– Article contributed by a student of JNU
Recently there was a public talk hosted in Jawaharlal Nehru University on understanding Swachh Bharat, the much acclaimed project inaugurated by the present Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, claiming for a clean India by 2019. The public talk had the sanitation workers and their representatives sharing their experiences to the students. They belong to a registered trade union and I went there to listen to the people who have been working as sanitation workers for decades. Some of them spoke in their regional languages that were translated in Hindi.
These people worked in various places all over India and some of them narrated the dismal condition in which they have to toil. I understood from their discussions that it is not only the absence of basic amenities and safeguards related to their work but also the way they are treated because of their caste identity. Majority of the workers in the occupation belong to the Dalit community and the caste identity further marginalize them, overlooking the caste system and the various ways it compels the people from the community to enter into this work. Stigma is naturalized and either fate or merit is invoked to justify the presence of the overwhelming majority of people from the Dalit background in this occupation. Hence the dehumanization takes place with the absence of providing basic safeguards like the gloves and masks that are essential for the safety of the sanitation workers. In some houses when the workers have asked for water, they are given tap water in a mug that is used in the washrooms by the owner of the house. At times, they are given stale food and if they denied, led to incurring the wrath of the people for whom they work. There have been many cases of sexual harassment, but when the workers had gone to the contractors to complain, they were threatened with dire consequences. The threat ranged from salary cut to losing one’s job. A woman recalls how being in the union has emboldened her to demand basic safety equipment. It started with verbal abuses and then the contractor assaulted her. She gave it back and both of them started fighting but she did not relent, emboldened by the fact that she is a part of the union. The union has given her respect and a will to fight that was missing when she was alone.
Another speaker expressed her views about Swatch Bharat. She stated that the campaign portrays a sanitized version undermining the reality of the sanitation workers. Narendra Modi with other celebrities and well-known people often pose with a broomstick and click pictures undermining the daily hassles and the threat to life that the workers have to face. In so many cases, there have been deaths of workers because of asphyxiation and non-availability of the basic equipment. A woman stated that she has to carry dead animals like dogs and cats with her hands sometimes, which is never shown on television. Manual scavenging which is still prevalent in many parts of India make the workers carry the excreta either in the bucket or on baskets lined with sackings and carried on the head. The plight of these workers is rarely shown and the deaths of so many workers go unnoticed by both the state and the mainstream media. Even the compensation claimed for the death of the worker is not given on time to the family. In the end, one student activist ended with a note stating that even in this university workers refused to pick and clean dead animals on the campus and fought by organizing against the diktats of the administration. There have been many strikes and sit-ins conducted by the sanitation workers against the abysmally low salary given to them.
Organizing is the only way for the sanitation workers in a neoliberal age of exploitation degraded more by casteism. Hence it is only through agitating, organizing and educating the union that the workers can resist and overturn the jhumla, and demand for safety, payment and respect at the workplace.