Forty-seven-year-old Aadilakshmi and 45-year-old Elizabeth Rani are both sweepers who work in south Chennaiâ€™s Palavakkam. While Aadilakshmi stays near the East Coast Road, Elizabeth travels all the way from Velachery to her designated place of work. And yet, these two women who share professions and pincodes for work, may not have been seated together in a meeting at Ezhilagam in Chennai, if they were not united by one common and tragic factor. Both Elizabeth and Aadilakshmi had lost their husbands to manual scavenging.
As members of the National Safai Karmachari Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) â€“ which falls under the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment - addressed manual scavengers and their spouses in the city on Sunday, the two women would nervously look at each other. Also present at the venue were members of the Safai Karamachari Andolan, a movement to eradicate manual scavenging in India, and the Tamil Nadu Adi Dravidar Housing and Development Corporation (TAHDCO). When the floor was opened to questions, it was a hesitant Elizabeth Rani who made the first shocking revelation.
"Sir, my husband died in 1998," she said anxiously. "I am yet to receive the Rs 10 lakh compensation that the family of manual scavengers who die must get," she added, hurriedly. After much nudging from Elizabeth, Aadilakhmi too spoke up.
"We have been coming here for three years, going to every department but we have not got compensation. My husband died in a sewer tank in 2001," admitted the 47-year-old.
Nervous officers seated in the conference room knew the severe lapse that this delay in release of funds indicated and the urgent whispers that followed this admission was proof to this.
In March 2014, the Supreme Court declared that there were 96 lakh dry latrines being manually emptied.
The apex court directed the government to, â€śIdentify the families of all persons who have died in sewerage work (manholes, septic tanks) since 1993 and award compensation of Rs 10 lakh for each such death to the family members depending on them.â€ť
"We have been coming to the Municipal Corporation almost every week for the past three years," says Elizabeth. "They keep telling us to go to a different department every time. But there is no visible effort made to give us the money," she laments.
Her 28-year-old husband had been called by a local shopkeeper to come clean the septic tank at his home. For Samson who was a sweeper, the additional income was crucial to keep his family consisting of his wife and three children fed and clothed. He informed Elizabeth and left to complete the task.
"Little did I know that the next time I saw my husband, he would be dead in a hospital bed," she recalls. "Since then I have been struggling to feed my children with the income I make," she says. After close to 20 years of being employed as a sweeper, Elizabeth now earns Rs10,000 a month.
Aadilakshmi too shares a similar tale of poverty and ignorance. In her case the house owner who employed her husband gave her Rs 30,000 and his condolences for the death of the family's breadwinner.
When NSKFDC asked TAHDCO who was responsible for compensating the women, the immediate response was, "The municipality."
NSKFDC officials then promised to write to the state government for the release of funds.
"There is a huge lag on the part of the municipality in compensating such women," says Deepti Sukumar, a core member of the Safai Karmachari Andolan. "This is worse than negligence. It is like the lives of these men don't even matter to the government. They should all be paid with interest," she adds.
The two sweepers however, find their faith in the system faltering. "We've been up and down these stairs several times. Voiced our grievance is several meetings. But 20 years after our husbands died, the government is yet to give us any kind of help," says Elizabeth.