Sanitary Workers In Tamil Nadu Fight Twin Banes Of Casteism, Administrative Apathy
Pitchaiyammal and Parthiban of Madurai district not receiving their wages for 15 months is not an isolated case, but an extension of poor treatment that tribals and Dalits have faced over the years
Vadipatti (Tamil Nadu): M Pitchaiyammal, a part-time sanitary worker at Mannadimangalam village panchayat in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district, lamented how her miserable life had become even worse.
“I have been cleaning human faeces for 35 years for extremely low wages. Already my life is very bad, they made it miserable by not paying me for almost 16 months,” said 50-year-old Pitchaiyammal.
Her son M Parthiban (27) did not receive wages for 15 months, citing a lack of proof of attendance. Both alleged that they have not been given the opportunity to sign the attendance register despite repeated attempts.
“Whenever we visit, the panchayat office is either locked or the panchayat secretary would tell us that the register was not there,” they claimed.
The panchayat office is about 3 km from their village and the travel time, including bus wait time, is not less than an hour. So they usually try to sign once a week or fortnight.
Pitchaiyammal came to Ayyappanayakanpatti as a child bride. She initially helped her mother-in-law, who was a sanitary worker. After her demise, Pitchaiyammal and her husband P Murugan took up the work.
The illiterate couple from Malai Kuravar community, a Scheduled Tribe, does not exactly know how long they have been doing this job.
“When I was married, I was just 15. Now I am 50. As soon as I came, they made me clean faeces. However, as per the records, I started working about 25 years back,” said Pitchaiyammal.
The couple made a few hundred rupees initially, but now Murugan earns Rs 8,500 and Pitchaiyammal Rs 7,500 a month. Parthiban, who had dropped out after class VIII, has been in the job for three years. He earns Rs 7,200 per month. Besides Parthiban, the couple has three daughters.
In Tamil Nadu villages, the preference to employ sanitary workers in other menial jobs has always been less due to the stigma associated with their work such as cleaning public toilets, open defecation and sewage drains. Hence, they rely on whatever they make through sanitary work.
“This is the only tribal family in the village. Their ancestors lived on a small hill nearby. They came down to work for the dominant castes and were treated like slaves in the olden days. Unable to bear the discrimination, many families returned to the hills decades ago,” said K Mangaiyarkarasi, a native of Ayyappanayakanpatti affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).
The Ordeal Begins
After not receiving wages for March last year, Pitchaiyammal and Parthiban got partial payments in April-end. But neither knew that it would take another 15 months for the next payment. Pitchaiyammal, who has no idea about the Gregorian calendar, said the Tamil calendar has entered into the 16th month since she last received wages.
“My wages were credited every two or three months. Whenever I inquired with panchayat clerk V Thirusenthil (now re-designated as panchayat secretary) about pending wages of my wife and son, he kept saying that the money will be credited once the Central fund comes,” said Murugan.
However, Vadipatti Block Development Officer (BDO) S Kathiravan told 101Reporters that wages of sanitary workers are paid from state funds.
“The Rural Development Department is not dependent on any Central fund for this expense,” informed Kathiravan, the top authority for 23 village panchayats in Vadipatti block.
All these months, Murugan’s wages ran the household with six members, including one of his widowed daughter and her three school-going children. Parthiban, who lives with his spouse, earned money by selling vegetables and doing electrical work.
With no positive signals from the panchayat, Pitchaiyammal registered her grievance with BDO Kathiravan in June.
“However, the deputy BDO’s report suggested that there was no evidence of them working in the attendance register. We met the BDO and asked why no showcause notice was sent to the workers if they did not report for duty. He had no answer,” said C Mathivanan, a senior CPI-ML functionary.
Mathivanan brought the issue to the notice of National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) Chairperson M Venkatesan in July. Though no formal complaint was filed, Venkatesan informed Mathivanan about the rights and entitlements of sanitary workers. The CPI-ML activists listed those rights and pasted wall posters across the villages in Mannadimangalam panchayat.
“This time, the officials were ready to disburse the pending wages, on condition of providing proof. Pitchaiyammal took a paper and pen when she went to work, and requested the residents of Ayyappanayakanpatti to sign the statement that she had delivered her duty. After submitting the signed statement, the administration started releasing her pending wages in instalments, along with her full monthly wages,” Mathivanan said.
