Mumbai-Walking around Juhu Galli in north Mumbai, 28 year old Karuna Wallodra points to the toilets in the lane where she lives with her family. They are in a poor shape and the stench is unbearable. Locals have sprayed it with bleach to contain the spread of infection.
“Young girls in our locality don’t eat properly, because they want to minimize their visits to these dirty toilets,” says Karuna. There is an irony here because the residents are safai kamgar (conservancy workers) who are responsible for cleaning the city.
Many conservancy workers live in official quarters here, some going back three generations. BMC rules say that if a family member joins as a cleaner, they can continue living in the same house. Consequently, a son or a daughter, often with minimal education, takes up employment as a conservancy worker.
“My father died as a safai kamgar. My elder sister and I had to run from pillar to post to get his pension from the BMC-it took a huge effort.” Her elder sister Usha was injured when she was hit by a vehicle while she was sweeping the road, a fairly common occurrence. “My sister had spinal injuries, but she did not get any compensation. From road sweeping to gutter cleaning we put our life at risk. The risks taken by soldiers is praised, ours is not even acknowledged, even though we too are working in the service of this nation,” She says.
For years, conservancy workers and their union leaders in Mumbai have tried every last resort to highlight their problems. The thousands who diligently clean the city, often at great peril to themselves, have a set of demands ranging from an increase in the minimum wage, pending arrears, maintenance of living quarters and improved safety measures.
Now, fed up with not getting any response to their long pending demands, Karuna decided to stand for the elections to Mumbai’s municipal corporation, due on February 21. She is one of four conservancy workers who are in the fray. There are parts in the city where large numbers of safai kamgar and their families reside-the candidates hope that this will get them enough winning votes.
Not all the 45000 or so safai kamgar – a category that includes the 2700 BMC workers employed to clean the city to rag pickers who segregate waste – have secure jobs or salaries. Even those who are full timers have problems-provident fund payments in most cases have not been deposited by the corporation into the permanent employees’ accounts. Nearly 6500 of them are hired by contractors and each has dues of about Rs 1.32 lakhs pending. Often contractors give less than the stipulated amount.
Unions have also been demanding that even the rag pickers at least get safety equipment like gloves and some form of health insurance or medical aid. Official quarters are in very poor shape and long pending petitions to get them repaired have gone unheard. Given the hazardous nature of their work and routine accidents when workers go into manholes, regular medical check ups will make a big difference-Karuna says the colony doesn’t even have a conveniently located health centre.
Most, if not all, the workers employed in cleaning toilet tanks, sewerage and gutter clearning and sweeping the streets, are from the scheduled castes. Given that the work is handed down from parent to children, the caste composition rarely changes.
Political parties have only paid lip service to their issues. In December last year, out of frustration, they went to the Juhu residence of Amitabh Bachchan, the face of the Swacch Bharat campaign, in the hope he would also agree to be the face of the thousands of cleaners of the city. They didn’t get any response.
Karuna’s candidature is supported by Nagarik Adhikar Manch (NAM) a group formed by activists and alert citizens. Another candidate supported by same forum is contesting from Govandi – Limboni baug area in north-east Mumbai, almost cheek by jowl with a huge dumping ground that is a severe health hazard for local residents, but also their place of employment.
Pravin Dabhade, 25 has grown up here. His mother Hausabai was working as a rag picker till last month. When this correspondent meets him inside a tiny room which doubles as his campaign office, Pravin explains the changes he wants to effect to improve the lives of the rag pickers. Asked a question about the hardships faced by his mother and rag pickers in general, Pravin can’t control his tears. “My mother used to go on Mulund dumping ground for many years. My father left us when we three brothers were small children. My mother raised us with her brother’s support. She used to get hurt almost every day while working—shards of glass and other hazardous material used to cut her feet. She rarely complained, so we never got to know what she went through. If her hand or leg used to bleed, she had no medical facility available at the dumping ground. She used to tear the sari or some other clothes and stick it around the injury.
“Never did I tell my college friends that my mother was a rag picker. I told them that she was a domestic worker. Now I don’t hide my mother’s profession. She did a great job raising us.”
Hausabai is happy her son is a candidate in the elections. “We never got any safety equipment, not a room to change the clothes even; we work in an unorganised sector. It’s the kind of job where one can lose one’s mind. I focused on my kids. Now he will solve our problems.” Hausabai says.
For some time, she had even sent Pravin to Nagpur to join a Buddhist monastery, where he could get a free education. Back home, he has transformed himself into a politician, and now wears a jacket to appear formal when he sets out to campaign. “Like Ambedkar has rightly said, education has changed my whole perspective towards life. I am representing a class which has been disowned by political parties. I heard Uddhav Thackeray saying in an interview on television that “Mumbai Amchi ahe’ (Mumbai is mine). Will he ever say Kachara vechak amche ahet? (garbage pickers belong to me?)”
“A few residents here fans of Narendra Modi or the Thackeray family. They taunt me that I will lose the elections and regret ever contesting. Why should I regret? Even Dr Ambedkar lost the elections. But it is important that we make our presence known in the political space.”