Swachh Bharat campaign and that man called Satbir

  • Aarish Chhabra, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Oct 12, 2014 19:26 IST

Don’t throw that banana peel on the road! Wait until you spot a garbage bin. Put it in there. And feel good about yourself.

That’s the essence of the drive called Swachh Bharat as we, the people, led by the Grand Saviour of the Nation, embark on a journey towards Clean India. It’s a different matter that many of us still have separate teacups for our maids. This is not about that. It is also a different matter how the prime concern after the demolition of a slum is the non-availability of maids for a few days. This is about something severe, something more uncomfortable. This is about life and death.

This is about Satbir Singh and his ilk. Satbir, 35, was a sanitation worker of the Chandigarh public health department. He died after accidentally inhaling toxic gas rising from a manhole near Lake Club late August. He has left behind his wife and four children. The family would still have been in a celebratory mood for it was just two months ago that Satbir had got a regular job in the department after remaining on contract with an outsourcing agency. It wasn’t to last.

As is the tradition in our large-hearted country, it would be seen as God’s will. But this death was avoidable. If only the man had safety gear, like a basic gas mask.

UT superintending engineer, public health, Tarlochan Singh has claimed that all field workers have been given safety equipment, and the department has marked an inquiry to ascertain if there were any lapses on its part. He did not take repeated calls on Saturday for us to know the fate of the inquiry, though the file for a compensation of Rs 2 lakh is being processed and the workers’ union is trying to get Satbir’s wife a job on compassionate grounds.

Satbir’s death came barely two months after the fire in Sector 17 that killed two firemen. But no heroism was attributed to Satbir, even as the firemen were rightly seen as martyred while carrying out a life-threatening public duty. No cries of bravery awards are being heard. No one is saluting Satbir on Facebook either. He was a sweeper, not even a trained sewer man assigned for the job that he was doing. There is no group insurance policy for these workers, so each case has to go through repeated requests, patronising officials and the ever-present red tape. Cleaning filth is no hero’s job.

In all, there are around 2,700 sweepers for Chandigarh, of which nearly 1,500 are under outsourcing contractors. There are just 73 technical sanitation employees, including 53 sewer men. Most work under the aegis of the municipal corporation, and some under the administration. Those on contract are supposed to get a minimum of `8,554 a month as per rules, while the others get a starting take-home pay of around `15,000, informs Rakesh Kumar, convener, Committee of Government and MC Employees and Workers. Some have been on contract for decades, awaiting regular jobs.

When it comes to safety gear, the workers’ committee says the “masks are not of good quality” despite a promise for good equipment in June after the workers threatened another strike. The administration simply says the workers choose not to wear the equipment. Conveniently, enforcement of safety rules is forgotten.

Why is it that supervisors either remain absent or simply do not mandate that the sewer men wear a life-saving mask before descending into a potential death trap? Why are there no health schemes for them? Does the same logic apply to safety rules on the road? If all of us were sane enough even about our own safety, why would we need rules anyway? Is discipline always self-imposed? These are basic questions with simple answers. But no one is willing to address these as the man who died was a mere sweeper, responsible for his own fate.

Institutional responsibility has routinely been reduced to individual discretion in our country.
In that light, the newest campaign is no different. It’s not surprising that the Safai Karmachari Andolan, a national movement for sanitation workers, has slammed the Clean India campaign strategy, saying that if Prime Minister Narendra Modi was serious indeed, “he would have begun by improving the lot of sanitation workers, who have a life expectancy of only 52 years” as against an all-India average of 66. “The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a way for the middle-class India to get over its guilt,” Wilson Bezwada, national board member of the Andolan, has been quoted as saying. He is right.

For now, the ruling class remains distant as ever, and more didactic than ever. The ‘heritage’ manhole covers of Chandigarh sell for lakhs abroad, further underlining a cruel irony. And we feel better by putting that banana peel in the nearest garbage bin. Let someone else deal with the serious shit.

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