‘A Sweeper Can’t Avoid Pollution’

Every morning when I pick up my broom, I brace myself for the heavy breathing that results from dust swirling up when I sweep the streets of this town. People in other jobs might have the option to escape the dust and air pollution. But people in my vocation have no option. Like firefighters, we sweepers have to run towards the very same thing that people are running away from.

In most small towns and cities, sweepers come to town from far-flung areas. I myself walk 5 km on the dust-laden streets from my home to reach work. Yes I walk the distance — I can’t afford to pay for public transport four times a day. I sweep vast stretches of road from 8 am to 10.30 am, and then walk back to my house, help my wife with household chores then again go back for another round at 3 pm. I finally finish work at around 5 pm. This has been my routine for over two decades, but now my body seems to have given up. My body refuses to put up with the onslaught.

Deoghar is a holy town, lakhs of devotees keep pouring in all year round, which means that several hundreds of tonnes of waste is generated here every day. Most of it gets dumped on the roads. The stink is unbearable. Most people walk past it, but we have to pick them up, segregate them and then clean the area. I have to clean the stretch four times a day, so you can imagine my plight. Add to that the fumes coming from vehicles, and the dhabas that line the road.

My immunity has weakened due to continuous exposure to pollution and dust. Winter months are especially difficult. My eyes keep watering continuously and the cold and cough never ends. And the cold weather prevents me from taking a bath after finishing my duty.

My cotton gamcha (a thin cloth meant for wiping sweat off the face) is my only shield, which obviously doesn’t work. Dust gets into my nose, eyes and even my mouth. I wish the government equipped sweepers and manhole cleaners with better gears and equipment so that we did not have to suffer so much. Gloves, good-quality masks, all-weather footwear etc — are they too much to ask for?

Even though, waste management has gotten better with time, people are yet to give it the importance that it deserves. The government has advised people not to burn leaves or garbage, but people here don’t care. Leaves, plastic toys, diapers, sanitary napkins, food gone waste, polybags –they indiscriminately burn it all. They have been made aware of the impact this mindless burning of garbage has on the environment, but no one bothers.

The fumes emanating from these burning dumps on the roadside are toxic, which puts the health of every citizen at risk. But it is our job to clean it up. Whenever it comes to our notice that waste is being burnt, we have to take cognizance and inform our superiors.

Traditional wisdom in rural areas puts in a lot of emphasis on ecological sustainability. Our village elders used to say cleaner air leads to cleaner thinking. I wish people (especially in cities) could learn something from this treasure trove of wisdom.

Toxic Air I

#Toxic Air I – ‘Dust, Pollution Part Of Life’

paan-gutkha shops here in Deoghar (Jharkhand) on my way home in the evening.

My friends and I laugh wryly every time I see privileged people on television talking about how badly their countrymen are affected by air pollution. They sound like a joke. Do people sitting in those shining studios ever spare a thought about people like us? I am a construction worker and I too am forced to make peace with toxic air, even though my exposure to air pollution is much more prolonged than any of the experts or politicians sitting and making idle talk in television studios.

My day starts early in the morning as I start walking on dusty kaccha roads waiting for a ride to come by. If I am lucky, I get to hang on the sides of buses or sawari autos. On rare occasions, I am able to get a seat. But then the co-passengers cringe with disgust. Who would want a dirt-laden labourer sitting next to him/her? People talk about air pollution in Delhi and other big cities, but the truth is that it’s a national problem.

The air in villages and small towns is equally bad. Smog is probably not visible here but the amount of construction happening in this town is insane. A new building is being constructed after every 50 metres or so. Every time a lorry unloads bajri (red sand) or reta (sand), it is impossible to breath. My job is to lift soil, bricks, sand and small stones used for construction, for nearly eight to nine hours. I first have to dig the soil, or sieve the sand or arrange the bricks before I can start carrying the load.

In short, I am in close contact with dust particles throughout the day. My load can go up to as much as 40 kilograms at a time. Add to it, the pollutants from industries, coal plants, vehicles and stubble burning.  And I have more breathing issues than the grandparents in family!  Sometimes I have a lot of difficulty in breathing and it becomes worse during winters.

Breathing isn’t the only issue. Take a look at my hands. The skin has got dry and flaky; sand and other dust particles clog my skin pores and make my skin burn. My hands were not like this when I started to work at sites. My friends, who work as labourers in Delhi, sometimes get masks to cover their faces while working. They told me that being the capital city, many NGOs actively conduct regular health check-ups of construction workers, and distribute masks.

Sadly that is not the case in small towns. Here if you fall ill, you have to ignore it and keep working. Labourers, who work for hotel projects are slightly better off. At least they take care of the working conditions of the labourers. But things are bad, where I work. They use huge machinery. We are surrounded by big vehicles such as JCB machines, tube-well boring machines, and road rollers that keep plying at the construction site– the dust never settles.

I understand this is part and parcel of the vocation I have chosen for myself, but if the construction pace was a little slower, perhaps we could get a little space, where we could take little breaks to sit and relax. We do not even have masks to shield us from the pollution, my red gamcha is the only protection I have. To add to our woes, we mostly live in the poverty-ridden localities, where water shortage is often a problem. As a result we do not even get to clean ourselves properly after having been exposed dust and other pollutants.

Indiscriminate dumping of garbage is also a problem in our locality. We live in a haven for infections and the pollution makes us more prone to them. Cold, cough, running noses, burning eyes and headaches have become a part of my life. The situation is worse for female construction workers and older labourers. We earn around Rs 300-400 per day and we cannot afford to spend money on medication. We just pick ourselves up and march on. *(This is a fictitious name. The construction worker was just not interested in identifying himself despite frequent requests. All he wanted was his sufferings be known to others)