After skill training for better jobs, manual scavengers return to cleaning sewers in Delhi
New Delhi: Three months after the Delhi administration completed a first-of-its-kind skill development programme for 50 manual scavengers and provided them alternative means of livelihood, many have returned to cleaning sewers, citing lack of regular income and harassment at workplace.
The initiative, aimed at eradicating manual scavenging and finding alternative employment for the participants, had come amid an intense debate on the deaths of workers while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in Delhi.
In an early setback to the Shahdara district administration-led programme, a number of manual scavengers selected for the three-month training course, which started in August last year, withdrew within a week, according to those who completed the exercise.
Of those who were provided skill development training, many left the jobs they were given due to non-payment of salaries and unwillingness to travel. Those who could not be placed immediately returned to the hazardous work to keep their households running.
Suraj Kumar, 38, who has been cleaning sewers without safety gear in northeast Delhi for 19 years, said he was given a caretaker's job at a dosshouse in GTB Nagar with a salary of Rs 14,000 a month, but he did not take it.
"I don't think dosshouses are safe. People who drink a lot and create nuisance throng such places, many are criminals. So, I didn't accept the job offer," he said.
"I have not been informed about any other opportunities since November. With no options available, I returned to the old job," said Kumar, who earns about Rs 10,000 a month collecting waste and cleaning sewers by hand.
Officials told the manual scavengers they'd be hired as drivers, operators and helpers for the 200 sewer cleaning machines the Delhi government is planning to purchase, but things have moved at a snail's pace on this front, those who underwent the training course said.
Thirty-six-year-old Kullu got a housekeeping job in Noida, but he chose not to take it and continues to clean gutters in Seemapuri. "I was offered Rs 7,000 a month for a 10-hour-a-day job. Had I accepted it, I would have spent Rs 100 to and from work daily. That means Rs 3,000 a month on travel," he said.
Suresh Baidya, 56, who got a job at a night shelter in Seemapuri, said a number of the manual scavengers did not complete a week in the training as it kept them from their daily earnings.
"Though our trainers did their best, many left on their own as they wanted to earn on a daily basis. They were not ready for an 8-hour job," he said.
Another person, now a caretaker of a Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) night shelter, complained he hadn't received his salary for two months.
Many who the DUSIB employed have returned to cleaning drains and sewers as they didn't get salaries on time, he claimed, adding he would also have to go back to the muck if the situation persisted.
Vinay Kumar Stephen, chief functionary, Sadik Masih Medical Social Servant Society, the NGO that trained the manual scavengers, said, "We have given our best. But, there is a need to change their mindset. Most of those who returned to cleaning sewers feel restricted in a regular job."
"They want to work 3-4 hours a day and earn just enough to keep their household running. Therefore, they give priority to the work that can fetch them Rs 2,000 in just two hours, irrespective of the life-threatening risk and stigma involved," he said.
Stephen said some manual scavengers, who couldn't be placed, would be accommodated as drivers and helpers of the sewer cleaning machines. This project is set to start soon.
The Delhi government had earlier said the machines would be available by October 2018 and their owners, including nine families of manual scavengers who died at work, would earn at least Rs 50,000 per month. The drivers would get about Rs 21,000 and helpers Rs 15,000.
The NGO is striving to provide better job opportunities to those trained in the programme.
"We gave employment to over 80 per cent of the people we trained. Some did not accept the offers as they wanted to work near their residences. A few quit their jobs after a fortnight or a month. We had also asked them if they were willing to take catering jobs on trains, but they weren't ready to travel," he said.
Education plays an important role in deciding who gets what. Someone who never went to school can't be given an office job, Stephen told PTI.
Manual scavengers clean sewers with rudimentary tools risking their lives because such work is readily available and they can make quick money. Even municipal corporations hire them on contractual basis to clean septic tanks and sewers, he claimed.
There is a need to create awareness about the hazards of manual scavenging. The government should ensure strict implementation of the law against the objectionable practice, he said.
On complaints of irregular salaries, he said, "These are teething problems. Some people don't have a bank account. In a few cases, date of birth on Aadhaar card is wrong. We are addressing such issues. Payment of wages becomes regular after 2-3 months."
Stephen, however, claimed DUSIB has provided temporary employment to workers. "The chief minister distributed job letters and promised them a minimum Rs 14,000 a month as salary. Now, DUSIB wants them to clean night shelters for Rs 7,000. We give them the remaining Rs 7,000... I can't go on like this."
East Delhi District Magistrate K Mahesh, under whose supervision the exercise was conducted, said, "Some people quit their jobs as they wanted to work near their residences. As for the irregular salaries and harassment at work, the Labour Department will take action in such cases."
"Many of them are happy with the jobs we provided. Yes, a few people who were hired by private employers face some difficulties in payment of wages," he told PTI, adding it isn't pragmatic to expect that there won't be complaints.
"I think the programme has been successful and we are considering doing it again after the elections," Mahesh said.