By Harsh Dabas
Views are personal
“My Badge of Honour is His Life Of Shame”- sighs Samdish, a well-known face from the YouTube Channel– ScoopWhoop Unscripted; as he steps out from a pungent open drain in Mumbai, after doing the job of a sewage worker. He later haves a small chat with another worker, telling why he hasn’t told his beloved, that he works here.
His documentary bore a critical question to our society and establishment alike, as these workers were carrying out their hazardous operations in gross conditions, and were barely equipped with a harness.
This is the common story of sanitation workers in India, despite being 5 Million strong in the country, they face the worst of garbage India produces.
India produces 1,47,613 metric tonnes of waste per day, as per a report by MoHUA (JAN 2020), of which most flows through a network of sewers or “open drains/naalas”.
Now ideally, open ‘naalas’ don’t require much maintenance as they don’t get clogged or blocked easily, like the sewers in the cities, and can be maintained by machines from WWTPs.
It is the small and medium-sized drain/sewer lines, present in cities, in which the gross violation of human dignity takes place.
It’s the 90’s, The Last Great Decade, and the middle-class Indians have unleashed all their aspirations and ambitions, due to the advent of liberalisation in 1991. With the economy rising, everyone seemed happy and living their lives to the fullest.But, were things really good for all?
The place is Mumbai, and it all began in 1996, when a determined individual began riding along in garbage trucks, for almost an year to convince workers that, if they could arrange themselves in a proper union, they could avail both– improved working conditions and pay.
This individual was Milind Ranade, who left his job at a textile-mill, so as to raise and establish a worker’s union, that alleviates the hassles and discrimination faced by these workers and raise their working conditions.
Coming back to 1996, he succeeded in his attempt and a union was formed the next year (in 1997), named-Kachra Vahatuk Shramik Sangh. Now, since a union was formed, they made out a plan for their first mission and chose Deonar as their strike site.
Deonar, a suburb in Mumbai, had a peculiar issue, particularly with its dumping ground, which segregated workers not on the basis of Caste, but whether they were contract or permanent employees.
The resource in question was- Water as, the contract workers were not given the facility of drinking water while their permanent counterparts had that privilege.
So, the union had a simple plan- just declare a strike at the dumping ground, wait for media to catch up and publicize their move, and within 24 hours a drinking facility was inducted for contract workers at Deonar.
Hence, the Union’s move helped contract workers to reclaim their right to drinking water, and “the Union built their base on water”, as Ranade remarked later.
Contract of Dignity
Now, who are the contract workers that came into this equation?
The workers who, basically, did the same work as their permanent counterparts, but with no job security, paid meager income and were under constant fear of being laid off.
This was a method used rampantly, by municipal authorities to cut down on costs, by either subcontracting or delegating work to private corporations, which in the ’90s, reached an alarming trend in capitals and metropolitans like Hyderabad, Patna, Mumbai, etc.
Now, Avid Labour Law readers would be puzzled as to why this happened in the first place as, the law states that work involving garbage or waste can’t be handed out to private corporations.
But they found a way to circumvent this provision, they cleverly redefined their work as “removing debris”.
Now, what fruit did they bore by changing a word? -Well, a lot!
If a worker gets injured or dies in an occupation-related mishap, in normal circumstances, compensation has to be awarded by the Principal-Employer, i.e, the Municipality. However, if the worker faces the same while working for a corporation, no compensation would be awarded as they (corporate) don’t fit in the definition of Principal-Employer, hence absolving themselves of all responsibility of awarding compensation to the injured/deceased.
So, the union’s next mission was clear– to bombard the municipality with ammunition of cases, dragging them to courts and making clever arguments; backed by a plethora of evidence.
This happened in 1997, and the verdict came out in 2003; which was a huge triumph for the contract workers as the Mumbai HC ruled in their favor, also signaling a move for 1,200 contract workers to be regularized, I.e., given permanent jobs.
This made Ranade and his Union history, and it still functions to this day, alleviating the discrimination, the sanitation workers face and helping in their upliftment.
And this is how a new term comes in the Indian Context-Regularisation.
To the workers, this word holds immense importance as they believe it to be a key to alleviate some problems on its own and, since a lot of workers are being told to stand up for their rights, and organise themselves, we see a lot of strikes and legal battles from the worker’s camp.
Such is the 2017 judgment of Bombay High Court, which redeemed the Permanent employment status of 2,700 contract workers after a decade-long legal battle.
And various protests have been held over the years, by workers demanding regularisation in Patna, Hyderabad and Madurai.
Regularisation provides benefits to workers, by providing them stable pay, more rights, better job security and no risk of being leeched off by corporations.
And the fight for regularisation still continues- as recently, the Supreme Court expressed-“Mighty state fighting against a sweeper”, and ordered the state to deposit INR 50,000 for the legal costs incurred by the sweeper, as the state had challenged the HC order regarding the regularisation of services.
But within these cases and judgments, one lesser talked aspect is the actual working conditions these workers face.
They are exposed to various forms of hazards, such as the gases like methane and hydrogen sulphide which cause severe respiratory disorders, cardio-degeneration, musculoskeletal-deformation, poisoning, and dermatitis.
Not to forget the plethora of infections these workers face, which often go untreated.
In India, according to the data released by the Centre, there are 58,098 workers in the country doing manual scavenging, 941 have died while cleaning sewers or sprite lines.
It is emphasized on that these workers face the worst working conditions, but their social condition too, is not that good, due to another evil in our society- Untouchability.
This vile practice which corrupted Indians and made the lower castes suffer hell on Earth is also another trouble-maker for the workers as they are looked down upon by the society and there have been several instances where they weren’t offered water, even after a polite request as they are simply seen as- Unhygienic.
All this needs to be redressed as early as possible, as there are still solutions that can seriously alleviate all these problems.
For this, we can refer to three aspects which face the issue- Social, Legal and Technical.
We can organise and lead rallies with several unions, do strikes, commence some form of healthy interaction between workers and society, so that the latter gets aware of the former’s problems, and build momentum for the same.
Legally, workers can approach courts without hesitation, and get support from other unions as well as pro-bono legal authorities. The workers must be provided with basic education and a crisp understanding of their rights and remedies. Technically, we can innovate using body-suits, which maintain zero contact between the sewage and worker, hence, minimizing the risk of all health disorders they face when they step into the drain without any body-suit.
The workers do a really important task for our society, but the latter barely acknowledges that, and instead, does discrimination towards them.
This is shameful and until these three aspects are resolved, the workers will never get to see the day when their dignity is restored and they are accepted in society with open arms.