Meet Sunil Yadav, The BMC Sweeper With 4 Degrees Who Wants To Help The Women In His Community
- IWB Post
- November 19, 2018
A “10th-fail boy” was forced into the vicious circle of becoming a ‘safai karamchari’ when his father was declared unfit for the job. In 2005, Sunil Yadav became a Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation sweeper and since then he feels trapped in a labyrinth.
He is the most educated employee of BMC but is still struggling to be heard. He holds four degrees – BCom, BA (Journalism), MA and MPhil from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and is currently doing his PhD.
Despite so many degrees, he continues to work as a sweeper, cleaning garbage in the night and studying in the daytime. He is desperately trying to make things better for his community, especially for women. Intrigued by his story and his zeal to make life better for his community, we reached out to him. When Sunil began his story with a Marathi accent, it left me dumbstruck. After talking to him, I was forced to ask myself, is this really the India of 21st century? Excerpts from the interview:
Despite holding so many degrees, why do you want to continue working in the BMC?
It is for the first time that a ‘safai karamchari’ has reached this level and is doing a PhD. It is not like I do not want to leave the BMC. But I want to achieve the best for my community before I leave. My education is a waste if I cannot use it to improve the condition of my people. It is my maxim that my community should reap the benefits of my education.
What initiatives are you taking to improve the conditions of women from your community?
“Women scavengers” was my subject for MPhil and my first focus is our women cleaners. I have thought of forming a women’s union for them so that they can come together under one organisation. It will be an all women’s union, where only women cleaners will hold all the positions, from the highest to the lowest. I am meeting women cleaners at our workplace, some of them are even graduates. Through these meetings, I am trying to educate them about their rights and labour laws. I do not want the PhD degree to get a ‘Dr’ in front of my name. I want it so that I rise to a position where my voice is heard and I can do something for my community.
Do the women enter this profession due to any obligation or compulsion?
Of course, they do it out of compulsion, there is no other way left for them. I came into this profession because my father was declared unfit for the job, so I had to take his position. The women workers also come because of such helplessness. They are not given a choice. They are just ordered, the higher authorities think of us as bonded labourers who cannot free themselves from the shackles. Usually, women come into this field after the death of their husband.
Does the government or the BMC have any special health schemes for women cleaners?
No, there is no such scheme for women. In fact, we had a health policy until last year, under which we got a health insurance of Rs 5 Lakh. Even that has been terminated, so now we get only 200 rupees as monthly allowance for health issues. It means Rs 2,400 yearly. How do they expect us to manage with such a small amount? The administrators sit in offices, they do not come out on roads and sweep it. It is the workers, especially the women, who work in unhygienic conditions and get many diseases. Being a woman, she faces many problems, be it breast cancer, problems related to mensuration or anything else, but nobody helps.
The condition even today is so bad that they treat us as untouchables. Nobody even gives us a glass of water to drink. They consider us as low caste labourers, who are just fit to pick up garbage and clean. When my women’s union is formed, I will surely take an initiative that they get proper health insurance. Every community has a women’s union, only ours is a community which does not have any specific organisation for them.
How many women in your community are educated?
Only 0.1%. women from my community have ever left their houses, they are illiterate and are scared of society. Imagine a woman forced to enter into a world she has never seen before, after the death of her husband, what will her condition be? Parents don’t earn so much that they can send their children to school. I have two daughters and I have taken a loan to send my daughters to a convent school for quality education. Some of them manage to go to local schools. But what is the use of this education and degree when nobody wants us to rise from cleaning garbage?
I have five degrees, but where am I today? Still a ‘safai kKaramchari’. I was even surprised to see the difference in the quality of education. My daughters, who are going to a convent school, are learning in and about the 21st century. While the others who go to local schools are still in the 70s and 80s. I mean just imagine the difference and the downtrodden books these local schools are using. I want to ensure quality education for all. If a woman is educated, the entire family is educated.
You say that it is not just financial problems, but also the social stigma that is not letting your community come out of the circle of casteism. What are you doing about it?
Casteism is a big issue in our country. Everybody talks about class but nobody wants to do anything about casteism. I give a simple example of myself. My request for study leave for six months was rejected and the answer that I got shows the mentality of our society. The current education secretary of Maharashtra said, ‘If we grant you study leave, if you become educated, who will clean the garbage?’
Our women are socially exploited and sexually assaulted. These uneducated women are so scared of getting out of the house or even thinking of going to a police station to complain. They know that they will be sexually abused even in the police station or anywhere they go seeking help. They don’t know their rights, they don’t know about law and order. This is why I want to make this women’s union where they can be educated and learn how to face these challenges. I think giving them some training or correspondence degree or diploma can help these women a lot. I am planning to start this at the workplace itself so that it will be convenient for them.
Generation after generation, the same community is doing this work of garbage cleaning, what is the reason behind it?
If you look at the hierarchy of our administration, 99% cleaners are Dalits. It is only our community, including the Buddhists, Chamar, Meghwal, and Valmiki, that are in this job. We are not given the opportunity to sit on higher posts. I had appealed that I have a globalisation degree so give me a chance to put forth the problems of my community. It was rejected just because I am a Dalit. Even then, recently a circular was issued which said no matter how educated a sweeper is, he/she will not be promoted to higher posts.
The women’s condition is even worse. I want to challenge this circular, but I am not in that position. Nobody wants to listen to a sweeper. I have written letters to the PMO, keeping in cc many ministers and higher authorities, but got no response. Everyone only wants to exploit us in every possible way they can and at every chance that they get.
What is the condition of widows in your community?
The condition is very bad, and nothing is being done about it because we do not have any representation. All the high authorities are involved in the game of exploitation. We do not know what talks are done at the table. It is all a game of position. These women are illiterate, they do not even know how to write their name, let alone write an application. The officials exploit them if they seek their help. The pensions of deceased husbands are delayed, citing the excuse for paperwork. How will these uneducated women do paperwork? The attitude of the clerks is so bad, they keep postponing their pensions for two-three years. They are asked to give bribes and even sometimes forced into sexual acts if they want to get their work done.
At what age are the girls of your community married? Is child marriage a common practice?
Girls are usually married off at the age of 15-16 to men who are 10-15 years older to them. The condition of the area we live in is so bad that parents want to get their daughters married so that they are safe. Rape and physical assault are very common here. Even the financial condition is so bad that they think, if the daughter is sent away, they will have one less member to feed. But they do not understand that marrying them off is not the solution. Even my sister was married at the age of 15. But she was burnt by her own husband for not fulfilling the demand of dowry. I was alone fighting in the session court, high court, but her in-laws gave bribes, everybody can be bought here, the documents were changed. I could not prove anything, my sister did not get any justice.
My daughters are studying, my wife is also in second-year law, she is trying to get a job. Looking at me they are getting inspiration and many of them who had left studies are going back to schools. I am happy that at least from somewhere the change is starting.
After listening to Sunil’s story and knowing about the disturbing condition of these women, I only want to ask, do women in India really have the right to equality?
This article was first published on March 8, 2018.