“We remove faeces, blood-stained menstrual clothes and all the dirt that others will not even look at. After returning from work, we have to wait at least an hour to get over the odour and nauseous visuals before having food. How can my heart allow me to go unpaid,” asked Pitchaiyammal.
Mangaiyarkarasi, who was instrumental in escalating the non-payment matter with the panchayat union office, alleged that this is not administrative apathy but caste discrimination. Hailing from a dominant Other Backward Class (OBC), she has invited the wrath of many villagers for opposing discrimination.
Though the grievances of sanitary workers have been partially addressed, no action has been taken against Thirusenthil. 101Reporters did not approach him for comments as the workers feared repercussions. Panchayat secretaries are often more influential than the presidents as they are rarely transferred. Thirusenthil has been the panchayat secretary of Mannadimangalam for over 21 years.
The BDO, too, did not provide a direct answer on why other sanitary workers of the panchayat began to receive partial wages every month after the issue became public. “Now the issue has been sorted out and workers are paid every month,” he claimed.
Though manual scavenging is prohibited by law in India, Pitchaiyammal and Pathiban claimed that they manually remove the defecation around public toilets in the panchayat. All sanitary workers confirmed that no machinery has been provided for their work, other than brooms and dustpans.
The situation is no different for the other sanitary workers in Mannadimangalam panchayat. 101Reporters spoke to seven of them, belonging to Arunthathiyar community, a Scheduled Caste (SC).
M Ramuthai, who stays about 300 metres from the panchayat office and gets to sign the register regularly, gets her wages every two or three months. Sometimes, I get it only in the fourth month. “After the posters were pasted, we started getting it every month,” said Ramuthai, who has been in the job for six years.
Ramuthai did not get any financial assistance from the panchayat when she fell off the e-rickshaw collecting garbage a few months ago.
“I suffered a leg fracture and had to be hospitalised. I was out of duty for two weeks. I was paid for these days, but I did not receive any other monetary support,” she said.
The panchayat appoints sanitary workers after fixing their payments, which is usually around Rs 5,000 at the time of appointment. All of them are entitled to full wages, but they get only partial wages every month. That too, sometimes as low as Rs 1,500.
Ramuthai and others are unaware of the financial assistance provided by Tamil Nadu Sanitary Workers Welfare Board to the families of sanitary workers in case of accidents, marriage and more. None of the seven female workers was aware of the emoluments or employee insurance.
All sanitary workers (full-time and part-time) are eligible to join the welfare board. However, there is neither active enrolment by local bodies nor proper communication from the board. The membership application forms are usually distributed through the respective local bodies and primary requirement is ID card. The panchayat has not issued ID cards to Ramuthai and fellow workers.
Arunthathiyars are among the three most populous Dalit castes in the state, but they are the most subjugated one too, sometimes even by fellow Dalits. Due to its backwardness, a 3% sub-reservation has been made for them within the 18% reservation for SCs.
Though their working hours are fixed (9 am to 12 noon daily), the women claimed it takes about five hours to complete.
“Let alone regular wages, we were buying even the shovel and broom with our own money. We spend Rs 200 to 300 every few months on them,” said M Muthumari.
Rural Local Bodies Neglected
The state has 21 municipal corporations, 122 municipalities and 529 town panchayats, all categorised as urban local bodies. Last December, Chief Minister MK Stalin launched in Madurai the Sanitation Workers’ Development Scheme, meant to benefit 53,301 sanitary workers in urban local bodies, of which 18,859 are permanent employees.
In October, the state government announced formation of a corpus fund of Rs 50 crore (Rs 10 crore from government and rest mobilised by urban local bodies and state public sector undertakings). Again, there was no mention of rural local bodies, which accounted for about half the state population. By looking at the number of urban sanitary workers, it can be assumed that the per capita allocation under the corpus fund would be a meagre Rs 938.
As for rural local bodies, Tamil Nadu has 37 district panchayats that are divided into 388 block panchayats, which in turn are further divided into 12,525 village panchayats. In recent months, the district administrations have called for enrolment of sanitary workers with the welfare board to make them eligible for various financial assistances. However, Ramuthai and her fellow workers are not yet aware of it.
(Vignesh A is a Tamil Nadu-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)