ENDING THE decades-long practice of manual scavenging at the annual Wari or pilgrimage procession to the Vitthal temple in Pandharpur, the local municipality has for the last couple of years ensured there are portable public toilets along the route for the use of the 15 lakh Warkaris (pilgrims). However, the several hundred conservancy workers temporarily contracted to clean these portable toilets — mostly members of the Valmiki community, including many from Rajasthan — now face living and working conditions hazardous to their health.
One such group, of 110 men and women from Rajasthan, is living on the ‘65 acres’ ground, named for its sprawl, where over 2 lakh devotees gather. Earning Rs 10,000 per month for over 20 hours of daily work, the landless labourers from Kota say they are struggling to teach the devotees to properly use the prefabricated structures, adding that the are facing serious health issues.
Manual scavenging may have ended but conservancy workers live amid filth, stench “Most devotees are senior citizens who do not have the habit of using a toilet. They do not even know how to sit on them, and instead prefer to defecate in the open. We not only have to convince them to use the toilets but also ensure they use them properly,” says Shyam Lal, 30, a temporary conservancy worker from Rajasthan.
Others say they have to wash a toilet with 10-12 buckets of water to ensure it is clean. “Since these people do not know how to use the toilets, they end up clogging the same. We have to use a brush many times to clean and unclog them,” says Sarla, a woman conservancy worker. She said the contractors had given them equipment including brushes, gloves, masks and phenyl, but the stench stays with them even after the workday ends.
The group from Kota is part of the several hundreds of people from Valmiki community who have arrived in Dehu and Alandi near Pune. From these towns, they accompany the devotees on foot for the approximately 230-km route to Pandharpur, cleaning portable toilets along the way. In Pandharpur this year, say authorities, a total of 1,900 prefabricated portable toilets have been installed ahead of the Ashadhi Ekadashi religious fair currently under way.
According to Pandharpur Municipal Council Chief Officer Abhijit Bapat, around 1,000 safai karmacharis, including permanent municipal workers of Pandharpur and others from neighbouring districts, have been employed to maintain cleanliness of the city and its permanent toilets. The work of cleaning the nearly 1,900 temporary toilets has been outsourced.
The conservancy workers hired on contract spend their nights in rain-resistant tents that can accommodate two persons. These tents are, however, set up close to the portable toilets so that the cleaning staff is readily available. A vehicle to vacuum out the accumulated faeces before transporting it to a sewage treatment plant makes regular rounds, just metres from where the conservancy workers’ tents are pitched. “When the vehicle comes, the stench is unbearable. It gives us a headache even if we are here inside our tents,” says a teenager who is part of the group. When it rains, water from the toilets trickles down in puddles right outside the tents, she says.
“We sleep barely for over an hour during the peak pilgrimage days. We are expected to work in shifts but we end up taking only small breaks from work to ensure the toilets are fit for use,” says Samras Lal, another conservancy worker. The groups say the pay is poor for the hard labour and long hours, but they travel in search of livelihood due to lack of options back home. In addition, they say, the wages are spent on food and medicine, with the unhygienic conditions leading to frequent bouts of fever and infection, especially among the children accompanying them.
The groups employed for the job as well as activists who first approached the Bombay High Court against the practice of manual scavenging on the banks of the Chandrabhaga river, and against the pollution of the river caused by open defecation by the pilgrims in the absence of adequate sanitation facilities, now say manual scavenging may have ended but the conditions for those cleaning the new toilets have remained poor.
Pradip More of the Campaign Against Manual Scavenging says while their public interest litigation yielded guidelines on safai karmacharis employed in Pandharpur, the current conditions for temporary and permanent workers show the guidelines are not being adhered to. “Workers from outside the state who migrate due to lack of livelihood are forced to work for lower wages due to lack of employment elsewhere. They are also forced to agree to poor living conditions, including not being paid even the minimum wages prescribed under law. The responsibility of the health of these workers and the children accompanying them should be the concern of the municipal council,” says More.
While the migrant workers can access the health services extended by authorities to the devotees, they say being on the move every day means changing doctors and medicines, rendering much of their treatment ineffective. “Each one of us ends up falling sick in this month, especially the children. My three-year-old son fell ill twice and continues to have a fever. He is too young to be kept behind at home, and this travel and the living conditions have taken a toll on him,” says Shyam.
Another worker says she spent Rs 2,000 over the past two weeks on medication for her seven-year-old son.
According to Bapat, the contract conditions mandate giving protective gear and cleaning equipment to the temporary staff. “We have mandated that these workers be given all protective gear including masks, gloves and jackets. The responsibility of their stay, health and food is that of the contractor,” he says.
Guru Dhodiya, leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Safai Mazdoor Sanghatana, a local conservancy workers’ group belonging to the Mehtar community, says his ancestors came to Pandharpur from
Gujarat over 100 years ago for manual scavenging work. “The practice may have stopped in some measure but members of the community continue to work in bad conditions. Since we began protesting for our rights, the authorities have found similar vulnerable groups to work as temporary workers without proper remuneration or facilities,” he says.
Members of the Mehtar community continue to be employed as safai karamcharis, made to clean the permanent toilets, drainage pits and other parts of the city.
With the pilgrimage over, the group from Rajasthan awaits instructions from the contractor. “There is no livelihood at home since we do not have any land. We travel for work though the pay is meagre. Some of us have studied till Class 8-10, but are not given any other jobs. We will go next wherever we are asked to,” says Shyam.