Most people just look the other way.
Santosh Kumar* (38), however, walks down the rail track next to platform 13 of the New Delhi railway station. His is face an inscrutable mask as he begins cleaning the track — leftover food, plastic bottles, packets, paper boxes — and human excreta. Remains of a train that has ended its journey.
The railway tracks, which resemble a garbage dump, are Mr. Kumar’s workplace for 12 hours a day and have been so for a decade now. Safai Karamcharis is the tag given to Mr. Kumar and his co-workers, who get a monthly remuneration of Rs. 8,500 for their efforts to keep the railway tracks clean. The money is barely enough to make ends meet, but for a man un-educated, avenues of employment are limited.
The Safai Karamcharis are the foot soldiers of the Indian Railway's massive cleanliness drive as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, who keep the tracks clean of filth round the clock. Every day, a staggering 300 trains enter and leave the New Delhi railway station; five lakh passengers pass through the station. It is the responsibility Mr. Kumar and his colleagues to keep it clean — they are employed by private contractors to whom the Indian Railways has outsourced the work.
They work with their bare hands, wearing uniforms that are soiled. Armed with brooms and gunny sacks, the sweepers brave infections and disease every day as they wade through filth wearing only slippers. The gloves and boots provided to them are uncomfortable and of poor quality and hence generally not used.
In denial The Railway Ministry categorically denies their existence. But they are manual scavengers. For Mr. Kumar, it provides a livelihood that he hates. “Sometime the water doesn’t get the job done or the drains get clogged. That is when we have to scoop up the excreta with ply boards, using our hands,” he said, matter-of-factly.
The Parliament may have banned manual scavenging, with the passage of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, but the Railways employs them, albeit having outsourced the task. On Wednesday last week, a Delhi High Court bench, headed by Justice B.D. Ahmed, directed both the AAP government and Centre to file an affidavit indicating the steps taken under the law, particularly under Section 36 of the Act.
The High Court was hearing a petition filed by an NGO — National Campaign for Dignity and Rights of Sewerage and Allied Workers — on rehabilitation of manual scavengers in Delhi. The court expressed its “shock and disquiet” when a report by the Delhi State Legal Services Authority showed that several thousand persons were working as manual scavengers in the national Capital. The report stated that these were working with the Delhi Jal Board, municipal corporations, Railways or for contractors hired by these agencies in 30 out of 104 wards in Delhi.
The High Court’s direction holds hope for Mr. Kumar and his team for better protective gear and hopefully, a better life. “Our hands get infected all the time and recurring fevers are a part of life but there is nothing you can do; the job has to be done,” he said. Being exposed to germs and infections has meant that most of the sweepers suffer from bouts of jaundice. “It would be nice if we could be provided with face masks,” he said.
“The gloves tear easily and the boots gave me sores when I tried wearing them for work. Also, it gets very difficult to scoop up garbage while wearing gloves as it makes hand movements difficult,” said Raju* (25), another sweeper.
“It is stipulated in the tender conditions of the contractor that they have to provide protective gear such as gloves and boots. It is possible that the contractor is at fault,” said a senior commercial officer of the Railways’ Delhi Division.
The day of a railway sweeper starts very early and since most of them live in peripheral areas of Delhi as they can’t afford to pay too much rent, quite a few hours are spent on the daily commute.
Mr. Kumar lives in Narela, 40 km from the New Delhi Railway Station. “I wake up at 3.30 a.m. and leave my house in time to catch the bus at 5 a.m. I reach the railway station by 6.30 a.m. when my shift starts. I take a bus back to home after 6.30 p.m.,” he said. “By the time I return, I have no energy left to even talk to my children. It’s just eating and going to sleep again to wake up for the next day’s shift,” he said.
The stigma attached Manoj Kumar (35), lives in a village in Haryana and the long commute and 12 hour shifts means he doesn’t get to spend time with his family either. When he first got the job five years ago, he didn’t know how to break the news to his family. “I was ashamed to tell them that I would have to pick up garbage. Though now they know, my neighbours and relatives still don’t know what I exactly do at the railway station,” he said.
More than gloves and boots, however, it is the low salary and long working hours that perturbs the sweepers of New Delhi railway station. “Our salaries should be hiked keeping in mind the inflation and also, if I get more time for myself, I would like to spend it with my wife and two children,” Mr. Manoj Kumar said.
“When I reach home exhausted and reeking of garbage, my wife doesn’t let me go near my children before I take a thorough bath for fear of an infection,” he said. “The stench, however, is the last to leave my body.”
*Names have been changed to protect the workers’ identity