Sweepers overburdened as KMC not hiring since past five years
KATHMANDU, Feb 17: Babu Raja Pode, who is in his late forties, still vividly remembers the mornings when his parents used to step out of their house at Te Bahal in Kathmandu with brooms, Kharpan and dust pickers.
Babu Raja does not know since when his parents were into the occupation of street sweeping. “My father never told me since when they started sweeping," he says. “But I think they had been doing it before the democracy arrived in the 50s.”
“Every morning they used to wake up at 4 and leave for the work after sipping tea at a nearby tea shop,” recalls Babu Raja. He says his father, Mooj Man Pode, now 81, used to earn a monthly salary of just Rs 8 when he was a child.
After some years, Babu Raja followed in his father´s footsteps. “My father had by then become sweepers´ supervisor," he says. "He talked with the higher-ups at the Kathmandu Nagarpanchayat of that time and managed to get me a job as a street sweeper in 1980.”
PHOTO: MANISH BISTA
At the time, Babu Raja was just 15. “If somebody was willing to go inside a clogged drain to clean it, he or she was offered the job of a kuchikar.”
The job of waste collection and sweeping has been traditionally assigned to certain castes like Pode, Chyame, Kullu, and Harahuru among others. Such castes are collectively known as kuchikars (sweepers). Since the early days, the kuchikars didn´t seek other jobs and simply kept passing the traditional profession of cleaning up wastes from one generation to another, like Mooj Man to his son Babu Raja.
So when his father got him the job, Babu Raja didn´t think twice before picking up a long handled bamboo-made broom and started sweeping the streets. In fact, all his siblings are kuchikars in one way or the other. “Though appointed as sweepers, we are compelled to clean drains whenever they get clogged apart from removing the wastes on the streets,” he explains.
He worked as a street sweeper for the Kathmandu Metropolitian City (KMC) for almost ten years. Then, like is father, got promoted to the post of supervisor.
Babu Raja has been working in Ward 22 of the KMC for the last three decades. He began with a monthly salary of Rs 150. He has been supervising the workers responsible for keeping the ward clean, which is important because the ward boasts of cultural, historical and business landmarks like Dharahara, Sundhara water spouts, Sankata and Ranamukteshwar temples, Gorkhapatra Sansthan, Gosahara Hulak Bibhag, Takshar Bibhag, Bir Hospital, Nepal Airlines Corporation and the head offices of Nepal Bank.
The population of the Kathmandu Valley wasn´t that big when he started working, he says. “Back then, all we had to clean was the dust particles from the streets. But these days streets are full of plastic litters,” says Babu Raja, adding, “I have not witnessed any change in people´s attitude. People used to throw waste on the streets then and they still do now.”
“I used to broom around the area of Sankata Temple. We were told to sweep, collect and throw waste materials into a nearby river as there were no dumping sites earlier. The wastes used to be so less that it was even difficult to fill two buckets of kharpan. But now, even a truck is not enough to hold the solid waste materials collected from the same area,” he says.
He says that the use of plastic materials has increased considerably in the Kathmandu Valley today.
According to Babu Raja, sweepers are stuck in an ironic situation at present.
He says, “When the Valley generated less waste, there were lots of sweepers working in a particular ward. But even as the piles of solid waste grow bigger, we are facing a manpower shortage.”
Apart from dealing with the increased work-load, the sweepers also sustain various physical injuries while doing their jobs.
As they collect waste materials using bare hands and feet, cuts and bruises are very common. “Many sweepers also get hit by vehicles while they are sweeping the streets because it is hard to see vehicles when we are concentrating on our work,” informs Sharadha.
Likewise, many suffer from serious diseases as they work with poor protective measures. Skin rashes, itching, irritations, swollen lips or eyelids and irritation in the eyes are common among street sweepers. They also suffer from diseases like tuberculosis, asthma, heart burn, gastric problems, among others. “I was also diagnosed with tuberculosis and took medicines for three years. I recovered fully just six months ago,” says Babu Raja.
“We are not provided money for treatment of any kind of health problems. At least the authority should ensure that we get free treatments for the diseases we acquire while working,” opines Sharadha.
Meanwhile, the sweepers are happy about the change in people´s attitude towards them. “In the past, people used to look down on us. But now they acknowledge our efforts in helping to keep the city clean,” said Babu Raja with some degree of satisfaction.
´KMC officials encouraging private sector for commission´
The number of sweepers working for the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) has decreased significantly over the last five years.
Until 2008, some 1,236 sweepers were employed in altogether 35 wards of the KMC. However, their number has now fallen to just about 800. Over 300 sweepers have either retired or resigned since 2008, though the KMC has not hired sweepers in their place.
In 2008, the government adopted a policy barring KMC from appointing lower-level staffers like sweepers. The government´s decision has resulted in a shortage of sweepers with KMC.
“We can´t hire more sweepers due to the restriction imposed by the government," says Rabin Man Shrestha, chief of Department of Environment at the KMC. "We have to manage with the few sweepers."
Mata Babu Malakar, president of Independent Garbage Cleaners Union of Nepal (IGCNU), says there may be even fewer sweepers in the days to come as many of them have reached the age of 58, beyond which they are not allowed to work.
Babu Raja Pode, supervisor of sweepers in Kathmandu, says KMC needs around 60 sweepers for every ward to keep them neat and clean. But with many sweepers retiring or resigning and KMC not hiring new ones, the few staffers feel overburdened.
“In ward number 22, where I am working, there used to be 22 sweepers until a couple of years ago," says Pode. "Now, we are just eight," says Pode.
Shrestha says KMC has adopted public-private partnership to manage solid wastes in Kathmandu.
“Private sector is collecting the solid wastes and dumping on their own,” says Shrestha. Lately, the private sector involvement in waste management as increased to 30 per cent, according to Shrestha.
Meanwhile, street sweepers allege that KMC officials have been encouraging private sector to earn commissions. Malakar of IGCNU says, “The higher-ups have handed over to private sector certain wards that generate lucrative revenue because they get plenty commission from them.”
Of the total 35 wards in KMC, the solid wastes from three wards are collected by private sector and there is a partnership between KMC and private sector for cleaning six wards.
The remaining 26 wards are still cleaned under the direct authority of KMC.