Nagpur: Kalabai has been a familiar sight around Bajaj Nagar for over 45 years. Ever since she got married at age 16 and began coming for work with her husband and mother in law. Then, and now, she comes armed with a ‘kharata’ (broom made of sticks) and basket. There was always a big bindi on her forehead that seemed to cover half of it, and a wide smile on her face.
The smile is all but gone now, the bindi remains, she is still a friendly soul so will stop and talk with you, but there is a far off look in her face, and she suddenly lapses in to silences.
It is not difficult to imagine what she must be thinking. But it is impossible to imagine what she must be feeling, no one, absolutely no one, should have to undergo what she has gone through.
But to start at the beginning: Kala was married to Prakash, who was the local Nagpur Corporation’s ‘athorized sweeper Bhawaribai’s son. Bhawari was real proud of the Corporation metal badge that she got to wear- it was the ‘estate’ she would one day pass on to her chosen successor.
What was the work she had to do to ‘earn’ that badge? Sweep the roads, collect garbage from homes, and she also ‘moonshined’ in private jobs washing people’s toilets and bathrooms. She had to sweep everything that lay on the road, including debris from roadside trees, dog shit and human shit too. (From the main road by the side of Kachipura slums, which was the furthest point of her ‘beat.’)
Bhawari’s son and Kala’s husband Prakash, was recruited by the Corporation too, when gutters had to be cleaned. Open gutters and underground ones. At other times he helped his mother and wife. Yes, Kala also came to work as domestic help as soon as she was married. Ours was the first house she was employed in. At my parent’s place, she did whatever was required, including washing utensils, and sweeping the kitchen. But I remember distinctly that most of our neighbors would not hire her, despite her pleasing personality. Because of her caste. They are ‘Mehtars’ the dalit among dalits.
The family grows
Pretty soon, Kala got in the family way. The family was planning to deliver her at home, her own mother in law was an experienced ‘Dai’ ( midwife) too but my mother was aghast at the idea and took her to a hospital. Where Kala – Prakash’ first son was born. They very optimistically named him Suraj. (Sun). Then followed Babloo, Pradeep, Amit and finally came Roopa. This last child of their’s was/ is really beautiful, as the name suggests.
Kala had grand ambitions for her children. She would make them Doctors and Engineers and big officers. (She was aware they had the advantage of getting reserved seats in professional colleges). She continued working through all her pregnancies and child births so money would not be an issue. Prakash kept goats and chickens too , so that augmented the family income.
But the 4 sons turned out to be poor scholars. When not just the family, but the whole neighbourhood went out as ‘Safai’ labour ( Garbage collectors and sweepers) the atmosphere was not conducive to studies. Naturally,they all went to Corporation schools, where ( with some exceptions) standard of education wasn’t high. Roopa was the only one who went up till college and that made the parents even more proud.
“We will find her a Prince. She will do ‘raj’ ” Kalabai used to say. “We will have a grand wedding ceremony for her, she is our only daughter after all.”
Suraj becomes a sweeper too
By and by it was time for Bhawari to retire. She got to nominate one family member to take her place. Since Suraj was over 18 then she nominated him. He got a grand starting salary of Rs.5000/ – about 25 years ago – which was enough to make him a valuable catch as son in law in their society. Many proposals came their way, but Kala and her mother in law chose carefully, selecting their immediate neighbour’s daughter. She would make a good bahu, they thought.
Another son, Babloo also got to inherit their father’s NMC job. The two juniors did odd jobs as painters, construction workers and also doubled as sewage cleaners when the opportunity came. Babloo, also found a wife and got married, somewhat against the family’s wishes. The girl was educated and considered herself ‘high figh’. She had a boy friend in college and married Babloo on the rebound when he ditched her.
The younger two, never got to that point in life… but we will come to that later.
Roopa gets married to a ‘prince’
True to her plans, Kalabai put together a grand affair when Roopa got married. There were two veg and one non veg meal for the entire colony!
Unfortunately, that was the ONLY dream of Kalabai that was to come true. The ‘boy’ they had found for their beauty had his own business – he drove a mini truck – and his family lived in a ‘haveli’ (mansion) in Kamptee. Sure looked like Roopa’s life was set, but appearances can be deceptive. Taking in the huge expenditure on the wedding, Roopa’s husband and in laws thought they had found their personal RBI. Requisitions for money kept coming in periodically. “Your son in law wants to expand his business and buy another mini truck.”
“Our younger son is getting married, we want to expand the house”. “Your grand kids have to be admitted to a good, private school. THEY will grow up to be Doctors, engineers and officers, no Govt. school for them!”
When the money flow stopped, the beatings began.
The tragedies begin striking
The first one to go was Suraj. As Kalabai still remembers, he was the best of the lot and cared genuinely for his parents and bed ridden grand mother, Bhanwari bai. His wife was also caring. They had three kids in a short time.
One morning, we heard from another sweeper that Suraj had just met with an accident. When he was sweeping the Ram Nagar road at 7 a.m. a rashly driven car hit him from behind with such force that Suraj was thrown into the air and banged into a tree. He died instantly. The few people on the road were shell shocked at the sight and rushed to Suraj’s aid, no one thought to stop the car or note the number.
