Like the age old tale of the elves and shoemaker, our cities too appear to have a group of elves that are hard at work before the sun is up and are completely responsible for the city’s garbage collection and clean streets. Almost blending into the scene, there is a group of women from largely dispossessed sects of society that are employed in the sector called the pourakarmikas. Belonging to low income or BPL families of a particular sub-sect, they end up at the bottom of the professional and social ladder, to be looked down upon by the upper castes and classes.
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These sections of workers however, play a major role in the working of the system as a whole. They include the manual scavengers, domestic workers, the pourakarmikas etc. These are the people considered to be doing the most menial work in society, and are hence treated with no respect by the people who benefit from their services.
My decision to write this article came from my greater understanding of the work being performed by the PouraKarmikas(PKs) in Bangalore city. During my Civic Action Internship, we helped PKs for a whole day – we pushed their carts and chatted with them about various aspects of their work.
The city of Bangalore wakes up early, and is at full force by around 9 am. By this time, the PKs are about halfway through their work. Their days start at 6 am and finish by around 2 pm. Their work includes going to houses in a designated locality, collecting garbage and disposing of it in the right way. The clean roads we see in the morning on our way to schools and offices are maintained by these workers. The major work force includes women who have migrated from states like Andhra Pradesh, as well as those who reside on the outskirts of the city. These women usually leave their houses at 5am after performing all the household chores– so it is indeed, a very early start.
In order to collect garbage from different households, they are provided with a push cart, usually known as the “Bell gaadi. ” As easy as it may seem pushing a cart, by the time she has collected garbage from many houses, the cart becomes heavy and difficult to push and turn. Not only collecting garbage but also they are assigned the work of cleaning the roads which are usually filled with all kinds of wastes, including human excreta and urine. The long pavements which are used as public toilets by the men of this city are cleaned by these people.
No amenities, no respect, no salary too
However, sadly, these workers are not provided with any of the amenities to perform these tasks other than a broom. Hence they end up scraping and cleaning these wastes with their bare hands. Although the concerned authorities argue that they have provided the PKs with hand gloves, masks and other equipment, these items do not find their way to the streets for optimal usage and their quality and accessibility are questionable. These women also face difficulties in finding a place to relieve themselves and even sometimes eating their meals next to the garbage piles.
Further, they are paid very little for the work they do – especially given how they form an integral part of the clean safe functioning of the city. They are paid around Rs.5,000 a month, where deductions are made if they take the day off. With inflation in food products and other basic necessities – is this enough to make ends meet?
However, it is interesting to note that what most of the PKs demand is not any of the above mentioned facilities, but instead the respect and cooperation of the public, which have been denied to them for a long time. Often they are not even offered a glass of water based on the prejudice that they are impure. The prejudice is so strong that most households refrain from speaking to them at all.
The ideas of Karl Marx hold true in this scenario as well, where workers become alienated from their work when they are not acknowledged or remunerated adequately. This alienation furthers their exclusion in the society. Helping us to keep our surroundings and the city clean, they are indirectly and directly responsible for protecting us from various diseases. The concept of “clean city healthy city”, which is one of the main aims of the Bengaluru Needs You (BNY) movement, is an impossible goal without the help of these noble, hardworking women. As a city we need to take note of this social exploitation, and do our best at a personal level to prevent the further oppression of Bangalore’s Secret Army.