Tahira hates cleaning public toilets and emptying dirty dustbins. She thinks it is the worst job that a human being has to do for living. During her work hours, she constantly feels nauseous from the stink emanating from urine soiled floors and dumped sanitary pads. Her days go without food; and when she returns home from work, she heads straight to her bathroom where she takes bath and changes clothes. It is only then Tahira goes to kitchen to eat something and cook for her family, ” no matter how much I scrub, the stink doesn’t go. Sometimes I feel it has entered inside my flesh, ” says Tahira. “Work of a sweeper is disgusting and humiliating. We are the most ill-fated people of the society.”
Tahira is one of the hundreds of women who work as sanitation workers or sweepers with Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) on the meagre consolidated salaries of 4,500 per month. Besides cleaning public toilets, Tahira sweeps roads, cleans open drains and collects garbage-door to door- from households.
“Sanitation of the city will not improve unless sweepers are treated well. Most of us work half-heartedly because we are not happy with our jobs and the way our department or society treats us, adds Tahira.
Sweeper community is the most stigmatized communities in the valley. The community lives in abject poverty and isolation. As majority of the valley still lacks drainage,the household toilets open in sewage drains that sweepers have to clean with bare hands. Because of this direct dealing with human excreta, the community is looked down upon and ostracized like manual scavengers in rest of the country, ” I hate social gatherings because people avoid us. Eating food together is too much to ask for; people don’t even sit by our side. We have no contact with outside community. We marry among ourselves, “says Shahzada, a middle aged sweeper woman. ” My children ask me why I still carry out this profession if it has failed to give us money and respect in the society. They also live isolated lives like us, ” Shahzada adds.
According to Shahzada the most important reason, however, for the reluctance of sweepers towards cleaning toilets and open sewage drains is their vulnerability to diseases. Despite repeated requests, Shahzada revealed, municipality authorities never vaccinated and immunized them against some of the basic infections that the community is prone to, ” we are not treated as humans. You should see what sort of things we touch with our bare hands. There are animal carcasses, human placenta, dead rodents, sanitary pads, diapers and human faeces. For that paltry sum they call our salaries, we have to do all that. Isn’t that too much?” asks Shahzada.
The sweepers working under SMC are not given some of the basic safety gadgets including facemasks, gloves and rubber boots. They are not vaccinated for any infections and diseases they are susceptible to. There are no awareness workshops conducted, nor are any routine medical checkups done.Since garbage containing broken glass and sharp edged metal pieces is lifted with bare hands, the sweepers often get cuts and bruises that later catch infections and ooze pus.
There have been reports of sweepers catching various respiratory and skin ailments due to direct contact with germs and infections. Haleema, a young sweeper says she is prone to respiratory infections and often gets chest infections and nasal congestion, ” my only worry is that my children should not get sick because of me. I have two small kids at home and I have no idea what kind of infections I bring home with me,” says visibly worried Haleema.
Haleemas husband, who too works as sweeper gets rashes and itching all over his body and there are always wounds and bruises in his feet and hands, ” one appointment at a hospital means at least 500 rupees of medicines. My husband doesn’t even go to doctor now because the doctors tells him to keep himself clean and sanitized which he cannot do,” Haleema adds.
As the SMC fails to keep pace with the urbanization and the expansion of city, the sweepers find it difficult to cope up with the vast assigned areas. In the groups of two and three, the sweepers could be seen till late afternoons, sweeping roads and collecting garbage from the residential houses, “people shout at us that why we reach late to their areas, but we are assigned huge areas and it is difficult to cover all of that in the morning hours,” says Jana Begum, an elderly sweeper.
Although sweeping is Jana’s ancestral occupation, she prays that her children do not have to join her profession. Amid poverty, Jana provided basic education to her three sons and thinks that it is high time for the government to bring out some rehabilitation and uplifting schemes for the sweeper community of the valley, ” this abuse and poverty is otherwise going to haunt our new generations forever if the government doesn’t take a step now,” says Jana.
Although Jana’s counterparts believe that low wages and ill treatment makes them do their work half-heartedly, Jana swears to God that she does as much as her ailing body allows, ” I will never like to keep streets and toilets unclean. After all these are my own people I work for. But what can I do? I am burdened.”
When the whole country is talking about the much hyped Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and fighting to end manual scavenging, the sweeper community in the valley still struggle with minimum wages, poverty, workload, stigma and hazardous work conditions, ” am I not a manual scavenger? Do I not collect human faeces with my bare hands?” asks Jana Begum. When will authorities wake up.
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