Kala took the longest leave of her life then. She came back almost 2 months later, a shadow of her earlier self.
“My son is gone, but some one at least catch the driver of that car. Punish him. How can he go scot free?” This was all she would say for a long time. Whatever compensation they received, they gave to their daughter in law along with Suraj’s job as sweeper. The next day, the bahu moved out of their house and into her parents, and hasn’t returned since.
Babloo turns an addict
Babloo tried his best to please her, but his wife could not stand to have him near since “he smelled awful after he had emerged from cleaning a gutter.” All the baths he took and the perfume he sprayed did not help, she shunned him. They still had a child, whose paternity was always suspect, but Babloo was convinced it was his own. When the child also screwed his nose in disgust at the father, Babloo lost it. First desi daru, then drugs paved his away to an early grave.
Babloo’s job went to the youngest Amit, since Pradeep did not want to go down into the ‘pits’.
Pradeep did not mind though occasionally sweeping the roads for Amit since Amit was not very strong and would often fall sick, specially after some trips of cleaning gutters. He did not get medical treatment from NMC; but in fact his pay was cut when he did not turn up for work. So Pradeep reported instead of him with the collusion of the supervisor, who took his cut. Naturally. A sweeper was getting Rs. 7000/ to 8000/ per month now.
But in a few years, Amit’s sick spells increased. He had permanent consumption in his chest and boils all over his body. He said it was from the unclean conditions of the gutters; also it was difficult to breathe inside, he almost fainted a couple of times.
We kept insisting that Kala and Prakash should admit Amit to Medical and get thorough investigations done. But the Doctors in GMC demurred;
“Take him to a Corporation hospital or ESIC” they said.
Finally Amit’s treatment was left to a quack doctor of the basti.
Prakash loses his mind and Roopa comes back home
We lost touch with Kala bai for some time after that. Though she had been working in many homes and offices in Bajaj Nagar for over 30 years then, we are guilty of not going and checking on her and her family – what was left of it.
I am sure most of her employers did not even know where she lived. Only we had gone twice or thrice. But this time, even we never went, that’s how life has become these days. Each busy in his own affairs.
Needless to say, she was not working at our place any more. She had retired. Without any benefits, no provident fund, no pension. Which domestic servant gets it in India?
Recently she began coming back to our area – jhadoo and basket in tow.
“I lost Amit and Pradeep one after the other. Believe it or not, Pradeep went first, he had the same ailments as Amit had, but his condition aggravated much faster. Amit lingered on for many months, neither getting better nor dying.
Things became so bad that we began praying for his release – and ours too. He was our only son left, and we were praying for his death! See Nitabai, what became of my grand plans for my sons?”
What about Roopa? I asked.
“There she is” said Kala, pointing to Roopa sweeping an office in front.
“When her husband did not stop beating her, we finally brought her back. Her kids were growing up and we did not want them to see how their mother was treated. She tried her hand at running a milk and daily needs business, but we lost a lot of money as people did not pay up. She now works with me in my job of sweeping and swabbing and washing toilets. We are ‘mehters’ what else can we do??”
We did not ask, but we learnt that Prakash lost his mind and wanders around aimlessly. It did not happen after his sons died. A month after Amit passed away, he woke up to find his goats all gone. Either they had gone away on their own, since they were not fed regularly, or someone stole them, no one knows.
Years later, Prakash still goes around calling out to them.
On some days, he forgets their names and calls his sons instead.
His daughter and wife he does not recognize, but often has conversations with Bhanwari.
Wonder what she looks down and thinks of her family? The proud woman with the shining NMC badge!
p.s. Although specifically banned by a law passed in 2003 manual scavenging continues with Census 2011 estimating that nearly 8 lakh people were involved in it. In 2014, the Supreme Court ordered the government to take swift measures to end the system. But three years later, there is no change.
In the last 2 years alone, a conservative estimate puts the number of dead Safai workers, who died working in dirty unhygienic conditions at 1400. Sometime death is instantaneous because of toxic gases in the gutters.
On the eve of Dr Ambedkar’s 125th anniversary on 6th December 2016, a group of young men and women drove into the national capital after a long bus journey lasting 125 days. They crisscrossed nearly 500 districts across the country. They are manual scavengers and their children and their desperate message was “Stop Killing Us”. They want strong measures to end manual scavenging.
The Indian Railways is the largest employers of Safai Kamgar,followed by rich Corporations like BMC, Delhi Corportion etc.
Millions of litres of toxic sewage water is pumped directly into rivers like Yamuna, Narmada and Ganga even now.
What do our politicians do?
Conduct ‘maha aarthis’ along the rivers – while thousands die while cleaning the drain water that flows into these rivers.
Let us exchange roles just for a year! Have the river side Aarthis done by Safai workers, while, we the rest of Indians, take turns in cleaning toilets and sewage drains.
That will be the real Swachcha Bharat Abhiyaan.
…Sunita Mudaliar (Executive Editor )