CHENNAI: At a time when #RailBudget2016 began trending in Twitter on Thursday, S Shanthi (50) was rushing from her Vyasarpadi home to Chennai Central station. Not to catch a train, but to clean the human excreta lying between the railway tracks.
Like Shanthi, 20 other women, all Dalits, from the northern pockets of the city - Vyasarpadi, Korukkupet and Ennore - reach Central station to clean human waste dotting the sleepers on which the rails are fixed next to platforms one to six. The same platforms used by thousands every day to board their Durontos and Shatabdis.
With no gloves or any personal protective gears available, the women are kept busy the entire night cleaning human excreta flushed on the tracks. If their brooms and pans are of less help, they sometimes even use bare hands to remove the waste.
Shanthi was on her way to clean the tracks when Express caught up with her a few hours before dawn. "Since water is used to wash away the tracks, waste gets mixed with it and the buckets given to us having a generous number of holes most of the time our efforts don't help and the stinking mixture falls on us," Shanthi said.
Because of such high quality buckets provided by the railways, the stinking waste in semi fluid form falls on their heads while lifting and handing the buckets over their heads to carry to the disposal wagon driven along the platform.
However, despite being drenched by the mixture at times, they cannot afford to take a break and wash them off as they have the onerous task of cleaning the tracks next to six platforms, each roughly 2 kms long, within 10 hours (from 9 pm to 7 am).
"Many fall on their backs while cleaning the tracks as engine oil spilt along the track makes it very slippery," said Anjala, another worker. Most of them complain about the lack of steps or ramps connecting the platform and the tracks and say they sometimes get injured while attempting to climb onto the platform from the tracks.
As the cleaning gets into the final stages, the garbage and waste collected from various tracks are loaded into a large truck for disposal. "Once, a contract staff was asked to climb onto the truck and stand atop the waste, stamping them continuously to create more space," Punitha of Korukkupet recalled adding,"Several glass pieces cut deep across the sole during such times."
Sometimes, they were asked to work on continuous shifts (18-20 hours at a stretch) if the contract staff for the next shift took leave or if they were absent from duty.
The contractors did not pay any salary for the extra hours they made the women work.
One of the workers alleged that, "Though we are paid `150-`170 a day, we are compelled (by contractor) to tell officials during inspection that we are paid `300 everyday."
Most of the women are sole bread winners of their families. They say they continue to suffer in silence so that they can at least pay for their medical expenses.
In spite of a job which has no single holiday throughout the year, these women have hardly any options to choose from. "Every time we attempt to leave this job and search for other opportunities, we don't get them for two reasons: age and caste," says Anjala of Vyasarpadi.
Even if they apply for jobs outside, they are offered only cleaning jobs: toilets, tanks and the likes. "That too as a daily wage worker which doesn't gurarantee a pay. So, we are forced to stick to this," Maalayadru, a male worker said.
Their co-worker Vanaroja once made a futile attempt at running an eatery in her slum, but had to drop it. The government subsidised canteens meant that most small eateries became a den for anti-social elements who more often than not did not pay for food and threatened if pressed.
Shanthi is now done with her job and is preparing to leave for home. She recalls what got her into this job. Her husband died when she was very young. "I never got an opportunity to study and was forced to work in the Koyambedu market after his (husband's) demise," she said.
Shanthi started working at Central station at night so that she could take care of her children during the day. Rising debts led her son to drop out of school to support the family. Now, he works in the same market where his mother worked years ago.
Though the 2015 railway budget announced that 17,000 bio-toilets would be introduced to prevent manual scavenging along railway tracks, the inhuman practice based on caste discrimination still thrives in the heart of the city.
Expressing ignorance about the scheme, Shanthi said, "I don't know when these toilets would be introduced in coaches or when we would find another job. The only thing I would like to see is the day when my grandchild would go to school."