Though manual scavenging has been banned by law since 1993, men and women continue to manually remove human waste lying on the tracks and inside train toilets at the Chennai Central railway station.
Railway authorities produce a list of sophisticated cleaning machines they have purchased to prove how they have done away with manual scavenging. But, not a single sanitary worker could be spotted using any of them.
Most of them were seen removing excreta on the tracks with brooms and metal plates. Health officers maintain that workers only used water jets to clear excreta and directed them into nearby channels which emptied into the drains. But this arrangement was not found working efficiently.
Sanitary workers told The Hindu hose pipes supplying water meant for cleaning often leaked and the force generated was not sufficient. In the end, they have to only use brooms and metal plates for scraping the dirt off the tracks.
Even the channels conducting waste into the drains are not well-dug and water mixed with excreta stagnates in them. The workers have to drag their brooms along the channels to clear them.
For now, the Chennai Central has about 30 sanitary workers employed on a contractual basis in Zone I (platform 1-6). Zone II (platforms 7-12) is cleaned by close to 40 railway employees. Of this, only two persons are engaged for removing excreta piled on a single track, says a senior sanitary worker. This is an enormous task, considering the tracks are 600 m long.
None of the sanitary workers are provided gloves, gum boots or masks while cleaning. They say they are not even provided a soap to bathe with after work.
Many of them suffer from skin allergies and other occupational hazards. Also, sanitary workers on contract get exploited for labour. For a 12-hour shift they are paid a measly Rs. 40 a day.
Lack of adequate public sanitation facilities is to be blamed for this state of affairs. For a station that sees nearly two lakh visitors a day, the Chennai Central has only two pay-and-use toilet complexes for public use.
Railway authorities point out that there are more toilets available in the waiting rooms on the first floor. But then again, the station has no sign boards to tell visitors where they are.
And anyways, why would someone pay to answer nature’s call when toilets inside trains waiting on platforms are available for use? The public blissfully ignore notice boards that discourage them from doing so.
A sanitary worker told The Hindu that Charminar Express, which pulls into the Chennai Central by around 8 am, serves as a free toilet for several early morning office-goers. “It takes us an hour to clean up the mounds of waste from its toilets,” he says.
The Railway authorities responsible for sanitation blame “beggars, urchins and those who roam aimlessly inside the station” for dirtying train toilets and tracks. But, the sanitary workers say that a large number of passengers boarding trains in the morning use train toilets.
The authorities blame the contractors for the plight of sanitary workers saying they are ill-equipped for the job. However, sources say the problem lies with issuing low value tenders for sanitary work as professional contractors would not come forward in such cases.
N. Penchalaiah, general secretary of All India Safai Mazdoor Congress said, “I am tired of pleading the authorities to find a workable solution for the sanitation problem. As long as there is someone to do the dirty job for them, they don’t care.”
(Originally published in The Hindu dated May 22, 2008)