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25 May, 2019 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 25 May, 2019 04:18:29 PM
Plight of Harijans in port city

‘Harijans face premature deaths’

Shamsuddin Illius, Ctg
‘Harijans face premature deaths’
A ragpiker, belonging to the Harijan community, of Chattogram City Corporation works in Kazir Dewri area of the city without any safety gear that leads frequent illnesses. The photo was taken recently. Independent photo

Members of the Harijan community in Chattogram are facing premature death and frequent illnesses due to the unsafe nature of their job, squalid living conditions and unhealthy lifestyle. According to Chattogram City Corporation (CCC) data, 31 workers of the conservancy department died well before the retirement age of 59 from 2015 to 2018,  The Independent spoke to the families of these workers and found they died of lung and liver ailments, respiratory complications and cancer. Their average lifespan was 39 years compared to the average life expectancy 72 years in Bangladesh.

These Harijans are low-caste Hindus, who migrated to or were brought to East Bengal by British rulers in the early 1900s, to engage in menial jobs related mainly to cleaning. They have lived on the fringes of society for generations. They are considered “untouchable” by others with little access to good shelter, education or health.

There are about 8,000 Harijans in Chattogram, while there are over 1.2 million of them across the country. This correspondent visited different areas of the city and found they were working without any gloves, gumboots or mask whilst sweeping city streets, picking rags or cleaning drains. Every day, 6,000,000 city dwellers produce about 2,500 MT of wastes in Chattogram.  A total of 3,586 workers are constantly working to clean the city and dispose of the garbage at CCC’s dumping yards at Halishahar Anandabazar and Arefin Nagar. Just 770 of them are on the payroll as permanent staff. However, no official sanction has been given to appoint more permanent workers for the past 25 years.

The corporation has been hiring workers on a temporary basis to get the job done,  said CCC chief executive officer Md Shamsudoza. With the city’s population has grown six times in 25 years, it actually needs 10,000 workers for smooth service, he added.

Experts and the CCC said lack of protective gear in the workplace, unhygienic living condition, malnutrition, lack of awareness about healthcare and uncontrolled lifestyle are the main reasons behind the premature deaths in the Harijan community.“As these cleaners do not follow any protective measures in workplaces and live in unhygienic conditions, they are vulnerable to lung infections, skin diseases, communicable diseases, respiratory problems and jaundice'' Dr Selim Akhter Chowdhury, chief health officer of CCC, told The Independent.

“They are often infected with lung cancer as they directly inhale toxic gas for working without any musk,” he said. The CCC claims it provides gloves, gumboots and masks every year to the cleaners, but they do not use those.

However, the cleaners say they do not get those gloves, gumboots and masks. “We are affected by various diseases, but the corporation does not provide us with any treatment. It does not give us any protective gear,” Nirmal Chandra Das, general secretary of Bangladesh Harijan Oikya Parishad, told The Independent. Shafiqul Mannan Siddique, chief conservancy officer at CCC, also said the nature of Harijans' work can lead to premature deaths. “When they pick the waste, they directly inhale the toxic gas. We ask them to use masks and gloves but they do not use those,” he added.

This correspondent found that Zatan Das, 26, a rag-picker of CCC and a resident of Shalgram Smajkalyan Sheba Songh Harijan Colony at Jhawtala, died on April 15, 2019. He died of lung cancer.

He was employed at the CCC under the door-to-door garbage collection service in 2017. After working for over two years, he was found affected with lung cancer and died at the age of 26 years.  His mother, Shema Rani Das, was a sweeper of the CCC as well. She too died in 2015 at the age of 47 due to many diseases. CCC data shows that six rag-pickers died at Madarbari Sebok Colony in the last two years. They are: Suresh Das (19) Ragu Nath (57), Sagor Das (20), Dilip Das, (42), China Das, (45) and Kalu Mehtor (55).  Pranab Das (30), a rag-picker living in Fringi Bazar Sebok Colony, died in February 2018. He had cancer. His wife, Griti Das, has been given a temporary job

at the city corporation. Saitha Methor (42), another rag-picker of Bandal Sebok Colony, died of lung problem in 2018. Prof. Dr Iftekhar Uddin Chowdhury, the vice-chancellor of Chittagong University, told The Independent: “These people hardly go to the hospital for treatment. Their reluctance to seek treatment and malnutrition are also causing for their premature death.” Some Harijans also received higher education, but they did not get any job outside of their profession. They said they applied to the CCC for other jobs but did not get any. Krishna Das, who completed LLB and LLM from Premier University, is still working as a sweeper of the city corporation. Two daughters of Badal Chandra Das, president of Shalgram Smajkalyan Sheba Songha, completed graduation but did not get any job.

Unhygienic living place

Members of the Harijan community live in Sebok Colony. The CCC gave a 100 sft room, including a kitchen, for each family.  The buildings they live in are ramshackle and cracks have developed on their outside walls and roofs.

In every room, at least four to 10 people are living in very unhygienic conditions. They lack pure drinking water and suffer from congested living space. At Madarbari Sebok Colony, there are such 140 families. For these families, there are only six toilets and two bathrooms—one for male and one for female. There is only one deep tube well for their drinking water. Moreover, the cleaners have to pay Tk. 3,500 as rent to the CCC for each room as rent, while a temporary cleaner's salary is only Tk. 9,700. Golap Das, a rag-picker, told The Independent: “We are eight people living in one room. I have four adolescent daughters. Using common toilets and bathrooms is also not safe for them.”

Nirmal Chandra Das said that though the workers have been living in the colony for the last six generations, they cannot claim any ownership. Despite all these problems, the workers do not want to change their profession for fear of losing their living space in the city.  “No one wants to rent out homes to sweepers as we do dirty work. People treat us saying bad smell spread from us,” said Jagodis Das, former general secretary of the Bangladesh Harijan Oikya Parishad (Chattogram unit). “The living space in the city is the main thing for us. We're continuing this job for this reason,” he added.

CCC's chief executive officer Md Shamsudoza said they are building three new 10-ten-storey buildings for harijans at Bandal Sebok Colony—one at Fringi Bazar and two at Jhawtala. However, there will be no new accommodation for the people of Madarbari, where over 500 people live.

Though they are poorly-paid, Harijans have a penchant for spending money on festivals and alcohol to deal with the depressive nature of the job. They believe they have to appease the god through worship because he has ordained them to do such jobs and he gives them the strength to do it.




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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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