Poor educational, health and living conditions rampant among Valmikis of Ahmedabad: IIM-A study

A sanitation workers' colony in Ahmedabad 
By Rajiv Shah
In a glaring revelation, a recent Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A) research paper, “An Assessment of Livelihood and Educational Status of Sanitation Workers in Ahmedabad, Gujarat”, by Ashish Mishra, Indraraj Dodiya and  Navdeep Mathur, has found that only 36 per cent of the Valmiki families send their children to school. As for the rest, in order to support their family, “they eventually drop out”. The report further says, “Of these, 48 per cent have joined casual sanitation work and others do cleaning work in houses near their own.”
The study also shows that just 44 per cent of families want to provide education to girls. However, the researchers believe, “While this by no means is a high number, nevertheless, despite all the hardships/discriminations that the Valmiki community has to endure, almost half of them do view schooling and education of girls as important. This data therefore underscores a positive trend and one that the state government can use to further promote education for girls in the Valmiki community.”
The researchers conducted a survey of 25 neighborhoods and five zones of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC). A total of 50 sanitation workers were also interviewed, and through them the researchers sought to understand the condition of their families. “What was immediately notable was that there is a high incidence of death among men due to workplace-related injuries that has led to a rise in the number of widows and therefore a rise in women-headed households”, the researchers underscore.
The Valmiki community constitutes 2.5 per cent of the total population of Gujarat. More than 80 thousand families are involved in cleaning sewage drains and manually removing human excreta, besides sweeping roads. “Needless to say, that the majority of sanitation workers belong to the Valimiki community”, the researchers underscore, adding, “Sanitation workers can be categorised as permanent, temporary, daily wage workers and rag pickers. Workers who complete 3 years or 720 working days under the AMC are registered as permanent workers. Those who do not fulfill such criteria but are registered with local authorities are slotted as temporary workers.”
Housing: The researchers say, “Most of the houses in the Valmiki-dominated neighbourhoods are built in clusters and on government land. The houses are made of mud, wood and bamboo; plastic sheets have been used to cover the roofs. Most families do not have a toilet in their homes nor do they have running water. They either use a communal toilet or are forced to use open spaces. They also either have access to a communal water supply or purchase from a private provider. In each area there are schools, but most of the children either do not go to school or drop out at the primary level. Those who drop out of school usually get involved in cleaning work.” 
The researchers regret that though there is a programme called ‘Ambedkar Awas Yojana’ started by the social welfare department of the Gujarat government where the government builds housing facilities for the sanitation worker community”, “this scheme has reportedly had a negative impact as the government builds houses specifically demarcated on the basis of caste, leading to ghettoization of the lower caste, sanitation-worker community.”
Wages: Coming to wages, the researchers say, “Most of the contract workers are relatively inexperienced and untrained and enter the sewer for emergency cleaning work, as compared with permanent municipal staff. For this they receive Rs 100 per day. It was found that 38 per cent of all the workers interviewed do not receive full payment. Additionally, it has been found that widows who are offered work as compensation, after the death of a relative, in most cases do not receive full wages. Fifty two per cent of the workers do not get provident fund, gratuity, medical facilities, insurance and other facilities.” 
Without sufficient income, “88 per cent of the families are not saving money in a bank or through insurance schemes. Of the 50 families, only six save money (four in bank and two send money to their villages). Half of the families at some point or another have been forced to borrow money. Of those, eight per cent borrowed money from their relatives, 44 per cent from AMC, 44 per cent from moneylenders, four per cent from loan contractors and 16 per cent from the Provident Fund. Loan that families take a longer time to repay have a higher interest rate which means that approximately 25 per cent of their income goes into repaying loans.”
Health: Coming to the health situation, the researchers report that 15 deaths were recorded in the first seven months of 2010 and one person became blind while working inside a manhole. “The major cause of death was suffocation from poisonous gases inside the manhole that also caused blindness in others. Nine persons died of poisonous gases, three during accidents, two because of TB, one due to heart attack and one committed suicide. The type of compensation that they received included five dependents getting jobs in the municipal corporation, six receiving jobs and cash compensation, and one individual receiving just cash. Four families did not receive any compensation,“ the researchers underline.
The researchers further say that since sanitation workers and particularly manhole workers are exposed to highly toxic and poisonous substances and gases, they are prone to health hazards and diseases. “They spend about 25 per cent of their income on medical expenses. Since their work includes sweeping and cleaning, they are prone to various diseases such as TB, asthma, cough, backache and infections of the respiratory tract.”
They cite a Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, which carried out a study of manual scavengers in Gujarat in September 2006. The report states that “Ninety percent of all manual scavengers have not been provided proper equipment to protect them from faeces-borne illnesses”. This includes safety equipment like gloves, masks, boots and/or brooms. In 2006, Gujarat High Court directed the government to form a safety committee. The purpose was to monitor, use safety equipment and implement high court directives. “However, 90 per cent of workers are not getting safety equipment till date”, they point out.
The survey suggests that thirty two per cent of respondents said their relatives who were also sanitation workers had died from such diseases as cancer, tuberculosis and asthma. ”
In some cases women workers were also expected to remove human excreta without taking any precautions and suffered from various types of illnesses. An RTI application was filed to gather information about the committee being formed at the state, district and municipal or nagarpalika level. It was found that in four years (2006-2010), only two meetings were organised. On analysis of the meeting report, it was found that manhole workers were not even involved as members of the safety committee and the focus of the discussions, between District Authorities and Municipal Corporation, was on equipment for drainage cleaning”, the researchers say. 
Awareness: Despite these issues, the researchers found that 94 per cent of workers’ families were not aware about the various illnesses that they could contract because of their work. Further, “98 per cent were not aware that lifting of black soil is prohibited and 88 per cent were not aware that entering the manhole is prohibited. Additionally, 50 per cent were not aware that availability and access to basic facilities at the work place such as clean drinking water and toilet is mandatory and something that they can demand from the government. They were also not aware about such central and state government schemes as the Public Distribution System.”
Neither were the workers’ families aware of benefits that they have a right to avail from the social welfare department. “In fact, 48 per cent are not aware about widow pension. In a 2003 report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, which was among the documents before the Gujarat High Court, it was observed that the National Scheme of Liberation and Rehabilitation of Scavengers and their dependents launched in 1992 had failed to achieve its objectives even after 10 years of its implementation involving investments of more than Rs. 600 crore. The CAG found that much of the allotted fund was either unspent or underutilized."
In January 2007, another scheme was launched, the Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), with the objective of rehabilitating 3.42 lakh manual scavengers and their dependents by March, 2009. Despite these two schemes, workers who still clean up black soil as well as their dependents (irrespective of their income) are yet to be provided assistance for rehabilitation under any central government or state government scheme. The main components of the scheme are skill training and financial assistance (loan and subsidy) for self-employment.