Pourakarmikas: Climate warriors who clean waste with their bare hands

Pourakarmikas: Climate warriors who clean waste with their bare hands

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On a balmy July morning, Muthyallamma was busy sweeping a dusty lane in Bengaluru’s Jakkur area. Jakkur is a suburb in India’s IT hub and has witnessed unprecedented development in recent years. As a cloud of dust hovered around Muthyallamma, everything turned blurry. The 40-year-old kept her broom on the roadside corner for a minute. She coughed for a while keeping her right hand...

On a balmy July morning, Muthyallamma was busy sweeping a dusty lane in Bengaluru’s Jakkur area. Jakkur is a suburb in India’s IT hub and has witnessed unprecedented development in recent years. As a cloud of dust hovered around Muthyallamma, everything turned blurry. The 40-year-old kept her broom on the roadside corner for a minute. She coughed for a while keeping her right hand pressed against her mouth to avoid swallowing the foreign particles she was trying to collect together alongside plastic packets and leaves.

Within half an hour Muthyallamma and her co-worker Ramanji managed to sweep clean almost a kilometre of the road. In a corner of the road, stood a tiny hill of dust mixed with plastic bags, papers, leaves and a stained sanitary pad — the remnants of Muthyallamma and Ramanji’s labour. With their bare hands, they picked up the waste and transferred everything into their three-wheeled steel garbage hand cart.

Both Muthyallamma and Ramanji (32) have been working as pourakarmikas (sanitation workers) with Bengaluru’s municipal corporation, Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), for 15 years as contractual workers.

Their work starts at 6 am and ends at 3 pm every day (except on Wednesdays and Sundays when they work till 10.30 am). If they miss a day’s work, even when they are sick, a portion of their income is deducted from their monthly salary of Rs 15,000. Except for their brooms and a cart, both Muthyallamma and Ramanji don’t have any safety gear — not even a pair of hand gloves.

It was during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the BBMP provided them masks to cover their faces. Now, those masks are too old to be used. Several sanitation workers died during the pandemic as their work continued even when the entire Bengaluru came to a standstill during the lockdowns. Like everyone else in the profession, Muthyallamma and Ramanji wear slippers instead of sturdy shoes/boots to protect their feet from any injuries.

Muthyallamma (left) and Ramanji (right) pose for The Federal.

India’s IT hub generates close to six million kilograms of waste daily and it’s the duty of the pourakarmikas to keep the city clean. What’s more, it’s a job that is not even permanent for most of them. Their salaries also vary. While the contractual workers earn between Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000 per month, those who have a permanent job with the BBMP get Rs 30,000 per month.

“They all retire at the age of 60. They don’t have pension benefits post-retirement,” a BBMP official tells The Federal, wishing to remain anonymous. For a long time, pourakarmikas are demanding permanent jobs for all, an increase in salary, a day off from work every week, maternity and sick leave and access to health insurance, toilets and drinking water facilities while they are on their shift. They are also demanding pension benefits after retirement and job security for spouses in case of death on duty.

Manasa B, a social worker from Sangama, a Bengaluru-based NGO, working with the urban poor, tells The Federal that pourakarmikas, especially the women, face a lot of difficulties in attending to nature’s call as there are no toilets available in and around their working areas. “The sanitation workers are keeping the city clean and they have no place to urinate and defecate. The women hold their urge to pee till they go back to their homes after signing off for the day. Similarly, they have no resting place even to eat their meals. They eat their food sitting on the roadside,” adds Manasa.

Bengaluru-based social activist Abdul Rahman calls pourakarmikas “protectors of the environment”. “Unfortunately, they are the ones bearing the brunt of air, noise and water pollution as they spend most part of their lives out in the open.”

A housing colony of pourakarmikas in the city.

Muthyallamma, who has never gone to school, tells The Federal that she has been handling medical and sanitary waste with her bare hands since the day she started working. Similar is the plight of the rest of the city’s nearly 16,500 pourakarmikas under the BBMP, a majority of whom are women and Dalits.

When asked what is her view on being hailed as a frontline climate warrior — for keeping Bengaluru clean — Muthyallamma smiles at the irony. Like Muthyallamma, women sanitation workers have been forced to earn their livelihood in a highly exploitative and hazardous job. They don’t even have a safety net to protect them from any economic and health-related setbacks.

Be it rain or shine, Muthyallamma tells The Federal she avoids missing her work as she is in debt. “My husband suffered a heart attack last year and died. I took a loan of more than Rs 100,000 (one lakh) to pay his hospital bills and perform his last rites. I am in debt and struggling hard to repay the loans by cleaning the city as best as I can.”

