Sewer workers not manual scavengers? Union minister lives in delusion, roundtable told
A roundtable with sewer workers, organized by the civil rights group Dalit Adivasi Shakti Adhikar Manch (DASAM) at Tahirpur, Delhi, has taken strong exception to Union minister for social justice and empowerment Ramdas Athawale seeking to distinguish between manual scavenger and sewer workers.
Addressing Delhi sewer workers, Ena Zafar, national coordinator, DASAM, said that the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Act 2013 defines a ‘manual scavenger’ as someone who is engaged or employed by an individual or a local authority or an agency or a contractor, for manually cleaning, carrying, disposing of, or otherwise handling in any manner, human excreta in an insanitary latrine or in an open drain or pit into which the human excreta from the insanitary latrines is disposed of, or on a railway track or in such other spaces or premises before the excreta fully decomposes in such a manner.
Therefore, Zafar said, if the employed person is not provided with protective gear to clean excreta does he deem as a manual scavenger. She insisted, “The exemption of considering the practice as manual scavenging on the basis of ‘protective gears’ is delusional as the workers have to enter the sewer, drains or open pits without any gear. It is a rare incident where the workers are provided with any gear.”
Speakers at the roundtable agreed, most sewer workers receive no safety equipment for their work. Worse, money is deducted from their salary for non-working days such as Saturday, Sunday and other public holidays. Workers at some spots receive a salary of Rs14,500 in bank out of which they have to return the money to the Junior Engineer (JE), as the JE deducts the money for non-working day, i.e. Saturday, Sunday and other public holidays, and calculates the wage as Rs 400 to be given per working day.
Further, there are no uniform wages throughout Delhi; despite risking their lives, there is complete uncertainty of job; there is a constant threat to lose work if they raise their voice against the system; and as one worker said, “We do not know if there will be food on our plates the next day”.
The workers also informed the gathering, they have to work in small areas, where the machine cannot enter, and they have to enter manually to do the needful, and they receive at the maximum a rope from the authorities in the name of safety equipment which is tied to their waist as they enter the sewer. They demanded recognition for risking their lives, equal wages throughout Delhi, and adequate medical and other facilities which are provided to permanent employees
Ashok Kumar Taank, a DASAM leader, emphasized the need for the workers to unite and raise their voice against the continuous harassment they face. He added, continuous efforts have been made by the government to make the sewer workers invisible so that it is not held accountable for the continuous deaths taking place in the sector.
After hearing from the sewer workers, the panelists — Sanjay Gehlot, chairperson, Delhi Commission for Safai Karamchari; Ved Prakash Bidlaan, president, Delhi Jal Board Sewer Department Mazdoor Sangathan; Susheel Chandel, general secretary, Delhi Jal Board Sewer Department Mazdoor Sangathan; Virender Godh, president, Municipal Workers Lal Jhanda Union; and Sushil Kaim; Jal Mal Kaamgaar Sangharsh Morcha — agreed that under the contractual system, the workers are forced to do odd jobs when the contract goes for renewal.
They insisted, since the nature of work is permanent, the workers should be allotted a permanent position by the government for their work. Governments come and go and talk about abolishing the contractual system but it has continued and workers continue to lose their lives in this system.
Gehlot recalled his struggle when his mother used to work as a sanitation worker and he used to pitch in to help her. He pointed to how the one who cleans the street to make city cleaner faces all kinds of dirt while at work, raising his concern towards the uncertainty of job under the contractual system.
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