Padhai ke naam // Naukri ya kaam

|Padhai ke naam // Naukri ya kaam

July, 2020

Excerpts from my conversation with a waste and sanitation worker

6 minutes read

As soon as the lockdown was imposed, most people I knew were happy about getting a well-deserved break in the safety of their homes. I was happy too, at the prospect of not having to write exams and finally feeling safe amidst growing cases of the novel (not so much anymore) Coronavirus. My world had come to a halt, but not as screeching a halt as it was for a lot of acutely disadvantaged people. Soon, several appreciation messages started floating around for our “frontline workers”. Several professionals like doctors, journalists, and other essential service providers were lauded for their effort to keep our boat sailing in lieu of this pandemic that the world was witnessing together. That’s when it struck me that one person who was (like many others) clubbed into the convenient category of “other essential service providers” had not been showing up right outside my home. She would usually greet me with one of the brightest smiles I know. When I had finally stepped out of my happy-ish bubble, I started thinking about not only her but several others like her, who depended on daily work for their routine income.

The following excerpts are from a conversation I managed to have with her and here is my attempt at articulating her experiences without appropriating them from my caste-class position.


What began as a casual conversation, ended up revealing one prominent and pressing unfulfilled (but not regretful) wish that she had for herself. I began by helping her recall who I was and it took her less than a minute to confirm. I went on to explain why I had called her and explained the objective of Women’s Identity and Progress and The Blue Divide. I told her that none of her details would be revealed via what I write. After assuring her with the confidentiality and our integrity, I went ahead with my questions as she agreed to help. Never once throughout the conversation did she make me feel uncomfortable and I can only hope to assume the same for her from my end. She took me through her day in as detailed a manner as possible. Further, she clarified all of her doubts early on before beginning to respond to something she was unsure of.


At one point in our conversation, when I asked her a question about her ‘naukri’, she laughed and asked me in return ‘kaunsa naukri, humara toh kachre ka kaam hai’ (*naukri- job, her response- “which job? We are engaged in waste work.”).

The one prominent concern that she kept repeating each time I asked her something along the lines of “what would you have liked to be different?”, was that of literacy and education. She cannot read or write, but she can understand and speak both Hindi and Marathi. Born and brought up in Mumbai, she has been engaged in the collection and disposal of garbage bins from housing societies for the past 20 years. On asking her the challenges that her work demands, she didn’t specify any one in particular. She did advocate for the indifference that she had learned to live with when it comes to the way people look at her while she’s at her job. She mentioned how a few people do make friendly conversation while others hold their noses as they pass by her; however, she went on to add that it never bothered her with an undertone of having accepted the nature of her job. Her husband (who’s employed in the same industry) and her decided early on that they wanted to be the last generation from their family to have been employed in this sector. She repeatedly lay emphasis on how she considers education to be a powerful tool, she went to express how she may have been in a better position or in a better job, had she been literate even. At one point in our conversation, when I asked her a question about her ‘naukri’, she laughed and asked me in return ‘kaunsa naukri, humara toh kachre ka kaam hai’

(*naukri- job, her response- “which job? We are engaged in waste work.”).

The conversation and the emphasis that it laid on education as a tool of power and literacy as a tool of overcoming dependence, revealed how this potential is not a secret anymore. People from various walks of life have begun to lay emphasis on the need for education.

Working conditions

I inquired about the nature and nuances of her job and she readily responded to the same. She asked me, at several junctures, to give examples and substantiate my question. I will only be documenting her most general responses. When I asked about the nature of her work, she explained that she collects the waste that each individual house collects in their garbage bins. In this way, before the lockdown she would work at 5 housing societies. This number has dropped to 3 societies. Each society requires about 1-2 hours of work depending on the number of flats. She would generally travel by train, arrive in my building (also her first site of collection) at 6.45 am and go about completing her work till 11.30 am. Before she leaves for work, she drinks a cup of warm water, makes her loo visit, makes lunch boxes for her husband (who works as a sweeper at the Sahara Domestic Airport) and son (who assists a clerk in the department of Women & Child Development, MH). Post her work, she comes back home and after taking a bath, finishes the remaining household chores. She fondly recalled how she would sit by at her friend’s porch every evening before the lockdown was imposed.

Time away from work

I went to ask about how she likes to spend her free time to which she responded that she likes to clean the house and complete unfinished household chores. On asking her if she takes leaves and how that affects her pay, she proudly said that she seldom takes a leave. She said that she only takes an off day in the case of an emergency or if she’s sick and that it does not affect her pay. Her salary is a negotiated amount with every housing society that she provides her services to. On probing along the lines of how much power she has in a negotiation, she says that often the society promises her a certain raise after her years of service, however does not necessarily or regularly implement the assured change. She continues to provide her services, shows up on most days, with minimal leaves (of course no weekend offs).

Worker-Employer Relationships

Since worker-employer interaction and relationships were the way I know of her, I asked a few questions regarding the same. She had assumed an indifferent attitude to people’s looks and remarks (not many negative ones) and told me very clearly that that was not a part of her work. She added that she does appreciate and participates in a conversation with people who initiate it but doesn’t bother about the ones who make faces or refuse to enter the same elevator as her when she collects waste from the building. I did not sense any despair with that response rather, a sort of resilience in her attitude towards this subtle and sometimes apparent discrimination that several waste and sanitation workers undergo on a regular basis. This is not an appreciative acknowledgment of her attitude that she may have adopted, it is a call for action and introspection to call out discrimination and amplify its inhuman nature. It may nor help immediately, but we believe that it would help understand the norms by which we behave differently and that would eventually bring about change.

In COVID-19 times

Finally, I asked her if she feels safe to work in these times and what steps she takes to ensure her safety to which she replied that she didn’t have much choice about showing up for work. Since her income comes from each housing society that she provides her services to, the more she does, the more it would add up. In fact, she said that she was willing to work in containment zones but has agreed to not go if the society refuses; “humara khud ka koi problem nahi hai, ek ke vajah se sabko problem ho sakta hai” (it’s not an individual problem, one person can cause problems for everyone”). When I asked her if she was affiliated to any group that works for furthering demands and ensuring rights to workers in her sector, she answered in the negative; beta yeh humara kaam hai, humaare mummy paapa bhi yeh hi kiye hai. Mujhe bas mere bachchon ko padhaana hai (“this is our work, our parents also did the same work. I just want to educate my kids”). Further, when I asked her if she has PPE and she replied that she had purchased a mask and gloves after it was made mandatory. She procured an ID from the BEST buses that she now uses to travel. She works relentlessly, ensures that her family and house are well taken care of, and believes in working hard to help land her sons in a better, more educated position.

I was taken off guard by several of her responses. One aspect that I was really happy about was her understanding of education and its role in upward mobility. One aspect that I was alarmed about was her clear distinction between her work and her perception of a job, which hints at the value we attach to certain jobs and certain “essential services” and “frontline jobs” more than others.


  • Remote interviews conducted by the team at Women’s Identity and Progress


2020-08-29T06:41:08+00:00 June, 2020|Tags: , , |0 Comments

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