Five years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wielded a broom on October 2 in Delhi’s Valmiki Basti to realise Mahatma Gandhi’s dream of a clean India by 2019, when the country was to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of the Father of the Nation. This week we went back to Valmiki Basti, the place where Mahatma Gandhi stayed from April 1, 1946, to June 10, 1947, to see what has changed in the five years since.
“Not many know that Gandhi taught English and Hindi while staying at Valmiki temple,” says Gulari Lal, a social worker. Close to the temple is Valmiki colony, where sanitation workers currently live in flats given by the government. Back in 1946, many Valmiki families stayed in slums near the temple and most of them worked as sweepers in nearby areas including Gole Market and Connaught Place.
Vicky, one of the thousands of safai karamcharis with New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), said in the past five years more toilets have been made and cleaning work has also improved a lot. In Valmiki Basti, he added, there are two rounds of cleaning every day and every resident here tries their best to keep the area clean.
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Vicky, who has a son and a daughter, says his 12,000 salary per month is not sufficient to make ends meet. “I am still not a permanent employee even after five years of service.”
Contractor Sanjay Malandar emphasises that Swachh Bharat is possible only when you think of the society, the safai karamcharis. “All this is routine work and there is no extra help from the government. Even temporary work which our kids used to get has stopped now. PM Modi is saying we will make India clean but who will take care of our children.”
Malandar added, “If you see the area, it’s all clean. Anyone can come and sweep the floor, but no one would have bothered to come 20 years ago. But now if it’s dirty, only people from Valmiki Samaj will do it.”
After completing his cleaning duty at Connaught Place, Sanjay is now on his way back home. He says there is greater awareness about cleanliness among people. “Undoubtedly, more toilets have been constructed and no one defecates in open here. We all have toilets in our home,” he added.
Manisha who lives with her mother Sulekha after the death of her husband, said that every household has a dustbin here. “There is a lot of improvement now and residents have taken it upon themselves to keep the area clean.”
Sulekha, who is now retired, started working as a safai karamchari after her husband’s death. While lauding the efforts of Swachh Bharat, she adds that her family of six, including her daughter and her children, survive on her widow pension of Rs 15,000.
But Manish has a different take. The third-year college student, whose mother Sagarvati is a safai karamchari at a nearby school, says that on the ground level there has been no change. “It’s all the same. In fact, temporary vacancies have been stopped completely. Every month, vacancies are caused due to death, retirement or suspension of services.” This was a common grouse across the colony.
Another safai karamchari, who did not want to be named, said the area is under NDMC and hence it’s all clean. “But a bigger problem is that most of us are unemployed. All of us are waiting for Diwali, as we have been assured of jobs.”
Rakesh Kumar, who was a contractor earlier said, “If we don’t get food, then what’s the use of a toilet?” He also pointed out the issue of exploitation of safai karamcharis and said direct hiring of workers should be done rather than temporary basis as is being done now.
He added that if a contractor is getting Rs 15,000 then the worker will get only Rs 8,000-9,000. After retirement, every worker has to surrender his/her government quarters. With the retirement money given by the government, either he can get land or get his children educated, said Kumar.
“After giving 30-40 years of service, we don’t have a roof on our top and neither our children have jobs. What will we do? At least give our children job opportunities,” says Kumar.
Malandar, whose grandfather was a safai karamchari, says, “The campaign was launched from here, but we face the same old problems. There is no diploma for safai karamchari, because only people from Valmiki Samaj will do cleaning and sweeping,”.