‘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 II

#Toxic Air II – ‘A Storehouse Of Pollutants’

So in a way, my body is a storehouse of pollutants and infections. We smell, breathe and handle toxic waste, and other dangerous things, day in and day out. Other people just cover their faces, squirm and move away from smelly dumps but how would we survive if we did the same? My work area in Jharkhand is home to a famous Shiv temple, which means there are a lot of people coming into the town both in hordes.  During the holy month of shravan, the number runs into lakhs.

Though there is a huge green cover, yet with each passing day, our town is getting more polluted. The waste management in the city is appalling. The concept of separating the waste does not exist. The easiest way to get rid of the waste for our municipal workers is incineration. And this means spread of toxic fumes in the air of this divine place. We the rag pickers face the worst. We could have earned some money from sorting out non-biodegradable material if everything wasn’t burnt.

But our job is to earn a living out of the waste. So even after it is burnt we have to scavenge through it, looking for leftover ‘treasures’. Two years ago, I had got the job a daily-wage sweeper but it didn’t last long. I had to return to rag picking. As I am ageing, the impact has begun to tell. My eyes start burning every time I go near a garbage dump.

My skin gets remain excessively dry because of the dust and pollution; sometimes it cracks and bleeds too. When that happens, I pray to find discarded bottles of lotions with some leftover. To make things worse, men here often urinate and throw soiled diapers etc on garbage dumps. Do they not know that someone is going to sort that garbage out with their hands? For many people, we are non-existent and invisible.

At the end of the day, if I have survived without an infection, I thank God. But I worry about my children. They can easily catch infections from us. Living in poverty means malnourishment, which makes us and our children even more vulnerable to diseases. Pollution is not just a work hazard, I can feel its presence everywhere. At home, we use traditional chulhas for cooking, which produce more smoke. With a large family to feed, we are surrounded by smoke at home almost all the time.

Coughing and wheezing are a year-long phenomenon. I do not have access to a robust healthcare system. So illness is something that we have to live until my body gives away. My husband is a daily wage laborer and lays bricks at construction sites. Our incomes therefore, are meagre. On a very good day, I am able to earn around `300. And all of our savings go into our children’s education.

We can’t afford to spend it on our healthcare. My children are the only ray of hope for me. But look at the world we are leaving behind for them. My children and their teachers have told me about pollution, and how incineration of garbage can warm up the planet leading to horrible things. People like us, marginal farmers and poor fisherman, will be most-affected by it, I have learnt.

I wish I could tell the netas and officers that we rag pickers can tell them a thing or two about waste management. Every city or town can be identified by the waste it produces and we rag pickers know the city or the town’s garbage like the back of our hands. We have the local expertise. But getting involved in policymaking is a distant dream for me. All I expect from the world is a bit of respect and regard for the work I do.