Life After Garbage: One Man Fights the System


The story of Sunil Yadav, a Class IV municipal employee, is inspirational for his sustained struggle to pursue a better life through education.


The idea of manual scavenging may appear foreign to most middle-class Indians. But anyone who has travelled long distances by train cannot fail to notice how the tracks at railway stations are littered with human excreta. A person is officially engaged to physically remove the human excreta from the tracks. For commuters who use the station and often cover their faces due to the stench, it would not involve a lot of imagination to begin to understand the nature of this work.

At a time when so much is written about upward social mobility, it does sound paradoxical that people from a certain community are forced in to this profession, for the lack of a better choice. Most people engaged in jobs that involve manual scavenging in India are from the Dalit community. The story I wish to narrate is of the struggle of one person against this unjust system that forces Dalits into these inhuman lines of employment.

Sunil Yadav, one of the 30,000 odd Class IV workers at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) whose daily work involves manual scavenging, has always wished to better his life. Higher education, he thought, would pave the way. But the BMC ignored a series of leave applications filed by 33-year-old Yadav who wished to pursue a post-graduate course at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

Sunil Yadav comes from a family of safai karmacharis (sanitation workers). In his youth, he struggled to make ends meet at home by doing odd jobs such as manning a STD booth and working as a pest control worker. The only hope of betterment at this stage of his life was the hope that he would be offered his father’s job as a safai karmachari on compassionate grounds. Compared to the struggles and low wages he had with the jobs in the informal sector, the work of a safai karmachari appeared attractive to him. Three generations of his family, including him, have been in this line of work. His father as a safai karmachari used to clear garbage and load it on to the Municipality truck using just his bare hands. His father was an alcoholic and this is not uncommon among safai karmacharis. Many of them indulge in various forms of alcohol and drug abuse to somehow deaden their own senses whilst doing this inhumane work.

Sunil Yadav’s personal situation was not unlike the situation of the thousands engaged in this line of work. Given the socio-economic status of him and his family, he felt he needed a government job. The wages as a safai karmachari for the Municipality and the promise of a permanent job gave him a sense of security. As he was a Class 10 failure who had been working since the age of 16, he had hardly any choice.

In 2005, he finally managed to land a job in the municipality as a safai karmachari, however on probation for three years. Though the monthly pay was Rs.3900, he soon realised the gross level of exploitation in this job by senior workers, the mukkadams and the junior officer.  As probationer, he was expected to do the most demeaning of tasks. They overworked him by assigning to him other work like sweeping the streets, cleaning up in the house gullies. The first day on the job, he had to clear the waste in a house gully continuously from 7 am to 12-30 pm. This was the first time in his life that he was forced to do something like this. The first thing he did after reaching home at the end of the day was scrub his body vigorously but he remembers how the stench on his hands remained. The sheer amount of physical labour that was needed for the work meant he slept for a straight 16 hours and just woke in time for the next day’s work. He was scared for the first time in his life; he just could not imagine doing this work for the rest of his life like his father and his grandfather before him.

During this probation period, he worked in knee-deep sludge in the house gullies, where people threw the waste directly from the window onto his body. He has had tea, sanitary napkins, leftover food being thrown on him while working. He would rub raw coriander, which he got for free while cleaning up the market area, over his hands after finishing work to try and get rid of this stench. There was always the fear of open manholes during the monsoons in Mumbai, which have been known to be death traps.

Yadav realized that possibly the only way out of this situation was to try and gain an education. Thus, he enrolled for a Bachelors of Commerce degree at the Yashwantrao Chavan Open University. In 2008, he completed his B. Com.  This sparked a passion for education within him and he started to perceive himself differently.It was as if his social consciousness had been raised. Through these struggles, he managed to arm himself with a Bachelor’s in Journalism, a Diploma in Social work and a Master’s degree in Social work as well over the next few years.

