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From dirty drains to smart cabs: 1,150 women from manual scavenger families to train as Uber and Meru drivers under Modi government scheme


PUBLISHED: 22:40 GMT, 4 October 2015 | UPDATED: 22:40 GMT, 4 October 2015

In Tigdi Camp, one of the largest JJ clusters in Delhi, Malini sets out for her driving class, walking through a labyrinth of small, dilapidated houses. 

“Collecting someone’s excreta in a bucket, and carrying it away on your head is the worst job in the world. My mother did it with her head covered in a veil. I hope to bring some dignity to our lives. I can exercise choice. She could not,” says the beaming 20-year-old as she gets into the car. 


A wind of change is quietly blowing in Delhi, and is set to reach some of India’s other big cities soon. The Narendra Modi government is trying to tweak an age-old caste narrative, and improve lives trapped in extreme poverty and widespread discrimination. 

Deepu, 22, a trainee whose father is a sanitation worker in Noida, says she hopes to bring some dignity to her family’s lives  

Every day, 250 young women – whose parents sweep streets or clean dry toilets and sewers – hit the road here to become ‘fighting fit and modern’ cab drivers who will earn several thousand rupees a month.


Having attended short classes in spoken English and martial arts in neighbourhood parks, these slum women, some of them sanitation workers themselves, are getting commercial driving lessons to work for taxi aggregators like Uber and Ola. 

The union ministry of social justice and empowerment (SJE) has planned similar programmes for 900 women from other parts of the city. 

 “Not just that. We will also do it in cities such as Chandigarh, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Chennai,” says SJE minister Thaawar Chand Gehlot. 


Soni’s father suffered serious injuries twice, becoming incapable of any labour. 

“It’s a wretched job he had to do. My mother has been doing his job for 10 years. I can see some hope in our lives now,” says the 22-year-old, gripping tightly onto the steering wheel, struggling to negotiate the morning peak traffic. 


These trainees, all aged 17-25 – come from the slums of Madangir, Sangam Vihar, Lal Kuan and Ambedkar Nagar in south Delhi. 

Laxmi has studied till class XII. She wants to have her own travel agency. 

“It’s a change I never imagined would happen,” she says. 

To begin with, 10 cars from motor driving schools have been engaged for training.


Women’s security 

Senior SJE official Muniappa Nagaraj takes Mail Today to a city park where some of these women are repeating mannerism lessons. 

“We hear of molestation and rapes all the time. These drivers would also give a sense of security to women who travel at odd hours. We hope to have 3,000 women cab drivers in Delhi at some stage,” he says. 

For women like Malini’s mother, their fate is a result of lack of options. Dalits, the lowest caste in India’s social pecking order, do the job that others won’t. 

In their home in a Lal Kuan slum, Soni’s mother Geeta Devi is back from work. Wearing a tattered cotton saree, she sits quietly and talks about a vicious cycle. 

“Bhedbhav ke kaaran ham aur kuchh kar nahi paaye. Jo kaam kiya usse aur bhedbhav mila (We could not do any other job because of social discrimination. And because of what we did there was more discrimination),” she says, her voice choked and eyes welled up. 

When the seven-month programme started in May these women were extremely low on confidence. They had perhaps never dreamt they would sit behind a steering wheel. Back in his Greater Kailash office, Nagaraj says they’re turning out to be quite smart. 

“They will be given loans to purchase their own vehicles. They can work for Uber and Meru with whom we have planned to sign agreements,” he says. 

As part of the scheme, these women also get Rs 1,500 per month as a stipend.  

Neelam, Gulshan and Poonam are the coordinators of the ongoing training programme

Dunu Roy of NGO Hazard Centre says this is a good initiative, but fears the sheer numbers may defeat the programme. 

“Delhi officially has some 60,000 safai karmcharis, who go without pay for months, to sweep streets, dispose garbage and clean drains – many carrying sewage and industrial waste – without any safety gear,” he says.

No rehabilitation 

Census 2011 data says Delhi had 583 toilets which needed daily manual cleaning because they were not connected to a septic tank or a sewer line. 


But municipal corporations have failed to identify these people for rehabilitation. Roy says the actual number of scavengers and headloaders is much higher. 

“And this number has to be first officially traced before the government can improve their lives,” he says. 

There are 26 lakh dry latrines in India which are manually scavenged by 1,80,000 people, mostly in Uttar Pradesh, the census data says. Only 13,000 have so far been identified for cash assistance and skill training. 

(A few names have been changed on request)

Big leap, but challenges remain 

By Darpan Singh in New Delhi 

Experts have welcome the Modi government initiative, but also caution that much more needs to be done to end widespread discrimination that safai karamcharis and their families face. 

“The programme is very exciting in terms of breaking both the glass as well as class and caste ceilings and demonstrates that there is a dignified place for working women in today’s society,” Dunu Roy of NGO Hazard Centre said. 

However, he says the sheer numbers may defeat the venture. 

“The government is looking at a maximum of 3,000 taxi drivers’ jobs, when the number of safai karamcharis in Delhi is officially 60,000. This means that not more than 5% of the acknowledged workforce will benefit.” 

It is well known that sanitation workers operate under what is called the ‘Lahori’ system. In other words, the officially designated employee will be from a higher caste. They sign in, and give a small part of the salary to a Dalit who does the actual work.

“Hence, the 5% dignified jobs on offer may be grabbed by the upper castes once they know how the system works,” Roy said. 

However, activist Manoj Misra says: “In many areas of Delhi, storm water drains carry sewage because of inadequate closed pipe networks. So cleaning drains is also scavenging.” 

Misra says scavenging is an essential civil and economic activity. 

“What needs removal is the demeaning manner in which it has been done till date. Machines are useful, but man’s role cannot be washed away,” he said. 

In Delhi safai karamcharis sweep streets, dispose of garbage and clean drains without pay for months, or access to safety gear. A sanitation worker recently killed himself when he did not get his salary for five months. 

India banned manual scavenging in 1993, but the ban remained largely unenforced. In September 2013, Parliament passed a new law to prohibit the practice. But findings of an ongoing government survey show it is still quite widespread across states, especially in Uttar Pradesh. 

States were required to survey existing dry toilets by February 6, 2014 and ensure their subsequent destruction and conversion into flushing ones within six months of that date. 

The 2011 census figures showed Delhi had 583 toilets cleaned by manual scavengers and 633 ‘serviced by animals’.


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