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Updated: June 28, 2010 13:09 IST

The unsung heroes of Tech City

K. C. Deepika
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Consider this: the pourakarmika who sweeps your street does not turn up for four days. The garbage piles up and you find yourself holding your nose every time you step out, dodging all sorts of unmentionables strewn in your path.

Despite the crucial role they play in keeping Tech City going, no one seems to be giving these waste managers the importance they deserve even though the recent strike by a section of pourakarmikas hit Bangalore's waste collection process.

Somehow, they remain “invisible” to the public's eyes and their work appears to be grossly undervalued throughout the State. This is substantiated by the conditions they work in — without the basic safety gear in what is considered a hazardous profession.

Sometimes fatal

The painful saga of “men at work” manifested itself when corporation employees Srikantan died of suffocation while cleaning an overflowing manhole in Sadashivanagar, while Venkatesh died while he was cleaning a clogged manhole on Dickenson Road.

In 2008, two pourakarmikas — 38-year-old Kariya and 40-year-old Lakshmanna — died of asphyxiation after inhaling poisonous carbon monoxide and methane when they entered a manhole to clean it in K.R. Nagar in Mysore. They did not follow the basic precaution of airing the manhole for at least two hours after opening it to allow the poisonous gases to escape.

This is not a one-off incident. Far too many pourakarmikas work in the most appalling conditions. The sight of Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike workers standing on heaps of garbage in trucks that carry it to the dumping grounds on the outskirts of the city also raises a stink.

These workers are prone to a number of health problems, including communicable diseases such as gastrointestinal disorders, diarrhoea, skin diseases, jaundice, trachoma and eosinophilia apart from work-related injuries on coming into contact with contaminants and sharp objects such as needles and metal and wood pieces. In addition, they are routinely exposed to dangerous elements such as lead from batteries as well as animal waste.

What the law says

The law is clearly on their side. The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act 1993 mandates that a safai karamchari should be provided with gloves, face masks and soap.

The Karnataka Municipality Corporation Act of 1980 also stipulates that pourakarmikas are provided uniforms, aprons, protective footwear as well as regular health check-ups.

The workers are also entitled to restrooms, urinals, first aid and washing facilities under the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1970 and this holds good as nearly 19,000 pourakarmikas are working on contract.

“Their children are also entitled to crèches. But these workers bring their children along, thus exposing them to the same dangers,” says S. Balan, General Council Member, All India Trade Union Congress.

Penchalamma, a pourakarmika, says she has access to health check-ups, but safety gear is something alien to her. “I collect garbage from at least 50 houses every day, but I have never used gloves,” she says.

What authorities say

Hira Nayak, Joint Commissioner (East), Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike, says the civic body had given the option to pourakarmikas of either accepting the safety gear from the civic body or accepting the money to buy it.

“Most of them preferred to take money,” Mr. Hira Nayak said.

On the other hand, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), which is in charge of manholes, still faces a shortage of jetting machines which would eradicate the need for manual cleaning.

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