I was born in Maujpur, Delhi. My father used to work as a labourer and we lived in a rented house. When I was five, my two brothers, my parents, and I moved to Loni, Ghaziabad. Even though we live so close to Delhi, the area hasn’t developed much due to various political tensions—crime is rampant in Loni and we also don’t have access to good private or public schools. However, I managed to finish my schooling. After that I decided to pursue a degree in political science from Delhi University. I have always wanted to learn a lot and go far in life, and help more families like mine who don’t have access to basic necessities. I realised that to bring about these changes in Loni I would have to join politics, because political leaders are the people with real power here.
During my college years I worked with a local political party. There I met a well-known political leader from Uttar Pradesh, who, after learning about my economic situation and family background, advised me against pursuing a career in politics. He told me that politics is for those who have time and money, and that I, unfortunately, didn’t have the luxury of either. He suggested I sit for the UPSC entrance exams instead.
Most of my day now goes in studying and preparing for the exam. Simultaneously, I work as a cleaner in the nearby market along with my father and brothers. Both my brothers are younger than me. While one is still pursuing his studies, the other discontinued them after standard 12. He now helps with housework and earns some money from gig work on the side.
6.00 AM: My day begins with the online coaching classes I am taking to prepare for the UPSC exams. I quickly brush my teeth and wash my face before logging in for the class from my smartphone. My father serves me a cup of tea he has prepared, before he heads off to the private school where he works as a cleaner. This is his daily routine. The tea helps me stay alert during the early morning classes.
Initially I knew almost nothing about the UPSC exams, let alone what all I would require to pass them. After searching online and speaking with people, I found out about coaching centres in Mukherjee Nagar and enrolled in one. But the coaching centre shut down due to COVID-19. I still have not received the refund from them. Thus, I have now enrolled myself in online classes that I can afford.
12.00 PM: After I finish my classes, I attend to chores around the house. I run some errands and pick up the ration when required. My entire day depends on the way my classes are scheduled. Today, because I am speaking with you, I tried to complete the work for my classes earlier and didn’t do any household chores. My younger brother is helping out around the house instead.
3.00 PM: I have my lunch at this time and try to squeeze in a quick nap right after. We all get together for evening tea around 4 pm, after which I sit down for my evening classes.
6.00 PM: I step out to collect our payment from the nearby market. I started working at a fairly young age in order to pursue my studies. In the two months of summer vacation during school, I would apply for all kinds of jobs in municipal corporations and private companies. My first job was with the Railways in 2012. I used to work for a contractor who would pay me INR 4,000 a month. I thought the situation might improve after I finished school, but nothing changed even after graduation.
Whenever I go looking for jobs, recruiters ask me about my prior work experience. As soon as I tell them about my job as a cleaner, I am asked to continue with the same work. Their reason is that I have no experience of any other work. I remember applying for the position of a room attendant in the office I was already working at. The salary difference wasn’t much, maybe just a thousand rupees more. But I was told that because people had seen me clean the office, they would not be comfortable seeing me change their bedsheets and pillow covers. Eventually, in order to manage household expenses, I started doing the cleaning jobs that my family has been doing for generations.
Nowadays anyway I can’t dedicate too many hours to a full-time job while studying for the UPSC entrance exam on the side.
10.00 PM: After finishing my last class for the day, my family and I sit down for a quick dinner cooked by my mother. After dinner, my father, my brothers, and I leave for the market to clean the shops. During the COVID-19-mandated lockdown, the vendors at the local market who employed us were unable to open their shops. Those who did got beaten up by the cops. I was also beaten by the cops once when I went to the market to take my money. They said, “Do you not see that there is a lockdown in place?” All of us survive on daily wages and even one day without pay can set us back.
But nobody came to help us during that difficult time. My father used to work with a private company as a cleaner before the pandemic. He was sacked along with some 400–500 workers when the lockdown began—he got half a month’s salary for March and nothing after. We survived on the savings that we had at home. There were a lot of problems—we used to get half a litre of milk from the dairy but we had to reduce it to 250 ml; we had to cut back on food; and we had to decide when we could shower because we had to save soap. All of this was happening when people were talking about how one should regularly wash their hands with soap.
We were happy that we no longer had to do manual scavenging. But now the question was, what were we supposed to do?
It was during the lockdown that I started working with nonprofits. I helped a nonprofit that visited our locality to distribute food. I also started working with Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA). It has only been a year or two since I have been associated with them, but I knew about their work since the time I was a child. I remember they first visited our area in 2010 and told us we should stop doing manual scavenging. My mother and other women in the area would work as manual scavengers. By 2013 my mother was made to quit this work.
This one government official—likely from an upper caste—who visited us explained to people how employing someone to carry human waste was now a punishable offence. We were happy that we no longer had to do manual scavenging. But now the question was, what were we supposed to do?
That was 2010; now it is 2021—these women are still waiting to be ‘rehabilitated’. The government keeps making promises but nothing has actually happened. They just make us sign self-declaration forms and do rounds of offices for paperwork. I am now working with SKA to help with some of these formalities. The organisation has been trying to get people more work, but there has been no support from the municipal corporation.
12:00 AM: I finish cleaning the shops by midnight. Once I reach home, I dust off my clothes and wash up. Then I sit down to study for a bit. I go over my notes and write down any queries I have from my classes. Meanwhile, my younger brother also finishes his studies on my phone.
When I clear this exam, I really want to help build a better life for those around me. I want to work towards increasing people’s minimum wage so that they can at least afford basic necessities. Mother Dairy’s milk, for example, is INR 44 a litre; a child’s school fee is approximately INR 500 a month excluding expenses on pens, pencils, and books; and even dal is about INR 20 for 250 gm. If a family has two children and their total income is only INR 300 a day, how will they survive?
The other thing I want to focus on is skill development. I went to learn mobile repairing under Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana. But the trainers did not really care about teaching skills; they just wanted their share of money from the government. I never even got my diploma for the course. The government runs programmes but doesn’t monitor their implementation.
People might say that manual scavenging is over, but those involved with this work had to return to carrying waste and cleaning jobs.
Skill development is very important. People might say that manual scavenging is over, but those involved with this work had to return to carrying waste and cleaning jobs. Why? Because they could not find any other work—they haven’t been equipped with any other skills. Neither have they been giving any training nor have they received any monetary support to develop skills and find other work. People got tired of waiting and eventually returned to their old work. I also had to go back to cleaning. The only difference is that back then it was kaccha (pit latrine); now we sweep, pick up the waste, and dispose it. The process may have changed on paper, but the exploitation remains.
As told to IDR.