‘Don’t Wash Our Feet’: Sanitation Workers’ Mann Ki Baat to PM Modi
A day after PM Modi’s gesture of washing feet, sanitation workers protest in Delhi demanding reservation & dignity.
Video Editor: Sandeep Suman & Mohd Irshad
“What’s the point in washing our feet?” asked 52-year-old Subhash, a sanitation worker in Faridabad.
Anger was palpable in Subhash’s voice as he recalled how he had survived a near-fatal accident in 2017 when he suffered a blackout while cleaning a manhole.
Employed as a sewer worker since 1989, going down into a manhole with just a handkerchief covering his mouth, is not unusual for Subhash. But that day, the harmful vortex of methane gas did take a toll on him.
‘Will Washing the Feet Bring Back Dead Sewer Workers?’
The last thing Subhash remembers is that he was able to fill the bucket with the silt the moment he had climbed down. As part of the daily drill, he told the other person who was standing on the top to hold the bucket full of sludge,and then suddenly Subhash fainted.
Those around him tried to force down a soft drink down his throat, thinking it was a heat stroke. Subhash was rushed to a hospital where a team of doctors monitored him at an ICU (Intensive Care Unit) for the next 26 days.
“There is no facility of medical checkup. We undergo a medical checkup only when hit by the gas (inside the manhole).”Subhash, Sanitation Worker, Faridabad (Haryana)
Subhash is not impressed with the recent act of Prime Minister Modi washing the feet of sanitation workers in Prayagraj.
“Will this (gesture) bring back those sewer workers who have lost their lives?”Subhash
‘Lost My Two Brothers, Didn’t Get a Rupee as Compensation’
Beena has been working as a sanitation worker since childhood. A mother of two kids, Beena can’t recall the exact age when she along with her two brothers started cleaning the roads and collecting garbage from individual houses in Delhi’s Rohini.
Occasionally, when the gutters in the area would get choked with filth, her brothers would be asked to clean the manholes in the area. And then tragedy struck one day. The year was 1990.
Beena lost both her brothers who had climbed down inside a 40-feet-deep manhole without any gloves, mask or protective gear of any kind.
“I didn’t realise (when the incident happened) since I was working inside. My brothers were sent inside a 40-feet deep manhole.I kept on crying and screaming from outside but neither the Housing Society nor the government offered any help.”Beena (Sanitation Worker, Sultanpuri, Delhi)
‘While We are Contracting Diseases, Govt is Least Bothered’
Forty-year-old Rajesh Babreek has been working as a sanitation worker at Bikaner’s PBM (Prince Bijaysingh Memorial) Hospital since the last 15 years.
Apart from cleaning the hospital premises, Rajesh is entrusted with the task of washing hospital linen, mostly from the OT (operation theater) which is often stained with blood.
All that Rajesh gets from the contractor for his painstaking efforts is a measly Rs 225 on a daily basis.
On 25 February 2019, as hundreds of sanitation workers protested at Jantar Mantar, Rajesh had come all the way from Bikaner, urging the government to intervene and try prevent their exploitation by the contractors.
“We get nothing from the government. We get only what the contractor gives us. We get no (protective gear). We don’t have any equipment. While we are contracting diseases, government is least bothered.”Rajesh, Sanitation Worker, Bikaner (Rajasthan)
‘Govt Has Not Fulfilled its Legal Duty Towards Manual Scavengers’
Speaking to The Quint, Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav who was at the forefront of these protests by sanitation workers said that “the Modi government does not have anything to show,” when it comes to their track record on ‘safai karamcharis’.
“They have not spent one single paisa on rehabilitation of manual scavengers, which is their legal duty and responsibility. Washing their feet will not wash away your sins, Prime Minister.”Yogendra Yadav, President, Swaraj India
For sanitation workers who had come from five states – Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi, UP and Punjab – if a government can ensure that they are not treated as untouchables, perhaps that will help in getting rid of the baggage these individuals from the Valmiki community have been carrying forth since generations.
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