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HT Clean My Chandigarh Campaign | They clean up our mess

They are the unsung heroes of our well­groomed Chandigarh. Rain or shine, they toil every day to keep our streets and sewers clean. What they get in return is a paltry pay and a host of ailments. What they value the most is a word of gratitude from the residents.

punjab Updated: Jun 11, 2017 13:19 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
(HT Photos)


(By Mukesh Rawat)

: “Early morning when most people bathe and pray, we dread receiving calls about blocked sewers,” says Krishan Lal, 52. For 31 years now, he has been cleaning sewers and manholes in Chandigarh. “It’s a life-threatening job. But who cares even if we die in the process?” he says, layers of helplessness and sarcasm in his tone.

For 20 years he worked as a daily wager, only to be regularised in 2007. Today he makes Rs 22,000 a month. His four daughters are married and his son, 32, also cleans sewers. “My biggest regret is that I could not educate my children. There were simply no means. My grandchildren attend school and I hope they won’t have to do what their father and grandfather do,” he says.

When at work, sewer cleaners like Lal are not only up against the toxic gas chamber of a manhole, but they also brave the nonchalance of the authorities. The municipal corporation, they allege, doesn’t provide them basic protective gears like gas masks, gloves, gumboots, and uniforms.

Krishan Lal regrets not being able to educate his children. (Mukesh Rawat/HT)

Mohan Ram (name changed), Lal’s younger colleague with five years of service as a contractual worker, says they are not even provided soap and oil to wash their hands after the work is done. “Then there is the social stigma attached to our work. People on street treat us like outcasts. If we ask for water, few oblige. They too ask us to leave the glass at a distant place. This is our reward for cleaning the city,” he rues.

Besides lack of equipment, new sewer cleaners are seldom trained before they start entering manholes. Old timers like Lal and Kamal Kalyan (vice-president, Sewerage Employees Union, Chandigarh) say that deaths in manholes occur more frequently now because inexperienced workers are also asked to enter them. “There is no training. Acute manpower shortage and ever-increasing demand add to the problem. Given Chandigarh’s size, the city should have at least 500 sewer cleaners. There are roughly 60 regular and 50 contractual ones at present,” informs Kalyan.

Salaries for workers hired by contractors range from Rs 6,000-10,000, which is irregularly paid. Mohan Ram says he received his salary (Rs 9,500) in May but it was after four months.

“When I start my day, I am not sure if I will return home safely. Death follows you like a shadow. Examine any sewage cleaner, you will find him battling one illness or the other. Even if we don’t get killed in the sewer, we are dying daily of diseases. Can’t the government provide us health insurance and other benefits?” asks Lal.

The risk allowance that they get for the hazardous work is a meagre Rs 50-60 per month. The plight of contractual workers is worse.

Lal informs that sewers near hospitals are the most dangerous as they contain human waste of people with all sorts of diseases. “Imagine we enter even these manholes, mostly without masks (as they are unavailable) and clean them with our bare hands,” he says.

Asked if they are aware of the various court guidelines and verdicts upholding the rights of sanitation workers, Lal, Ram and Kalyan say they aren’t. “On papers things may have happened. Who knows? No one tells us. We hear announcements and assurances, but they are divorced from ground realities,” they say.

Sheilo, 50, is keen to educate her children but doesn’t have the means. (Subhashree Nanda/HT)


(By Subhashree Nanda)

For the past 25-30 years, she wakes up at 3am, cooks a meagre meal for her 11-member family and sets off to collect rags and paper bits. Sheilo, the 50-year-old from Dadumajra, doesn’t know of any other way to earn a living.

Often she wishes she did, for it’s no longer easy to earn from rags.

“Pehle to fir bhi loha-lakkad thoda bahut mil jata tha, par ab to sirf gatta-kagaz-plastic hi milta hai (Earlier we used to find iron and wood articles dumped outside, but now it’s just cardboards, paper and plastic. ). It’s because people prefer selling all damaged items instead of letting us collect it,” she laments. Paper and plastic don’t fetch much. “Kamai bilkul nahi hai (There is no income). I somehow manage to earn Rs 3,000-5,000 a month.”

This is why she is keen to educate her three daughters and two sons. One of the daughters is educated till eighth standard and a son is in seventh.

“Till eighth, the government provides free education under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, so I taught my daughter till that,” says Sheilo, who got her admitted in ninth and somehow paid the tuition fee.

“I asked people for second-hand books and got them for her,” she says. “But it is difficult to pay the fee every month when one earns as little as we do,” she wipes a tear before entreating you to let her know if there is free education for children who have passed eighth.

