How can we expect a better Pakistan if our caste system is the reason why our sanitation workers die?
There may be no better parameter to judge the character, values and structure of a society than by the manner in which it performs some of the most humble and menial tasks. Sweeping, handling garbage or working on clogged gutters and sewage lines fall into the category of menial tasks.
Who are the people who perform these tasks? What methods, implements and protective equipment are used to remove, handle and dispose the filth, trash, sludge and raw sewage? Are these processes well regulated and controlled? Are these jobs open to all or restricted to some? What is the social status, respect and dignity accorded to those who deliver these unpleasant but important and essential services?
The methods, tools and conditions of performing the most dangerous, unpleasant and menial jobs receive no attention or respect. The tools and methods of sweeping our roads or unclogging the gutters have not changed over the last hundred years. The designs of the brooms continue to remain unchanged since the time they were first used by the people of Mohenjo Daro some 4000 years ago (LINK).
It almost seems as if humiliation and hazard were purposely inserted into the job description of sweepers and sanitary workers. They wear bathroom slippers instead of safety shoes. They are not provided with face masks to prevent inhalation of dust and bacteria. They do not use hand gloves to avoid contact with filth nor do they have caps or hats to lessen the misery of the sun. Rotten and stinking garbage is a source of several infectious diseases and most of the sweepers suffer from respiratory and skin problems.
It is inexcusable for the state to have completely overlooked the health, safety and dignity for sanitary workers.
Umerkot, a sleepy little town in Sindh, famous for being the birthplace of Emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar, suddenly came into the limelight on June 1, 2017 when three sanitary workers were brought to a hospital, gasping for breath and in need of critical respiratory support.
The medical staff on duty, taking refuge behind their fast, refused to touch the sludge covered sanitary workers. The delay and negligence led to the death of Irfan Masih, one of the three workers who had descended into the manhole to retrieve the other two. While the media was critical of the unethical doctor, it failed to sufficiently address the conditions under which Masih and his two colleagues were sent into a death trap of poisonous gases, raw excreta and filthy sludge.
The misguided doctor and lack of facilities in the hospital may have been the immediate causes for Masih’s death. However the inhumanity, insensitivity and unspoken caste system adopted by the state and citizens of Pakistan are the true reasons for the deaths and miserable working conditions of sanitation workers.
Billions of Rupees of tax payers’ money are wasted on the decoration of offices, constructing fancy buildings, buying luxury vehicles, pointless foreign junkets and newspaper advertisements for the personal publicity of the rulers. There is however, no sympathy, budget, understanding or compassion for the people who risk their lives every day entering deep, confined and highly contaminated spaces loaded with indescribable filth.
The inhumane and murderous practice of making sanitary workers enter gutters and sewage lines must be immediately banned by an act of Parliament. The first option must be to use heavy duty rodding machines and electric drain snakes to clear and unclog sewage lines. Any entry into a gutter or sewage line must take place only after the concerned departments are able to guarantee a number of essential conditions.
These conditions are as follows.
1.A written procedure.
2.Permission To Work (PTW) obtained before each entry.
3.Training and availability of operators, attendants and supervisors.
4.Air testing for oxygen deficiency and presence of hydrogen sulphide or other poisonous gases.
5.Presence of lifting equipment, first aid and ambulance.
6.Full body impervious suits.
7.Rubber boots that are taped at the ankle.
8.Inner and outer gloves that are taped at the wrist.
11.Safety harnesses with life-lines.
12.Respiratory protection, including full-face Supplied Air Respirators with a five minute escape bottle or a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus.
A quick analysis of people performing sanitary functions reveals a dark and depressing facet of Pakistani society. As the name suggests, Masih who lost his life in Umerkot, was a Christian. More than 70% of the sanitary staff in Punjab is Christian.
Data collected by World Watch Monitor states that 824 out of 935 sanitation workers in the Peshawar Municipal Corporation are Christians, about 6,000 out of 7,894 sanitation workers in the Lahore Waste Management Company are Christians; 768 out of 978 workers in the Quetta Municipal Corporation are Christians.
Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority (CDA) has 1,500 sanitation workers and majority of them are Christians. Of the 173 sanitary workers designated as ‘gutter men’ in the Cantonment Board Clifton, are all Christians.
Do non-Muslims take up these assignments for the love of descending into gutters loaded with faecal sludge or are they circumstantially compelled to adopt this profession? Job advertisements often state ‘non-Muslim’ as eligibility or a preferred criterion for the post of sanitary workers.
Instead of applying the affirmative action quota for minorities in higher cadres that is, doctors, engineers, judges, ministers and bureaucrats, the state prefers to designate this quota for its most menial and least paid jobs. This may well be considered the unspoken, well-structured and state promoted caste system of Pakistan.
The deeply entrenched hierarchical caste system in Hinduism has the sanction of Hindu Holy Scriptures such as the Shastras and Vedas. It is intriguing how it was happily and voluntarily adopted in a country that was created to protect the interests of minorities.
An utterly dirty, dangerous, lowly paid and totally contemptuous profession has been carefully moulded for the consumption of the non-Muslims. They are thus marginalised, ghettoised and turned into social outcasts. Even without formally calling them Dalits (untouchables) or Harijans, we have succeeded in assigning the same concept of occupational segregation to our minorities.
Article 27(1) of the Constitution of Pakistan says,
“No citizen otherwise qualified for appointment in the service of Pakistan shall be discriminated against in respect of any such appointment on the ground only of race, religion, caste, sex, residence or place of birth.”
We as the state and the citizens have colluded in violating this important article. A new law must be enacted to forbid mentioning the condition of religion or sect in any job advertisement for any post.
Lastly, if there are hundreds of government officials who get paid in the tune of Rs500,000 per month and chief executives of private firms who take home Rs5,000,000 per month, why can’t sanitation workers’ salaries be raised to at least Rs50,000 per month?
All photos: Naeem Sadiq
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.