New Delhi: Parvesh Devi, 52-year-old contract worker, has been penniless for the most part of past few months. No, it’s not about demonetisation. She has neither been getting her monthly salary on time, nor the full amount; worse, the meagre sum she used to get as ‘widow pension’ has also stopped coming.
“I am supposed to get Rs 1,000 every month as widow pension. I have not received it for the past three months. As a contract worker in MCD’s sanitation department, my salary is supposed to be Rs 9,000 a month, but I never receive the full amount. My son is also a contract worker. Even he doesn’t get salary on time. How are we supposed to raise a family?” she rues.
Parvesh Devi belongs to the Valmiki community, a sub-caste within Dalits. A large numbers of Valmikis engage in sanitation activities, including manual scavenging. How caste continues to decide people’s occupation and life choices in India can be understood from the fact that nearly all sanitation workers in Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) are from the Valmiki community. While the exact number of Valmikis employed with MCD as sanitation workers wasn’t available readily, sources in the corporation said out of 55,226 permanent sanitation workers, over 50,000 are from the Valmiki community.
No other community in Delhi’s 1.9 crore population has higher stakes in the MCD polls this Sunday than the 7.5 lakh Valmikis, who live on sidelines of society.
Sanitation workers have been at the receiving end of the blame game between Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government and Bhartiya Janata Party-led MCD. Time and again, their salaries were blocked for months on end.
The campaign for MCD polls saw both sides making overtures to the Valmikis, and it remains to be seen which side has managed to convince them.
‘We have to pay for AAP-BJP fight’
Over the past few years, Delhi has faced a severe sanitation crisis with sanitation workers going on multiple strikes. Since 2015, Delhiites had no other option but to get used to the sight of garbage on the streets. The sanitation crisis was followed by a political one, with both AAP and BJP passing the buck to each other. The blame game continues as AAP has accused the MCD of “squandering” the money that Delhi government gave it. The BJP, on the other hand, has said that the state government has “not paid its dues” to the civic body.
Take O P Gehlot’s case, for instance. Gehlot, who turns 60 this year, has spent over 40 years as a sweeper with the MCD. It was only recently that he was made a permanent employee. His family thought things would improve, now that he was entitled to a salary of Rs 30,000 a month. But the contract has materialised, marginally only. “The Delhi High Court has ordered the government to act on our demands, but the latter has done nothing so far. Despite protests, our salaries continue to get delayed. When will Delhi government wake up? Both BJP and AAP have decided to fight amongst themselves and let us rot. They will pay the price for this.”
Gehlot was quick to add that he was tired of the AAP-BJP fight and would vote for Congress instead. “When Sheila Dikshit was chief minister and Congress was in MCD, none of these problems used to occur. Salaries came on time. Now, sometimes the salaries come three months late. How will we manage?” he said.
The Modi Vs Kejriwal narrative
Valmikis are used to political parties trying to woo them. The Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan began from a Valmiki Basti in Central Delhi. The AAP, too, has announced a slew of promises for sanitary workers, including health insurance, a fixed deposit of Rs 50,000 for their children, and world-class safety gear. The most crucial of all promises, perhaps, is that AAP, if voted to power in the MCD, would ensure that salaries reach the workers’ bank accounts by the 7th of every month. Another important takeaway is the regularisation of the nearly 40,000 ‘substitute’ sanitary workers.
While there is anger against Delhi government, some like Sarla Devi, a contract worker in Trilokpuri’s block 31, say they are willing to give Arvind Kejriwal a chance to run both the state government and MCD. “When Kejriwal was fighting the election in 2015, we had all come out in droves to vote for him. For us, it meant a lot that someone was using the ‘broom’ as his symbol. This time, we are disappointed. Yet, I am ready to vote for Kejriwal again,” she said. Parvesh echoes her views.
At this point, an argument breaks out in the basti. “Why should we make that liar win? We should give one chance to Modi.” Gehlot joins in the commotion. “Kejriwal promises house tax waivers. We don’t even have decent house. He is just going to bankrupt the MCD.
‘We keep the city clean, but our homes are in shambles’
The Valmikis, who keep the city streets clean around the clock, grapple with basic problems of sanitation and power. Parvesh Devi shows her recent electricity bill, “We have had to pay an electricity bill of Rs 15,000. Sewer lines are not laid out properly. How can we construct toilets in our house? We go all over the city to clean people’s garbage, but who will clean our streets? After elections, nobody comes to us to even ask about our problems, but this time we have an opportunity. The entire country will be watching the MCD polls. This time, we will make our voices heard.”ALSO READ | Deadly Stink: The Hidden Life of Garbage in Delhi