It’s not easy being at the bottom of the social ladder. “Since we deal with garbage and damaged goods, well-off people do not want to mingle with us,” says Sheilo, adding, “But not all are hostile. There are few who smile at us and talk to us nicely. In those moments, we feel respected and it’s like we too matter.”

After 30 years of scrounging, Sheilo is resigned to being a nobody. “Waise bhi wo kehte hain na, gareebi aur majboori insaan ko har haal mein jeena sikha deti hai (As they say, poverty and helplessness teach you to survive in every condition),” she sighs. With every passing year, the burden of rags is only getting heavier for Sheilo. It’s not easy to lug around 30-35 kilos daily. “I frequently suffer pain in the knee and back. Only yesterday, I had to skip work to visit the dispensary,” says Sheilo, scared of a future without work. She can ill afford to go without income for a day.

“Somehow we will manage till we can. Uske baad to sab rab bharose (Then, it’s all in God’s hands),” she says before going back to collecting scraps and scrunched plastic bottles from the roadside.

Brijpal says shopkeepers make a mess after he cleans up. (Sikander S Chopra/HT)


(By Manraj Grewal Sharma)

He is one of the veteran safai workers of the city. Serious and stoic. His colleagues call him Baba. Brijpal, 55, has seen Chandigarh go from squeaky clean to not so clean in his 35 years of service.

“When I started working in 1983, things were different,” recounts Brijpal. He was all of 20, and though it was exciting to be on the rolls of the UT administration, he wasn’t prepared for the grime. “We used to claw out the garbage from bins, and throw it in the dump,” Brijpal grimaces, recalling a time when a broken glass shard slashed his hand. It was worse in the monsoons when he often found himself wading in filth. “I felt dirty all the time no matter how much I bathed,” Brijpal shudders.

Things have improved. The administration has bought dumpers. The safai workers no longer use their hands to dump garbage. But the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan has brought new problems. “Thanks to a mobile app, people take pictures of any garbage they see and shoot off a complaint,” says Brijpal, who is stationed in Sector 22. Criticism is part of his life. “We are policed by everyone, from residents to councillors and MC officials, but there is no one to address our grievances,” gripes Brijpal.

A resident of Dadumajra, a village where the city dumps its waste, this veteran rises with the sun and reports for work at 6 am. By 10.30 am, he’s finished sweeping the streets under his jurisdiction. “We rarely have full attendance, so we clean the streets assigned to the absentee workers around 3 at noon,” explains Brijpal.

Absenteesim is a chronic problem that has its roots in the poor health of sanitation workers. Brijpal claims their insanitary work conditions put them at a high risk of skin diseases, asthma, and eye ailments. “The MC equipment seldom reaches us,” he alleges. The monsoon, he grouses, is at the door, but they are yet to get the raingear and gumboots.

With five years to retire, Brijpal has married off his two elder daughters and is trying to educate his two sons. “While one is doing graduation, the other is in Class X. I encourage them to do private jobs.” But sanitation is not a career option for them. “I want them to lead a healthy life,” rasps Brijpal, who also goads his colleagues to study and find better jobs. These days, he is excited because a young safai worker is preparing for the Civils. “He is bright. Who knows he may become an IAS officer?”

Prince, 18, works without a day off. (Vidhya Narayanan/HT)


(By Vidhya Narayanan)

They make your daily life easier by collecting waste from your homes but chances are you won’t notice their contribution unless they don’t turn up. The door-to-door waste collectors are critical to a clean city yet most of them are underpaid, undervalued, and seen with suspicion. Being in the unorganised sector, they have little job security, pay or dignity, yet most of them continue to work because they have no other option.

Eighteen-year-old Prince has been collecting garbage for over a year now. His older brother was already into waste collection, so he got the job “easily”. Now, he is training his 12-year-old sibling to follow his footsteps.

His day starts at 6am and goes on till late in the afternoon. He collects trash from 200 households every day, come rain or shine, and he doesn’t get an off.

After collecting garbage from each house, he manually segregates plastic and other non-biodegradable material. It’s a hazardous process as the waste includes broken pieces of glass and other sharp objects. Working without any safety gear, such as gloves, puts him at risk of cuts and injuries. But despite his hazardous job, he gets little appreciation. Being scolded and yelled at is a regular part of his job. As I talk to Prince, a woman from one of the houses comes out and yells at him for missing the second packet of waste from her house.

“It’s usual,” he says, as he hurries to complete the task. After collecting garbage from his designated area, he takes it to a dumping yard and only then calls it a day.

Prince earns Rs. 70 from each household (200 houses in all), which adds up to 14,000 a month. The contractor takes his share out of the earning, which leaves very little for him.

First Published: Jun 10, 2017 11:57 IST