Pune: Shakuntala Nagar Jinwal lives in Ramtekdi in a slum rehabilitation house. She works as a street sweeper, employed by a contractor for the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). She starts her work at 6 am and works till 10 am in her first shift around Azad Nagar. After a tea-and-food break, she shifts to another street near Wanawadi.
"I have to clean up the allotted patch within the time given. I am given no safety equipment by the PMC or contractor. No gloves, no cap or mask. The contractor even asks us to bring our own brooms," Shakuntala said, adding, "I have to pick up dead rats and cats and put them in my trolley. There are strewn bones, rotten meat and vegetables. People don't bother to separate their waste."
Shakuntala said she has to face insults in her job every day. "When I clean an area, someone comes and throws a bag of garbage within minutes. If I ask them not to throw garbage or suggest they throw it in a bin, they say 'It is your job, do it and don’t complain. We don’t pay taxes for nothing'. Once a woman threw stale food from her window and it fell next to me. When the supervisor and I looked at her, she started shouting saying, 'Don’t take your salaries for free, pick it up'," she recounted.
Shakuntala said the first thing her daughter asks when she returns from work is for her to take a bath.
Kavita Lokhande sweeps the street near Bharati Vidyapeeth. She said people don’t even offer water sometimes. “Once a little girl came out with a glass and a jar of water to offer it to me. Her father shouted at her and made her go back,” Lokhande said, adding, “In the rains, people don’t let us sit in rickshaws as our bodies smell of garbage.”
“Most conservancy workers are Dalits. They come from the Mahar, Matang, Chambhar, Dhor and Mehtar communities,” said Santosh Gaikwad, a member of the PMC Safai Kamgar Union. Gaikwad said only the organised and unionised workers get better treatment. “Permanent employees of the PMC get good pay and a few provisions. Contractual workers are denied access to labour rights,” he said.
Chandrakant Gamare is of the same union. He said there are 6-7 thousand permanent employees and 4-5 thousand contractual workers in the PMC. “The PMC has to give us gloves, slippers, uniforms, masks, bleaching powder, soap and phenyl. Most public urinals and toilets have a tank overhead. These tanks don’t fill up due to low water pressure and the workers have to clean the toilet in limited water with a broom.”
Prakash Chavan, a retired conservancy worker, remembers that when public toilets were given on contract, the contractors belonged to higher castes. “The cleaner though, remained from the castes that have traditionally cleaned toilets,” Chavan said. adding, “We used to get group insurance while in the PMC, but as almost 100 workers die each year from diseases like TB, the insurance company later backed out.”
Santosh Multani has been a conservancy worker for 21 years. “We have been in this profession for generations. Our families are used to it. Many of the people I know at work got TB, paralysis and asthma. A younger colleague of mine is half-paralysed. We can’t enter the dirt without alcohol,” Multani said, adding, “It felt like degrading work at first, now it’s just routine.”
STUCK IN THE JOB: Santosh Multani (55) stands outside his house in Shramik Nagar in Mangalwar Peth. He says his family, like many from the Mehtar community, have been doing this job for generations and it will probably be the same for his children.