A cleanliness drive without the real drivers

  • Vikas Pathak
  • Updated: Oct 15, 2014 00:28 IST

If there is one government programme that you come across while watching television, a film at a cinema hall or on the radio while driving to work, it is the one on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'Clean India' (Swachh Bharat) campaign.

His vision is admirable, but for one serious lapse. The campaign skips the very people who alone can transform Modi's dream into reality: The sanitation workers.

These are the people who clean our streets, buildings and sewers without any protective gear; they are often taken ill because of exposure to pollutants or resort to drinking to beat the sewer stench.

However, not one advertisement in the media has taken up the working conditions of these workers. Instead, the advertisements show middle-class people - unlikely long-term participants in the project - wielding the broom to clean the streets.

Then there are celebrities like Bill Gates, Anil Ambani and Sachin Tendulkar.

It is true that these advertisements and people do create awareness about the issue - perhaps never seen since the days of Mahatma Gandhi - but awareness can only be a catalyst. The hard work of making India dirt free has to be done by its sanitation workers.

Sanitation workers have faced serious recession amid a growing economy. Their jobs have gone from regular to contractual as sanitation work has increasingly been outsourced to contractors in the last two decades. Earlier, the workers would get a residential quarter, medical assistance and annual increments.

But today only a few have permanent jobs in Delhi and get upwards of Rs. 20,000 a month and a government quarter to stay.

Cut to the contractual safai worker, a recent but ubiquitous phenomenon. She works for a contractor, gets the minimum wage for unskilled labour (about Rs. 330 a day in Delhi) often for just 26 days of work.

This wage of about Rs. 8,500 a month is without accommodation or annual hikes, except when the minimum wage itself is hiked. There have also been many complaints of underpayment, including at Jawaharlal Nehru University two years ago, when it was alleged that workers hadn't been paid 50 days of salary a year.

The contractualisation of these vulnerable workers has gone unnoticed even though the salaries of senior government officials have gone through the roof with the Sixth Pay Commission. One wonders whether these two sets of rules within government service are not a violation of equality promised under Article 14. The deprived alone should get preference as per the meaning of equality - as in SC/ST or OBC reservation.

Yet there is little debate on sanitation labour to make it less punishing. Just as it makes little sense to talk about law and order without discussing police training, patrolling and work conditions or discuss national defence or health services without discussing the facilities and availability of soldiers or medical staff, discussing sanitation without sanitation workers is a sure way to miss the target.

These workers are at the bottom of our social pyramid, in terms of class, caste and living conditions. If the government indeed wants to pay a tribute to the Mahatma, the campaign must make adequate rewards and proper equipment available for sanitation workers part of its agenda.

"Either regular appointments or a special technical pay for this hazardous employment can help these workers," says activist OP Shukla, who has worked on this issue for decades. True, just as defence forces get a military service pay and free ration above the regular salary, the needs of these sanitation workers - who often become asthmatic or turn alcoholics - must be addressed as a special class.

Vikas Pathak is a journalist and media academic

The views expressed by the author are personal

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