A few days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in New Delhi: “If anybody has a right over this nation, it is those who work for the cleanliness of the nation. The sanitation and conservancy workers in the country have the first right to say Vande Mataram”.
The PM’s words may sound heroic, but does he know the truth? Leave alone the right to say Vande Mataram, the safai karamchari (conservancy workers) are deprived of even basic rights that are required to survive. All across the country, sanitation and conservancy workers are forced to live a life that is utterly inhuman and disgraceful to say the least.
Sample this. In 2015, as many as 310 sanitation workers, who were Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) official conservancy labourers, died due to various work-related reasons. The number will increase if contract workers are added to this. Still, the ratio comes to the death of nearly one worker a day. How many people in this city of dreams know about this terrible truth?
Now, sample another fact. About 7,000 workers are yet to be paid minimum wage arrears of more than Rs 84 crore by the BMC. As per rules, if minimum wages are not paid, a fine of 10 times that amount is slapped and given to the labourers. It means that arrears of a whopping Rs 924 crore are owed to these workers by the BMC. A minimum wage is one that keeps body and soul together, and if it is not paid, you are pushing that person to starvation and death. But does anyone bother about it?
Across the country, our sanitation and conservancy workers work in most inhuman and appalling conditions. Almost all these labourers come from the Dalit community, which is the most downtrodden section of society. They play a major role in keeping our cities clean and hygienic by cleaning manholes, nalas, gutters, sewage lines, roads and public places. But while doing so, they also face a constant threat to their lives.
As per the Gujarat High Court directives, it is the responsibility of local civic bodies to ensure the safety of these conservancy workers. Apart from providing them basic personal hygiene equipment, safety tests should be held before they enter the manholes. There should be paramedical facilities available if any untoward incident takes place. But, sadly, these rules are blatantly violated. Worst of all is the contract system, which is prevalent all across India. It has robbed workers of even the basic rights that this thankless work offers. As per the rules, any work, which is perennial and statutory cannot be given on contract. Despite this, these workers are appointed on contract. They are deprived of benefits like pension, gratuity, bonus etc., which a permanent worker gets.
While Mr Modi is talking of providing the first right to say Vande Mataram to sanitation and conservancy workers, he should also ensure that they are provided with the right to live as a human being first. Their dignity, human and labour rights needs to be protected. Then they will definitely say with pride, Vande Mataram!
(The writer is secretary of the Mumbai-based Kachara Vahatuk Shramik Sangh, which fights for the rights of sanitation and conservancy workers.)