Finally in 2012, Yadav gained admission to a course at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, an masters programme in globalisation and labour. This was the first full-time course he had enrolled into. He then carefully looked up the service rules of the municipality for the provisions of study leave and applied immediately after getting admitted to the course. The municipality had earlier given him permission to appear for the interview for the course. However on the issue of study leave, the municipality remained silent, without either accepting or rejecting his study leave application.

When he began his studies at TISS, he would work the night shift. The idea of studying full time was alien to him and he struggled with the classes and attendance. However, he was ably supported by his classmates during his struggles in the course. His weakness in the English language did not hamper his quest for knowledge. He slowly managed to cope with the pressures of academic life while continuing to work the night shift.

His request for study leave was kept pending by the BMC. Every time he inquired, he was made to run from pillar to post for a definite answer on the request. Slowly, he realised that here was a matter with more at stake than the simple granting of study leave for one employee. He realised that he must have been one of the first, if not the very first safai karmachari, at the Municipality to have asked for full time study leave at an institute of national repute. He was repeatedly asked by the administration to avail his accumulated leave of around 200 odd days and complete his studies through this, instead of applying for study leave. However, things on the academic end were looking promising and Yadav did quite well in his first semester examinations and was also offered an exchange programme opportunity at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, (South Africa) in the year 2013.

This issue is much bigger than just the case of study leave for a single safai karmachari. There are thousands of workers engaged in work of menial nature who have no hope of escaping the drudgery of this life throughout their working careers. It is this system of maintaining a permanent class of workers who have no hope of betterment in their careers that allows the smooth functioning of the organisational machinery of the municipality. Granting study leave to one such worker would set a ‘dangerous’ precedent, and allow mobility for this toiling class of 30,000 workers in the BMC. One-third of the work involved in a sanitation job is manual scavenging. A co-worker of Yadav, Ganesh Shinde stated that he was grateful to Sunil for giving people involved in manual scavenging hope, that they too could aspire to gain an education and escape this sort of work. So it is in this context that these struggles for study leave needs to be understood.

Yadav started petitioning numerous government officials at the state and the centre. The national commission for safai karmacharis even wrote to the commissioner of the municipality three times without a single response. Meanwhile, a classmate of Yadav’s at TISS through a Right To Information (RTI) application asked the BMC for its definition of an employee and if a safai karmachari qualified being an employee and if so, whether such a person is eligible for study leave. The BMC response was eloquent in its brevity ‘A safai karmachari is an employee but is not eligible for study leave’. This clearly underscores the dark underbelly of the system that forces people to stay within the confines of the caste system, in ways which are not always discernible at a distance.

The support of his co-workers, his fellow students and his family gave Sunil Yadav the strength to fight against this tyranny of the BMC. Finally, Sunil’s case was widely reported in the media in Mumbai, most notably as a front page story on the national page of the Indian Express. This caught the attention of the National Scheduled Castes Commission (NSCC) who summoned the BMC Commissioner and the Additional Municipal Commissioner (Personnel) for a hearing. Following this hearing, the NSCC reprimanded the BMC severely for the delay in the granting of study leave, and ordered the latter to do so within a week’s time.

It is important to note that what should ideally be a matter of what a government employee is entitled to (a simple case of study leave) becomes a protracted struggle and only intervention from the highest corridors of power assures such rights to be enforced. Further, rights are granted in the garb of benefits or favours under a system of patronage especially in cases where the power structures of the upper castes/classes are even marginally disrupted.

Leave has now been granted to Sunil Yadav for two years, including the days of the exchange programme. His success at bettering his life and his struggle for higher education has set a precedent at the BMC, inspiring many of its Class IV Dalit employees. As says the Vice President of NSCC, Dr. Rajkumar Verka,  “The case of Sunil Yadav is a new dawn for manual scavengers unfortunately involved in a line of work that is still based on caste. This kind of access to education will allow them to imagine a life beyond this work.”

Photos: Shiva Thorat


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