Kantabai Yerode was waiting for the Prime Minster’s promise of achhe din, but her work was only rewarded with abuses and indignity. The Prime Minister launched the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan for a clean India in 2014. Yerode, along with many informal waste-pickers and sanitation workers, is one of the foot soldiers helping implement the campaign. She performs the indispensable task of collecting recyclable waste from garbage dumps and selling it to middlemen who sell it to recycling factories but receives little in return.
Community Correspondent Maya Khodve made a video on the issues that a group of women waste-pickers were facing in 2016. The problem was not only one of pay and recognition but also of the everyday discrimination that they faced – rickshaw drivers denied them a ride, people called them ‘filthy’, accused them of stealing and even set their dogs after them.
The women were associated with multiple non-governmental organisations and held identity cards issued by these organisations they were associated with, but those who demanded proof of identity from them were not satisfied with these cards. “Official recognition or a government identity card was their only demand, they didn’t even have Voter Identity Cards,” says Maya.
Maya, a former waste-picker herself, took the matter up with the Municipal Commissioner of Nashik and urged him to recognise the women’s work and issue identity cards to them. “When I met the Commissioner with Yerode and some of her colleagues, he said that under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, he can issue identity cards to them from the municipality. He then asked me to write an application.” After Maya submitted the application, the Commissioner issued identity cards to 60 workers within three months.
“It feels like the government has honoured us”, says Yerode. “Now, if people try to accuse the women of stealing, they can prove that they are legitimate workers”, says Maya. The waste-pickers of Nashik earn around 100 rupees a day, as against the minimum wage of 200 rupees per day, and are not even able to make that much on days when they were chased away or their sacks taken away. With identity cards, they hope that their financial condition will also improve.
After issuing identity cards to the 60 women, the municipality also issued them to 40 more. Maya is still organising the remaining waste-pickers of Nashik and trying to get identity cards for them. She is also working with the women to get documents like Voter Identity Cards for them, which will entitle them to benefits under official schemes.
Maya also feels that the official recognition has translated to better treatment on ground. Waste-picking, considered a menial job, is mostly done by the ‘lowest’ castes and untouchability continues to abound. When waste pickers in Nashik would ask people for water, they’d give it to them in bathing mugs. “Their work is valued now. People are starting to understand that informal waste-pickers play a crucial role in the waste management cycle. Attitudes are slowly changing and they face less discrimination now”, she says. However, it remains to be seen if notions of purity and pollution can be dispelled simply with an identity card.
The promise of development and the achhe din of bullet trains mean little for those who are compelled to eat out of garbage dumps. It is not only the state that is apathetic but also most of us who benefit from the labour of people like Yerode. Last month, Mumbai saw 88 mm of rain and parts of the city were flooded. But the water receded in a day, thanks to the work done by temporary workers employed by the BMC. Instead of getting the recognition and the remuneration that they deserve, those who keep our cities clean are considered unworthy of basic dignity. Yerode feels that official recognition is an honour from the government, when in reality, it is the least that the government can do.
Maya’s video on the issue should serve as a reminder to the rest of us that our story of development and progress must not brush under the carpet the lives of those who make our everyday lives easier through their indispensable labour. Getting recognition by way of identity cards is one step in the battle, the official minimum wages, and what the workers actually receive, continue to be dismal, and the state must address these issues as well.
Read more at: Video Volunteers | Article by Alankrita Anand
Maya Khodve is an activist, videographer and Community Correspondent, who lives in a Nashik slum. Nashik Slum has seen some improvements in recent years as India is developing, such as much improved electricity and gutters – the latter being installed in part because of pressure from one of her videos. Yet, toilets and running water are yet to be installed in the two room house that she shares with her husband, three children and in-laws. Nashik Slum has seen some improvements in recent years as India is developing, such as much improved electricity and gutters – the latter being installed.