Muthyallamma’s husband was also a sanitation worker. She suspects the “backbreaking work” was the reason behind her husband’s demise. “He was only 50. His death was sudden and shocking,” says Muthyallamma as she wiped her tears. Her colleagues Aakalu Hanumanthamma and Neelamma, who were listening to Muthyallamma, interrupted. “Our work is physically demanding. It leaves us exhausted. Most of us here have one or another health issue. Bodyache is the most common of them,” says 45-year-old Hanumanthamma.

“We all become old and weak faster than others. We earn very little and can’t afford to eat healthy food. As we work from early morning till late afternoon, we don’t get to eat our food on time too,” adds Neelamma (40).

An overcoat of a pourakarmika (at the centre) getting dried on a clothesline.

As a testimony of their labour-intensive work, four women pourakarmikas showed calluses forming in different spots on their hands to The Federal. “Take a picture of our hands and show it to the world. These hands have endured the toughest of physical labour as we cleaned the city,” says Neelamma.

Dr Murlidhar B, a physician working in a primary health centre in Bengaluru, tells The Federal that as per the BBMP rule every three months each sanitation worker has to undergo a health check-up. “The sanitation workers undergo blood and urine tests to diagnose iron-deficiency anaemia, diabetes and other ailments. Their sputum test is done to identify if they have tuberculosis or not. If the tests come positive, they are referred to tertiary hospitals run by the government for treatment.” Dr Murlidhar, who is responsible for taking care of 95 pourakarmikas, says often the sanitation workers suffer from skin problems like eczema as they work without wearing hand gloves and shoes. “The workers are in constant touch with hazardous materials including hospital and factory waste. Thus their skin becomes inflamed, itchy, cracked and rough. They also develop blisters on their hands and feet.”

Speaking to The Federal, noted environmentalist and filmmaker Suresh Heblikar says it is unfortunate that pourakarmikas, who play a vital role in keeping the environment clean by collecting, segregating and recycling waste, are subjected to state-sanctioned discrimination.

“I share a lot of sympathy for the pourakarmikas. They are not given the dignity of labour. The whole city will become full of filth and stench will emanate from everywhere if we continue to disrespect pourakarmikas. They need proper working conditions. They should be paid a sufficient salary to buy essential food items, pay medical bills, rent housing facilities and educate their children,” adds Heblikar, who has witnessed Bengaluru (then Bangalore) transforming from a “garden city” to a “concrete city” in the last 40 years of his stay.

Heblikar, who founded the NGO Eco-Watch, working in environment conservation, in 1998, stresses the need to understand the intersection of gender, sanitation work, climate change and the right to a dignified livelihood. “We can’t talk about pourakarmikas, environment and climate change without understanding the unprecedented growth cities like Bengaluru have witnessed in recent times. It is time to protect our environment from further degradation. Be it lakes, grasslands or trees, we have to revive our lost environmental glory by focusing on sustainable development.”

After finishing her day’s job, Muthyallamma stands in a queue with her colleagues close to a police station. One by one, they all put their thumb impression in an attendance machine. Nagarjuna N, a BBMP supervisor, entrusted to take the thumb impression, says rainy days are the most difficult for the workers. “It is hard to work when it is raining. But there is no other option as they have to clean the waste every day.”

Gangarattma is the youngest and the most educated among Muthyallamma’s colleagues. Gangarattma, 27, studied till class ten. She, however, was married eight years ago and is a mother of three children, the youngest is a toddler. During all her pregnancies she did not get maternity leave. “I worked till the eighth month of each of my pregnancies. I needed money,” she says.

Muthyallamma’s home is around three kilometres from her working area. She stays in a colony established by the BBMP for sanitation workers. There are around 150 houses in the neighbourhood. The houses, built of bricks and tin roofs, measure 100 square feet. Giving a tour of the colony, Annamma, a pourakarmika, tells The Federal in these tiny cages stay families, each having at least five members. “Since there are only four toilets and no bathrooms in the colony, everyone has built tiny bathrooms inside their homes,” she adds.

Pourakarmikas put their thumb impression in an attendance machine.

The biggest problem in the colony as told by its child residents is the lack of drinking water facilities. Outside every house stands a big blue plastic water storage container. The colony gets water twice a week. Electricity is also erratic in the settlement. “But life goes on,” says Muthyallamma.

(The author is a Laadli Media Fellow, 2023. All the opinions and views expressed are those of the author. Laadli and UNFPA do not necessarily endorse the views).

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