Whenever Shani has to enter the black waters of the sewers, the things that he is most afraid of are nearby transformers and electrical wires. Snakes, broken glass and poisonous gases come next. “Recently, two boys were crushed by a sewer which collapsed over them. One fractured his leg, the other died,” he tells me over a cup of saccharine sweet tea outside the Public Works Department office in Aligarh. “Of course I am afraid, but I do it to provide for my family. Who would want to go inside neck-deep filth?”
The tea at the dhaba, too sweet for my taste, is savoured by the labourers waiting for a day’s work to come their way. There are rickshaw pullers waiting for the morning rush, and a few stray clerks who hang around the nearby university campus. But at 7 in the morning (and sometimes at 11am), the place becomes the gossip centre for the city’s overworked cleaners, sweepers and manual scavengers.
“Yahin hum apna rona rone aate hain (we come here to cry),” says Umesh Valmiki, the de facto leader of the group consisting of young boys tired of scouting for other jobs, and middle-aged men who have now stopped looking beyond. Between periods of intense agonising over their lives and the state of the world, they share raunchy jokes, circulate office gossip, skim through local newspapers, and discuss politics. Most are highly overworked around national occasions like the Independence Day, Republic Day and Gandhi Jayanti.
“Look at this," Valmiki calls out. "They are bringing out jobs for women. For a monthly wage of Rs 5,000, they’d need to clean 200 houses everyday!” Everyone seated around him earns a wage of Rs 7,500 a month. “A beggar would probably earn more.”
Valmiki is the ‘ladies' man’ or ‘Kishen Kanhaiya’ as his friends call him. “In December, he will be handcuffed in marriage,” laughs Deepak Kumar, who passed his Grade 12 exams a couple of years ago. The thing that the 24-year-old Kumar despises most are visits from politicians or ministers. “We often have to often work double shifts for inspections." Today, on October 2, the Swachhta Abhiyaan has completed its four years. On October 2, 2014, the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched as a national movement. The campaign aims to achieve the vision of a ‘Clean India’ by October 2, 2019. But for Valmiki and co, this day is just one on which the politicians like to pose with brooms. A sweeper in Valmiki’s group, Dinesh Kumar, is angry that the benefits of Prime Minister Modi’s Clean India campaign haven’t reached the manual scavengers. “All the the credit is taken by the politicians and big officers by just posing with a broom,” says Kumar. “Kabhi naale me bhi utarye, sahib. (Please descend into the sewers sometime, sir).”
India has more than 53,000 manual scavengers, most of whom work without any facilities, safety equipment and at paltry salaries. A vast majority belong to lower castes and face large-scale discrimination due to the nature of their work. In 2017, more than 100 such workers died at their job. Last month, manual scavengers in Delhi came out on streets to protest the death of five men who died cleaning a septic tank. In India, waste still carries the stigma of caste and pollution, and the waste cleaner is not just a professional doing his job but one who is forced into it because he belongs to a caste group relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy.
Apart from their morning and, at times, evening get-togethers at the dhaba, this group meets at wedding ceremonies, office events and funerals. There is a stark divide among the priorities of the boys and the men. The men have set up small shops and hope to get permanent jobs, while Deepak Kumar and other 20-somethings spend time playing cricket and making travel plans that never seem to materialise. “But now, everyone is getting more engrossed in responsibilities,” he says. If he has spare time at hand, he likes to read. “I am reading the Bible nowadays.”
Lovin, with a handsome face and sporting a fashionable T-shirt, is rumoured to not washing his face before coming to duty—something everyone loves to pull his leg about. “l like cricket but don’t care about the results unless our opponent is Pakistan," he tells me. Sunny waits for Ajay Devgn films as he feels he is “the only actor who makes films one can watch with their family”. He finds the rest too vulgar.
The conversation is briefly interrupted by rickshaw pullers sitting on adjacent benches. They are talking of the restrictions imposed on e-rickshaw drivers in the city. “Imagine the plight of the guys who have invested all their money to buy the batterywala rickshaw," Lovin says. But his friends have issues with the attitude of the e-rickshaw operators. “Saale, chai bhi nahi peete woh. (They don’t even stop to have tea).”
It’s not that easy to find another job for someone who hails from a family of sweepers. “There is no chance that a private business or shops run by upper-caste people would give work to someone who comes from a family of cleaners," says Naveen. He once changed his name and began working at a scrap workshop because he couldn’t find a job. But he left it after being subject to casteist slurs from men who found out about the community he hails from.
Valmiki tells me that most of them regularly have to deal with such slurs from their colleagues and the residents of the city—upper-caste Hindus, Muslims and even from castes that are considered more superior among the Dalits. “They can’t beat us like the old times, so they have to suffice with loathing from a distance. Even if we buy an aeroplane, they’d still look at us like a sewer cleaner."
As the clock strikes 8, the rickshaw pullers leave to pick up school-going kids. The group bids each other goodbye for another gruelling day.
Valmiki feels that though they keep pushing for their rights, it would take a long time before he and his group of friends think about leaving behind the hazardous task of manual scavenging. “The maximum I hope is for us to get plastic gloves and a bucket in some time," he says as he gets ready to pay the bill. “How would you take away the putrid smell, though?"
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