New Delhi: Hundreds of sanitation workers gathered at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi Monday to protest against the government’s neglect of sewer cleaners, who often die on the job.
The protest came a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi washed the feet of sanitation workers at the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, and also gave them awards at an event called ‘Swachh Kumbh, Swachh Aabhaar’, which recognised the workers’ efforts to keep the venue clean.
“I salute each and every person making a contribution towards a Swachh Bharat,” he said in a tweet later in the day.
Moments I’ll cherish for my entire life!
Honouring remarkable Safai Karamcharis, who have taken the lead when it comes to realising the dream of a Swachh Bharat!
I salute each and every person making a contribution towards a Swachh Bharat pic.twitter.com/IsjuCgjlkn
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) February 24, 2019
At Monday’s demonstration, sanitation workers expressed exasperation, saying PM Modi’s Kumbh Mela gesture was just another pitch to garner votes ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
“Modi shouldn’t be washing our feet. He should be wiping our tears,” said Satprakash, a sanitation worker employed with the Chandigarh government. “Washing our feet is hardly going to fill our stomachs or compensate us for the work we have done for Swachh Bharat.”
Manual scavenging was outlawed in 1993, with the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, reinforcing this ban.
However, according to a 2018 report in The Indian Express, over 53,000 people remain employed as manual scavengers in India.
While PM Modi has been extremely vocal about the Swachh Bharat campaign, which promises an open defecation-free India by this year, he has been accused of overlooking sewer cleaners, the foot-soldiers of the campaign, and their poor work conditions.
In India, sanitation workers often descend to the toxic depths of septic tanks and sewers without any protective gear, putting them in clear danger. According to government data quoted in a report in The Indian Express, as many as 123 sewer cleaners had died on the job between 1 January 2017 and September 2018.
An RTI filed by TheWire found that, as of 2018, the Modi government had released no funds towards the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, which involves skill training.
In the gutter
Speaking to ThePrint, Sundar Lal, who used to be a manual scavenger from 2008 to 2014, said he ultimately left the job after the Delhi government, who employed him under a contract, refused to pay him.
“Once, when I went into a sewer, I fell unconscious. I was rescued by a driver who was eating close by,” he added. “If he hadn’t come to check on me and pull me out, I wouldn’t have been alive.”
According to him, when he notified the junior engineer he was reporting to, Lal was told he would lose his job if he escalated his complaint.
“A man had died in that same gutter three years before I went in,” he told ThePrint. “His family was given no compensation — he had three children and a wife. News of his death was kept suppressed. I didn’t find out about it till much later. They didn’t even tell me that a man had died there before sending me in.”
Aadi Dharam Samaj
Since leaving his job as a manual scavenger, Lal, like the hundreds of others gathered at Jantar Mantar, joined the Aadi Dharam Samaj, an organisation aimed at the uplift of the oppressed Valmikis, whose members account for the majority of India’s sewer cleaners.
“We don’t want our feet to be washed. We want to be saved from the sewers,” said Darshan ‘Ratna’ Raavan, the group’s chief, who calls himself a ‘guru’.
“Will washing feet suddenly make the job any less life threatening? We don’t want anyone to enter a sewer,” he added.
Among the organisation’s demands is that manual scavengers be given adequate training and permanent jobs, and that accidents and deaths be thoroughly investigated by local authorities.
It also demands reservation for sanitation workers, apart from the quota for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
“Our vote will go to the party that makes us these promises in their manifesto,” said Raavan.