Published: 08th March 2020
Everyday Sheroes: Shanthi risks ill-health, sexual harassment, natural disasters to keep your streets clean
In our run-up to International Women's Day 2020, we have curated this series of stories of women who aren't "extraordinary" but our world may just stop going around smoothly if not for them
Every morning, Shanthi D wakes up at 4:00 am and her first task for the day is to cook. She reaches the Vysarpadi bus stop at 5:00 am, takes the bus and gets off at the Mogappair Municipality office by 6-6:30 am. She walks in, signs her name in the register and then, sets off on her regular route. Shanthi spends the next seven to eight hours doing one of two jobs — collecting garbage from every house in the area and then, segregating it at the garbage dump or sweeping the roads, collecting the garbage and passing it onto the garbage collectors. "It depends on how many people turn up for work. If they have fewer people in the garbage collecting department, then I do that job. If there are fewer sweepers, then I do that job. It all depends on what the supervisor says. But either way, I have to segregate garbage, working in the dust all day," she says.
Shanthi was born in Medur district in Thiruvallur and studied up to Class VIII. But she was married off early to a man in Vyasarpadi where she has been living ever since. She now lives there alone, her children are both married and have moved away. She sought this job ten years ago, "I was going from road to road looking for a job. I wanted some sort of government job. And I was hesitant to join the corporation because I thought they would be very strict. But then, there was no other option," she says. Shanthi says that she's happy she's able to contribute to the cleanliness of the city, "I clean around a school here and I'm happy that because of me, the children are in a hygienic space," she says. But that's about the only thing Shanthi really likes about her job. She says that she cannot afford to take even a single day off from work. If she does, then her salary is cut. "Every single day I'm doing back-breaking work. Not one day can I just think, let me take a break. Like this morning, I felt completely exhausted and I asked God why I couldn't just take the day off. But then, he gives me the strength to come to work," explains the 44-year-old, adding, "Every day I walk into work wondering what disease I'm going to contract."
Shanthi says that she, like most workers, are not given gloves or a mask, "The garbage smells so bad and nobody segregates here. They mix everything up together - food, plastic, everything - but that's not the worse part. People throw their sanitary napkins, babies diapers, and senior citizens and sick people's diapers. And with our bare hands, we have to segregate this waste, our bodies breathing in that smell. Along with this, we have to work in the dust the whole day. What will happen to our bodies?" she questions. When they ask the residents to segregate the waste themselves, they get yelled at, "They'll call up our supervisors and complain about us and our supervisor always takes the residents' side. But it's their garbage, it would be such a relief if they could segregate it themselves," she avers.
Whether it is Vardha or the floods, we always turn up for work and we do the heavy lifting as well, sometimes all on our own," - Shanthi
Right then, she receives a call from a colleague and Shanthi is visibly annoyed, "I had asked her to come here and speak to you because I also wanted to discuss how we are sexual harassed by men on the roads. But we don't speak about it because we will get fired and none of us wants to lose our jobs," she tells me, adding that she is one of the few to stand up against her superiors but she also suffers because of this, in the way that she's treated on a day to day basis. But nothing will deter her from speaking the truth, the brave woman says. Shanthi winds up work at 1:00 pm, goes back to the Municipality office to sign out and then, takes the bus back home. By the time she gets home, she loses her appetite. By the time she eats, it becomes 5:00 pm and so, she almost always gives dinner a miss. "I'm just too tired so I just fall asleep on most days," she says.
Shanthi wishes she could take a break for ten days straight. It's her biggest wish, "But that would mean there would be no food on the table. That's how little we are paid. The money is so bad that I cannot afford to build a bathroom in my own house." Whether it is Vardah or the floods, the women always turn up to work. And she says that she'll keep working as long as her body allows her to. "I only do this because I want to keep my Tamil Nadu clean. I feel like I'm doing a 'punyam' (virtuous deed). But I wish people would pay us some attention and respect. We strive so hard to take care of other people and yet, nobody cares for us," she says with a sad smile.