Standing under mild drizzle, Shabir Ahmad Sheikh kept his broom aside to showcase his bruised hands—cloted, scratched and pale yellow palms, had left his two toddler daughters at home in Watal colony of the capital city’s Rainawari area.

As we sit on a gunny sack, spread on the wet floor outside a Gurudwara in Rainawari, alongside Mr. Sheikh’s colleagues, I attempt to understand (over and about) their cup of tea—sweeping.

Mr. Sheikh, a daily-wage sweeper, under Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC), is working at a payroll of 6,750 rupees per month. “I’m working since 2010,” he said. “As per rules, every daily-wage sweeper would get a permanent job after seven years in service.”

Under SMC’s hierarchy, daily-wage laborers start the food chain, joining permanent labors to field-officer, who are in turn checked by ward-officers. Above them rests the sanitation officer, his/her chief, and the commissioner. 

The chai break was over, and now, as a field officer, Farooq Ahmad Sheikh’s gazing eyes ordered: “Srinagar is about to wake up. We got to clean faster.” I stood up and crossed the road with Mr. Shabir. Before he could pick the broom, his Afsar (officer) called him, asking to clean streets near Zakura, on the outskirts of Srinagar. He shrugged his hair, and dusted the wet clothes, saying, “This is what our life is like. They ask us to travel but don’t pay the fare. It is a daily affair.”

He clung to one of his colleague’s bikes. “I sold a gold chain to buy this (bike),” Mr. Shabir’s colleague said. “Sumo traveling takes a hundred rupees per day. With this bike, at least I can save ten-twenty rupees.” Before bidding me a good-bye, Mr. Shabir told me how he needs to run his house on the ‘petty SMC’s payroll’, while paying school fees for his two kindergarten daughters. “We take money from one and return to another. If one will do the math, he (or she) will understand that we are ought to drown in debt.”

Living in ghettos, mostly named Watal colony, based on their position in the societal caste structure, spread over areas in Srinagar, most of the young boys are earning their livelihood through sweeping. As told, candidates interested to get into SMC as a daily-wage sweeper not only need to prove their caste—Sheikh—but of their father, and family roots, as well.

Falling out of companion, the field officer, Mr. Farooq, asked me to step into his shoes for a day and take a tour around his area—Gurudwara to Saida Kadal bridge. He has sixteen employees working under him—more than half of them are under the daily-wage category, sweeping the garbage covered streets, housing more than two thousand families.

As we walk the backstreets of the Gurudwara, 26-year-old Ghulam Sheikh is plucking the waste from a drain, including household plastic, piss, and shit. “This is a dirty job, but we are doing this work for the people of Srinagar,” he told me. “However, we are short of money; always.” 

I told the field officer, Mr. Farooq, that I want to try my hands. “You will need training,” he replied. “These boys aren’t trained though.” As per him, most of the young boys in this job have grown up watching their fathers cleaning streets. “We are born to clean,” he added.

Mr. Farooq joined the SMC in 1990 as a cleaner. Though five years ago, he had a heart attack, and after requesting the SMC, backed by a medical certificate, he was appointed as a field officer. He has three sons at home—two make copper utensils and one cleans streets. “I never wanted my sons to do this (sweeping) job,” he told me. “Education is the way out.”

Moving through the narrow lanes in Rainawari, we reached a bank near the deteriorating Dal Lake. Mr. Farooq’s boys clean the lake as well. “It isn’t our job,” Mr. Farooq said. “It is for LAWDA [Lake and Waterways Development Authorities] to look after, but when they don’t do their job; we got to do it.” At its bank, there is a small regional SMC office, occupied by the ward officer, but yet to open for the day.

This area falls under Rashid Sheikh, who has been sweeping this street for forty years now. He is one month short of retirement. “Major issues we all face are the lack of facilities from SMC,” he told me. “They give us two brooms a month, which barely survive a week on the streets.”

From daily fares to brooms, the SMC’s sweepers got to do everything on their own. “There is no concept of leave among us,” the officer told me, walking towards the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib. “They come even if they are ill; but if they are severely ill, they got to manage their replacement or lose 225 rupees a day.”

Standing at the top of the shrine, Mr. Farooq takes a glance at Srinagar waking up. “I understand their (daily-wage sweepers) issues,” he said. “But, we are hard working people. We don’t do robbery or corruption. We take money, whatever, honestly.”

Mr. Farooq believes every government failed their community. He, alongside his boys, understands that the promise of getting a permanent job after seven years is void. Throughout our walk, every passing person greeted Mr. Farooq Sheikh—a few shook hands. “Why don’t you fight elections, and do good for your people?” I wondered. “Who is going to vote for a sweeper?” he laughed.

This story originally appeared in the 1-7 July 2019 print issue of The Kashmir Walla.

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