ON A hot and humid Saturday, as well-to-do Puneites sought comfort near coolers and air-conditioners, conservancy employees of the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) continued to work out in the open, in the merciless heat. As the sun scalded their skin and made breathing tough, they went about their jobs, cleaning choked stormwater drains and stinking nullahs, in ‘B’ and ‘D’ division areas of the PCMC.
While a few wore gumboots as they walked through the sludge, others either worked bare feet or wore chappals. Their mandatory face masks were missing, even as the unbearable stink made the job absolutely difficult. Most of them didn’t even have handgloves. They removed the intractable sludge with their hands, though manual scavenging is banned under the Manual Scavengers Act, 2013.
Manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, disposing or handling, in any manner, human excreta from dry latrines and sewers.
This is the daily grind for almost 1,800 conservancy workers of the PCMC. Though their service rules don’t allow them to speak openly, some of them said basic safety equipment are not provided to them. “We are supposed to work without complaining about the lack of gloves, face masks or gumboots,” said a conservancy employee from Pimpri. He added, “Who cares about our health?”
Over the years, conservancy staff have remained at the receiving end of the apathy of civic officials. Moved by their plight, activist Sagar Charan had recently complained to the National Commission for Safai Karmacharis about the PCMC’s lack of initiative in making working conditions safe for conservancy staff, especially those cleaning drains and nullahs. The commission sent a letter to PCMC Commissioner Shravan Hardikar on May 18, asking him to look into the complaints and submit an action-taken report as soon as possible.
Charan said that in his complaint, he pointed out that the PCMC didn’t ensure that safety equipment, which are compulsory, are provided to those involved in hazardous jobs.
“The PCMC’s attitude towards safai karmacharis is deplorable. It simply does not seem to care for them… What is shocking is that most of the employees have to indulge in manual scavenging to remove the sludge from the choked nullahs, in the absence of proper instruments,” he said.
Charan said though the central government has banned manual scavenging, the practice continued in PCMC areas. “On top of this, the PCMC also doesn’t carry out comprehensive health check-ups of the employees, it only resorts to routine check ups,” he claimed.
When queried on the issue, PCMC Assistant Municipal Commissioner M Dandavate said he will hold an urgent meeting of sanitary inspectors next week, to ascertain why safety equipment was not being provided to conservancy staff. Denying that manual scavenging takes place in PCMC areas, Dandavate said, “So far, I have not received the commission’s directives, but we will take appropriate action in the matter and submit a report.”