One of the aftermaths of the devastating floods that has ravaged Chennai and it’s adjoining areas is the inflation of garbage. “Concerned citizens” want the city to be cleaned as soon as possible with the fears of some epidemic rising by the day. In order to solve the problem, State Government is encouraging private contractors to get as many manual scavengers as possible from across the state. They work twelve hours a day and are put up in various places like public schools which continue to remain closed due to floods. We spoke to some of the migrant manual scavengers residing in a school at Kodambakkam. This school is housing close to 200 ,migrant workers who are all working under a single contractor.
The workers said that all of them were working in Tiruppur prior to coming to Chennai.They are originally from either Latur village in Maharashtra or parts of Andhra Pradesh. Some of them have been working in Tiruppur for a few years. Some of them had arrived to Tiruppur only a week ago. All of the people that we spoke to, did not work in manual scavenging before coming to Tiruppur.
The workers who had come from Lattur are (landless) agricultural labourers. Die to lack of rain, they could not find any farming work and now work as manual scavengers. This is the unemployment benefit scheme our country has for scheduled caste and tribes; when they can’t get a job in their field of work, they all end up doing manual scavenging on contractual basis.
Workers from Hyderabad area used to be in the quarrying work (to be used for construction). However due to lack of rains, construction work was in a slump and they could not find any work this year.They were hired by private contractors for manual scavenging. We also a met a young dalit worker, not more than twenty, who used to work as a driver in Bombay but had lost his job and somehow found his way in Tamil Nadu as a manual scavenger.
The workers said that the working conditions in Tiruppur were most inhuman with no safety measures, no gloves or masks.. They were paid around 200 rupees a day. All of them uniformly complained that they were never given their wages on time, and in fact it was common to get the wages as many as 20 days late.
As Ram* told us, they were brought here from Tiruppur with a promise that if they worked twelve hours a day, they will all get 400 rupees daily (200 for first 8 hours and 200 for next 4 hours). However this was all oral commitment and as soon as they came to Chennai, their contractor is now saying that he will only give them 350 . They are not sure if even this commitment will be met.
For the first 3 days Chandu* said that they worked in most ghastly conditions with no gloves, no mask, and no safety measure (even simple things like Dettol) in place. However yesterday, they were given gloves and masks and tetanus injections. However all of them complained about lack of decent living conditions. The number of workers put up in the school far outweighed the school’s infrastructure facilities and hence for a lot of them there was no water to take shower or EVEN WASH THEIR HANDS.
They said that other basic facilities like toilets were in such bad conditions that they were finding it very difficult to cope. As one of the workers put it succinctly, just because we clean garbage doesn’t mean we are not humans! At the site at which they work, basic amenities were sorely lacking. There was no proper toilet facilities (as Ram insisted, this problem was particularly acute for women workers) and they were served lunch at 2 PM which they were required to finish as fast as possible so as to get back to work. On asking if they got half an hour of lunch break at least, they all simultaneously burst into laughter.
Raju* complained of chronic migraines due to the smell. He used to be a driver in Bombay and wasn’t used to scavenging. None of them were. Kashinath* who was eighteen year old had come to Latur after leaving his studies as his father who was a landless farmer had no work this year. The irony was not lost on him as he commented how last year he was in school and this year he was “using his education’’ to clean shit.
There is a cultural issue as many of these migrant workers don’t mingle with the local workers from Tamil Nadu. One of the workers complained of how the food here doesn’t suit them as they are used to roti and not rice and sambar. The way he commented on these issues also showed his own bias towards local workers. This isolation only makes the situation of these migrant manual scavengers more difficult.
Their supervisor(who had brought them to Chennai and who they all referred to as Madam) was responsible for 200 odd workers . It was difficult to engage with the workers as soon as she saw us talking to them. She immediately interfered and asked us to direct all questions to her. In front of them most of the workers were clearly scared and on asking the same questions regarding living conditions that we had asked before, all but one of them said that there were no problems ! One worker, Nivas* who continued to insist, even in the presence of the incharge that living conditions were abhorrent, got intimidated by the supervisor right in front of us. Nivas was also keen to know on the minimum wages that they should be paid. He explained that they had no real clue, how much finally they will get paid once work in Chennai gets finished.
For her part, the in-charge wasted no time in saying that conditions provided by the state which were ensured by the contractor (her boss presumably) were really good and there were absolutely no problems. She even said that while it is true that there is not enough water to take shower for all the workers, the contractor has arranged for water tankers to come just for this purpose. On asking if they will all be paid minimum wages, she said she doesn’t know what wages the workers will be paid, but whatever they be paid will be acceptable to them !
One more in-charge who was a local then joined her and he was more aggressive and insisted that all questions be only asked to him. At this point our engagement with workers ended. As we were leaving the compound, we could see truck loads of manual scavengers coming in and put up in a place which is already over crowded and where basic amenities are lacking for these workers.