“After everything I do, I ask them for a glass of water and they don’t give me!

Why?

Because, I’m dirty. I clean garbage.”

On the 1st of May 2016, when women cleaners walked in the May Day rally, and gave speeches voicing their concern, I got a chance to understand the issues they are faced with and what they were angry about.

Women aged from 17-60 years work as ‘Pourakarmikas’, which is roughly translated as garbage cleaner, on the streets of Bangalore. While Bangalore produces around 5000 tonnes of garbage everyday, these women ensure you can still retain the name ‘garden city’ till whenever you can.

On interviewing one of the women protesting in the rally, I found out a lot more about their lives and what they go through, each day. Her name is Shyama. She couldn’t stop smiling and she asked me,

“Why are you interested so much in my life?”

‘Pourakarmikas’, also known as safai karamcharis, work from 6 AM to 2 PM and earn approximately Rs 6ooo a month for their work. They are officially employed to collect garbage in baskets, segregate them into wet and dry, sweep the streets and finally, manually load the collection into lorries. An average worker pushes around 150 kg of garbage in carts everyday, up and down the street.  They work every single day of the year without even getting a Sunday off.

“What do you do when you go back home?

I have another job. I work as a domestic worker in the evening. Come back home and cook , clean and do the chores. After everyone eats, I eat dinner and sleep by 11pm.

Doesn’t your husband or anyone else help you with the work at home?

It’s a woman’s job! I have to finish everything at the end of the day”

Apart from physically and mentally straining themselves each day, these women take it upon themselves to keep the city clean. To keep YOUR city clean!

“What if you want to use the bathroom where you’re working? Do they allow you to?

I should not use the same bathroom that they use. They’re big people. How can I?

And, drinking water?

I go the temples or the local restaurants nearby, they offer me a glass”

Whoever out there thinks casteism doesn’t exist anymore ought to know that most of the garbage cleaners and sweepers, belong to Dalit-Bahujan communities. It’s not a coincidence. It’s shameful that we still have certain jobs allotted to certain castes. For example, picking up human excrement from dry latrines has been performed by a certain group of people because of their caste. They are looked down upon in the society as they perform our ‘odd jobs’. By simply having a constitutional right against untouchability, no one is empowered with dignity instantly. Such practices, regressive practices, still exist and what’s horrifying is that they are normalized. I’ve known houses where the domestic workers are not allowed inside the kitchen. Funny thing! Why should they wash your dishes then?

Violence against women doesn’t just begin and end with rape. It includes having no access to humane working conditions, no access to toilets, no drinking water, etc. All of these are a violation of their basic rights. Segregating glass pieces, medical waste and septic wastes from drains with bare hands & feet and working amidst poisonous fumes in garbage dumps mean a plethora of health issues and frequent visits to hospitals. Most of these workers are not employed permanently by the BBMP ( Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike); the administrative body responsible for the civic and infrastructural assets of the Greater Bangalore metropolitan area. They have been outsourced to contractors. Apart from the public apathy towards garbage disposal, they also face other harships related to untimely payment, reduction in benefits with increase in wages and absolutely no holidays.

“Do your children go to school?

All my sons do, my daughter helps me with the chores”

With each tonne of garbage disposed in this city, a girl’s dream of studying and getting out of this catacomb created by our society, crashes. With more and more women roped into this profession, we contribute to the mindset that believes that they’re robots and not humans. It’s time we look beyond our class and caste comforts, identify this structural pattern of oppression and support them in their fight.

A woman holding a poster in the rally.
A woman holding a poster in the rally.
Young girl sitting in the rally.
Young girl sitting in the rally.
Young Pourakarmikas who smiled as I clicked their picture
Young Pourakarmikas who smiled as I clicked their picture
Shyama, the woman who patiently answered my questions.
Shyama, the woman who patiently answered my questions.

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