‘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.