After 30 years, Waris Sundar is as oblivious to the putrid smell as he is to being called derogatory names.
Over the years, his hair has turned grey and skin wrinkly, as he continues walk the streets of Central district with a long broom. When not sweeping the roads, he can be seen picking up garbage with his bare hands.
Partly due to lack of better opportunities and partly due to the need to survive on his meagre income, few crises have been able to keep him from stepping out every day, with one mission at hand - to clean the city that has been getting dirtier by the day.
Though he works up to 10 hours a day, his income - often delayed by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) - leaves him barely able to make ends meet.
Facing social discrimination even as he takes on a necessary task few would do, Sundar’s plight resonates with many others, who battle disgust, revulsion and fatigue as they collect garbage from the city’s streets.
Lamenting the treatment meted out to sanitary workers, he told The Express Tribune, “We are treated as third-class citizens. People hesitate serving us water or tea in their utensils and when they do give us water or tea, they don’t use the utensil again.” He added that people were even reluctant to rent their houses to sanitation workers.
The discrimination doesn’t end here.
“Our children face the same, even if they are not associated with the profession in any way,” said a vexed Sundar. “We work hard to educate them but the stigma of being a sweeper’s child follows them for life. Even after acquiring education, they neither get respectable jobs, nor good marriage proposals.”
The ‘strong immunity myth’
And if this is not enough, Sundar said, “There is a myth that we have strong immunity. But no, we don’t.” Having diabetes and high blood pressure himself, he said sanitary workers often developed diseases like cancer, hepatitis and respiratory illnesses, given the unhygienic environment they worked in.
“It is just that we don’t visit hospitals, fearing we may have contracted diseases we cannot afford to treat,” he explained, adding that the KMC provided them no medical facilities.
Sundar’s tribulations grew following the coronavirus outbreak.
While other Karachiites isolated themselves inside their homes, Sundar and other sanitary workers continued to pick garbage thrown outside.
According to him, the amount of trash dumped in the streets increased at least four-fold when the pandemic was at its peak.
Besides, he told The Express Tribune, people wouldn’t even hand over dustbins to sanitation workers, but simply threw the garbage outside their doorsteps, fearing that the former may expose them to Covid-19.
All this while, not even the relevant authorities realised the threat to sanitation workers’ health and did nothing to allay their worries.
Sundar will be retiring in three months, but it will be a while before he begins receiving his pension and other gratuities.
“We wait for at least four to five years before we get gratuities, and most die during this period,” he rued.
Sundar was never promoted during his 30 years of service and despite having worked for this long, he earns just Rs30,000 a month. He believes that sanitation workers can receive decent gratuities after retirement if they are promoted regularly.
“But this hardly ever happens. Most retire as grade-II workers,” he said.
According to Karachi Urban Resource Centre director Zahid Farooq, the permanent employment of sanitation workers was discontinued in 1992. Now, they serve as contractual employees, being paid Rs15,000 to Rs18,000 per month.
Even as the city grew, he said, not enough sanitation workers had been hired over the years, increasing the burden on elderly workers.
He also pointed out that they had no unions, blocking the path for them to raise their voices for rights.
Farooq called for promoting sanitation workers, employing more of them, providing them basic facilities and increasing their salaries regularly. “We must begin seeing them as humans and put an end to this social discrimination and injustice.”
But Sundar, who has spent almost half his life serving Karachi with little in return, has no hope of anyone paying heed to Farooq’s recommendations.
And so, he is unlikely to be able to spend much on his daughters’ weddings and get a house of his own - his lifelong dreams. Dying in a rented house is not what he wants but this may be the fate for this unsung warrior of Karachi.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2020.
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