Politicians behave like politicians. That’s a given. Most of them talk rubbish and act foolish most of the time, and come to their senses only when there is an opportunity to grab a few extra votes. But why would citizen groups, who position themselves as champions of public interests, behave like politicians?
There’s no surprise in the fact that those of the political breed didn’t raise a finger when three migrant workers died while clearing a sewer in Bengaluru last week.The impoverished families of the workers from Andhra Pradesh won’t vote in elections in Karnataka. Their grief has little value in a political context. Their miserable lives count for nothing. They can be ignored again and again.
But it’s baffling how the ever-active, and sometimes overactive, citizen groups in the city, which count prominent personalities among their members, remain unmoved by the loss of three lives in a manhole and the plight of their families, when it’s well known that engaging people to manually handle human waste is not only banned but also a crime. Forget candlelight vigil for those who died, there was not even a murmur of protest.
Citizen groups don’t survive on votes won in elections. They thrive by taking up people’s causes. To give them credit, such groups in Bengaluru have run sustained and effective campaigns—be it protection of green cover or rejuvenation of lakes — and made a difference. In fact, it’s such a campaign that made it difficult for the state government to erect the ill-conceived steel flyover, which would have cost the city at least 800 trees, besides about `2,000 crore of public money.
However, continuing manhole deaths— there were 10 in Karnataka last year and 11 the year before—have not given birth to any public campaign to eradicate manual scavenging. Neither has there been a campaign to better the living and working conditions of poor labourers who, driven to desperation by poverty, arrive from across the country to earn a living. The bitter truth is that these influential groups have started mirroring politicians in the way they operate. They are selective about causes they take up, and conveniently ignore issues that hold no appeal, even if they matter to a large majority. The stamp of elitism is evident in their campaigns.
Why hasn’t there been a citizen-driven movement to ensure fair distribution of available resources? There are pockets in Bengaluru that still don’t get piped water. The collection of tin-roofed sheds where the three workers who died in the manhole accident lived does not have power, access to water and toilets. The workers, many of them live with their families, including small children, have little protection from the sun and the rain.
Or, for that matter, why isn’t there a drive to end ill-treatment of sanitation workers? They clean the streets, clear garbage and work in hazardous conditions and in surroundings where others won’t even dare to go. But are paid a pittance and treated like the dirt they handle every day. And it’s a shame.
Citizen groups can become more inclusive if they choose to and can make a difference to the lives of people from all sections. Continue to be choosy, they can very well rival politicians.
Six-year-old Manikantha and his two-year-old sister Divya accompanied their mother Yarramma when she arrived in Bengaluru on Wednesday, travelling all the way from her home in AP’s Srikakulam district, to collect the body of her husband Yarayya, one of the three sanitation workers who died in the manhole tragedy. Gannemma, wife of another victim, Thavitayya, brought along her two sons, aged six and four. Wife of Anjaneya Reddy, the supervisor who also died, did not come as she was not in a position to travel after giving birth to her second child about a month ago. The older child is just two.
It’s their lives that were shattered in a Bengaluru sewer last week when the company tasked with cleaning sewerage line insisted on a hurried midnight job. They would have gladly traded the Rs 10 lakh each they received as compensation in return for the lives of the loved ones they lost. The three men didn’t have to die in a pit of human waste. They deserved better.
Kiran Prakash, Deputy Resident Editor, Karnataka