paperwork for days.” On 21 June, Jagveer Yadav breathed his last.
The police registered an FIR under accident but soon closed the case. Jagveer and his family, like many others, were failed by every institution that they approached. They were humiliated and shown complete apathy by them.
Since last year, 5 workers have lost their lives while manual scavenging, as per JHSS findings. Many more remain unaccounted for. No compensation by any authority was offered to the families of those workers.
“We demand rehabilitation and registration of sanitation workers who are working informally”, Shubham adds, as he lists out the demands of the workers to the conference. Proper education for the children of the workers, as has been mentioned in the 2013 Act, so they can improve their way of life. They also demand permanent jobs for a member of their families, so the families can socially mobilise upwards. They also call for medical practitioners who can volunteer to work with JHSS and provide proper care and treatment for injuries and diseases that sanitation workers may get.
Despite the Supreme Court announcing manual scavenging as illegal and after 10 years of the 2013 Act, it remains a prominent evil in India.
Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry said that in the last 5 years, 339 people have lost lives while manual scavenging. This issue will persist unless the authorities properly implement the laws. Rehabilitation of sanitation workers and working towards their social upliftment is also extremely necessary. JHSS said it will organize protests in the future for these demands to be met by the government body.
Sakshi is currently doing her Master’s in Media and Cultural studies at TISS, Mumbai.