Pravin Mishra January 25, 2014
Day 26 - Safari Workers strike goes on undeterredDay 26 – Safari Workers strike goes on undeterredGujarat chief minister Narendra Modi addressed the national executive committee of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) last week. Attacking UPA government, Modi pointed out that Prime Minister talks about inclusive growth but the government had missed the bottom part of the pyramid in the growth. Modi insisted that the poorest man of society should also be part of growth. Reiterating that Gujarat did not have labour problems because of its policies, he said, “India needs to resolve labour issues without compromising the dignity and security of labourers.” Mr Modi also claimed that Gujarat’s labour laws ensure almost zero man-days loss.

However, right below his nose, several thousand sanitary workers (safai mazdoors) have been on an indefinite strike for the last 25 days. About 5000 workers of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, consisting mainly of Balmiki community members are demanding their rights since December 31, 2013 without pay.

AMC pays them as little as Rs 105 for four hours and Rs 210 for eight hours of work. And that’s lower than the minimum wages. Since all of them are contract and part-time workers, they have no rights otherwise available to permanent employees. They have no leaves and are not paid overtime either. In the last 23 years, the Balmiki community has lost at least 580 lives in Ahmedabad working in extraordinary situations. Summer or winter, spring or monsoon, these brave men often go down the gutter to clean our shit. Those who carry the night soil to wake up the sun for us continue to be deprived of the sunlight themselves.

These ultra-dalits have now sent application letters with thumb prints with their own blood. Untouched by the plight of these untouchables, AMC officials filed false complaints against them, pushed them behind bars and terminated 300 of them for participating in the protests.

In India, of late a new middle class has emerged from many communities. However, the middle-class is non-existent in a few communities of `untouchables`. The Bhangis, Chamars, Churhas, Halalkhors, Yanadis, Balmikis… are different names in different states for those who do a similar kind of job – cleaning others` filth. In modern terminology, they are the safai mazdoors, who stands lowest in the hierarchical caste pyramid.

The safai karmacharis collect garbage from your houses, sweep the roads, and clean public toilets and urinals. In the eyes of a caste-based society, the safai karmacharis embody the worst form of impurity because they handle and dispose night soil, dirt and filth. They do the work a mother does for her children, but they are not looked upon as mothers but as scum.

To give more effect to Article 17 of the Constitution, Parliament passed the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955, which was made more stringent later, and renamed Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955. In spite of the Act, the attitude or crimes against the so-called untouchables continued, which forced the government to rethink and come up with laws like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. But these laws, as usual, are tightly bound in red tapes and silently witness the crimes that grip this vulnerable section of the society. The Balmikis always felt the sharp edge of caste prejudice and of feudal violence, stories of which continue to seep into the landscape of dalit history. What is happening today in our own backyard is nothing less than gruesome.

While there’s a competition amongst all the major political parties to play the opposition, no one really cares to oppose the real oppression. And, we the people, who are otherwise quite vocal in even smallest of the issues, are untouched by such unashamed repression of the untouchables!


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