Volume 18 Number 3
Sweeping Changes
01 June 2005

THE SWEEPERS of India are at the centre of a revolutionary initiative by the Indian Government to upgrade their status.

THE SWEEPERS of India have traditionally been looked down on by the rest of society. Now however they are at the centre of a revolutionary initiative by the Indian Government to upgrade their status and make them feel proud of what they do.

Asia Plateau, the headquarters of Initiatives of Change in India, has been chosen as the venue for a pilot project of five training programmes for solid waste management workers in the state of Maharastra.

Run by Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration (YASHADA), the scheme began in February. For the first time ever, class four workers-those who come directly in touch with the citizens, such as sweepers and other municipal workers-are receiving training.

They are not only learning about new methods of wet and dry garbage disposal and vermiculture, they are also being encouraged to take pride in their work and look at other aspects of their lives. The sweepers are usually anxious when they arrive at the beautiful complex of Asia Plateau, surrounded by trees and flowers, high in the hills of Panchgani overlooking the Krishna valley.

Ninety-five per cent of those on the scheme are Dalits (formerly known as 'untouch-ables'). Most have never left their homes before. Many live in sub-standard housing without toilet facilities. At Asia Plateau they sleep in beds with spotless white sheets and en suite facilities. They eat food from plates with cutlery and the men have to take their turn at washing up!

Within a few hours, thanks to ice-breaking role-plays and games, they gain confidence and by the end of each three-day course they are not only far more enthusiastic about their work but looking forward to putting new methods into practice in their home towns.

'At officer level people are over-trained,' said course organizer Dilip Karmarkar. 'The lower levels never get any kind of training, yet they are the face of the government to its citizens.

'We want to give them pride in their work and also, at these courses, to help them in their personal lives too. These people often live in slums or unauthorized housing. Because the job does not have any prestige they get dissatisfied and many of them drink, smoke or gamble and then take out loans from unscrupulous money lenders.

'They enter a vicious circle where there is no way out. In three days of training we cannot get them out of the problem but we can help to break the circle.'
Pamela Jenner