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This ends with me: A ‘safai karamchari’s’ dreams for a different life

Lure of a chawl room and a BMC hereditary rule keep generations of Dalits in sanitation jobs. But all Pravin Mhashilkar dreams about is a different life

Written by Ruhi Bhasin |
Updated: December 13, 2015 1:58:04 am
Mother Ratna (left) worked as a sanitary worker for nearly 40 years, when Pravin took over her job. His wife also comes from a family of sanitation workers. (Express photo by Vasant Prabhu) Mother Ratna (left) worked as a sanitary worker for nearly 40 years, when Pravin took over her job. His wife also comes from a family of sanitation workers. (Express photo by Vasant Prabhu)

For 35-year-old Pravin Mhashilkar, the career he would pursue was never an option. The choice was made for him when he didn’t perform as well as his elder brother in school. He would have to be the son who would take up the job of being a safai karamchari employed with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) after his mother.

It was his grandfather who was first hired for the job, under the British. “I don’t know much about it,” Pravin says, “only that he came to Mumbai in search of work from Raigad.”

Pravin is the third member of his family working as a safai karamchari. Under a government resolution passed in 2007, and followed by the BMC, preferential treatment is given to family members of Dalit employees in sanitation jobs, which many see as perpetuating the predominance of Dalits in the work force.

Ninety-nine per cent of safai karamcharis in the BMC are Dalits, according to leaders of safai karamchari unions.

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Congress leader Nitin Raut, who hails from the backward class, is among those who have questioned this provision keeping sanitation jobs for a community. “It is not mentioned in the Constitution that a specific community should be designated work of cleaning the lavatory,” he said, adding that the job should be open to all people “who need it and are ready to accept cleaning work”.

It’s the room in the chawl that he gets with the job that is the main attraction for Pravin, who earns Rs 12,000, of which

Rs 4,000-Rs 4,500 is cut as rent.

In a city where people are constantly jostling for space, this has made sons of safai karamcharis “eligible bachelors”, even if within the caste.

In a move underlining this attraction, on September 16, it was decided that the policy of hereditary recruitment of sanitary workers would be applied to other Scheduled Caste workers, besides those belonging to the Mehtar-Valmiki community.

Pravin shares Room No. 91 at the chawl in Panchsheel Nagar BMC safai karamcharis’ colony in Colaba with his parents, wife and daughter. It is a two-room set, including a kitchen that also serves as extra sleeping space at night. Apart from an LCD TV, a steel almirah, a fridge and kitchen utensils, the rooms are empty. Mats and pillows lie piled in a corner of the kitchen, and clothes are slung from strings everywhere.

Constructed in 1951, the building didn’t have a water pipeline in any of the toilets until recently.

Mother Ratna Prakash, 65, took voluntary retirement almost five years ago. She had got the job after her father-in-law’s death. Her husband worked as an office boy, while her mother-in-law was very old and did not want it. Again, not letting go of the room in the chawl was the main incentive.

“The chawls were allotted according to areas assigned to us. I usually worked around Colaba or Nariman Point. They gave us tokaris (baskets) to collect the garbage. There were no dustbins so you had to pick up the garbage with bare hands, sometimes leading to cuts and bruises,” says Ratna, showing the marks that remain four decades later.

She is happy her son’s lot is better, though, as she says, the amount of garbage has mounted over the years. “He has been given a uniform, gloves, boots and a mask.”

Ratna started working as a safai karamchari in her 20s, four years into her marriage, by then already a mother of four. “I was very beautiful then,” she sighs.

Of her two sons, Deepak went to college. So it fell on Pravin to take up the job after his mother retired. He gave up his job in a private firm to replace her. Deepak stays separately with his wife and two children.

“Pravin got married at 27. He could have got married much earlier. But he waited till his sister’s marriage,” says Ratna, taking hold of Pravin’s hand as she sits on an upturned bucket that serves as a stool.

“The men in the chawl get married really early. Marriage offers start coming as we can ensure security of a home for the girl. At least one member in the family will definitely take up this work,” says Ratna.

According to Pravin, one member of each family living in the chawl is a safai karamchari and they are all SCs.

Pravin’s wife Prerna also belongs to a family of safai karamcharis, the rare exception being her brother, who completed his graduation and now works as a clerk in the BMC.

His eyes on his daughter Kesar, 6, who is watching TV, Pravin says he dropped out of school after failing to clear Class X. “Otherwise, I would have got a better job in the BMC, in an office… My brother works with a firm.”

Pravin’s day begins at 2 pm, from the BMC office near the Bombay High Court, and ends at 9 every night. “We start our rounds from Moti Nagar and make our way to Dhobi Ghat before finishing near Nariman Point.”

Sometimes, when the stink is overpowering, new boys are sent for the job. The garbage, Pravin says, is “slow poison”.

It is alcohol that gets them past most days. Ratna speaks of how on the days salaries were to be handed over earlier, there would be a line of hawkers selling hooch at the chawl.

Explaining the preferential treatment clause under which Pravin was hired, Additional Municipal Commissioner Pallavi Darade says, “As per the government resolution, the legal heir of the sweeper gets the job in accordance to four categories — superannuation, if the employee completes 20 years in service, if he or she is declared medically unfit, or dies during service.” The legal heir can be an employee’s spouse, child, or someone he or she nominates as caretaker.

Of the approximately 25,500 posts of safai karamcharis in the BMC, 25,100 are currently filled. Ten per cent of these appointees are preferential treatment cases who joined between April 2014 and November 2015 alone.

Darade admits the thinking behind preferential treatment was that usually people from a certain strata of society do sanitation work. The chawl room, BMC officials add, is the incentive.

Among “protective gear” assigned to workers, Darade counts gloves, two sets of uniform, gumboots, fluorescent jackets, equipment, soap and towel. Women workers also get saris, blouses and petticoats.

Darade admits the safai karamcharis suffer from various ailments, especially respiratory, and alcoholism. “There are regular health check-ups and counselling is also organised by the Labour Department. They are also provided health insurance, with the BMC paying the cost of the treatment.”

Advocate Navnath Maharnawar, who is part of one of the largest safai karamchari unions in Mumbai, has been fighting for better working conditions for them. “Except for playing politics, no one has done anything for safai karmacharis,” he says. “The BMC sometimes gives money instead of giving soap, towels etc, but what use is that?”

And then there is the chawl room. While he still values the housing — “of utmost importance in a city like Mumbai” — Pravin no longer thinks it’s worth what he is giving up in return.

His daughter Kesar goes to a private school, and the 35-year-old says, “This (job) ends with me. I don’t want my child to continue this tradition.”

Throughout the chawl, they keep talking of one family. Their child, they tell you, went to college, got a job in America and took his parents with him.

In America, there is no caste.

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