‘A Sweeper Can’t Avoid Pollution’

Every morning when I pick up my broom, I brace myself for the heavy breathing that results from dust swirling up when I sweep the streets of this town. People in other jobs might have the option to escape the dust and air pollution. But people in my vocation have no option. Like firefighters, we sweepers have to run towards the very same thing that people are running away from.

In most small towns and cities, sweepers come to town from far-flung areas. I myself walk 5 km on the dust-laden streets from my home to reach work. Yes I walk the distance — I can’t afford to pay for public transport four times a day. I sweep vast stretches of road from 8 am to 10.30 am, and then walk back to my house, help my wife with household chores then again go back for another round at 3 pm. I finally finish work at around 5 pm. This has been my routine for over two decades, but now my body seems to have given up. My body refuses to put up with the onslaught.

Deoghar is a holy town, lakhs of devotees keep pouring in all year round, which means that several hundreds of tonnes of waste is generated here every day. Most of it gets dumped on the roads. The stink is unbearable. Most people walk past it, but we have to pick them up, segregate them and then clean the area. I have to clean the stretch four times a day, so you can imagine my plight. Add to that the fumes coming from vehicles, and the dhabas that line the road.

My immunity has weakened due to continuous exposure to pollution and dust. Winter months are especially difficult. My eyes keep watering continuously and the cold and cough never ends. And the cold weather prevents me from taking a bath after finishing my duty.

My cotton gamcha (a thin cloth meant for wiping sweat off the face) is my only shield, which obviously doesn’t work. Dust gets into my nose, eyes and even my mouth. I wish the government equipped sweepers and manhole cleaners with better gears and equipment so that we did not have to suffer so much. Gloves, good-quality masks, all-weather footwear etc — are they too much to ask for?

Even though, waste management has gotten better with time, people are yet to give it the importance that it deserves. The government has advised people not to burn leaves or garbage, but people here don’t care. Leaves, plastic toys, diapers, sanitary napkins, food gone waste, polybags –they indiscriminately burn it all. They have been made aware of the impact this mindless burning of garbage has on the environment, but no one bothers.

The fumes emanating from these burning dumps on the roadside are toxic, which puts the health of every citizen at risk. But it is our job to clean it up. Whenever it comes to our notice that waste is being burnt, we have to take cognizance and inform our superiors.

Traditional wisdom in rural areas puts in a lot of emphasis on ecological sustainability. Our village elders used to say cleaner air leads to cleaner thinking. I wish people (especially in cities) could learn something from this treasure trove of wisdom.

Chronic Chest Congestion

‘I Suffer From Chronic Chest Congestion Due To Delhi Air’

Mohd Kayam, a security guard in Delhi-NCR is living with chest congestion and cough. Medicines are a staple for him. More than himself, he is worried about his children, who are always suffering from cold and cough. He wonders if we can ever get our blue skies back

I clearly remember as kids, we used to count stars while sleeping on the terrace of our house in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Now, a shroud of haze blankets the beautiful spread of stars that the universe laid out for us. I don’t remember when was the last time I saw stars like those. I am sure not many people in Delhi-NCR can recall it either. I feel sorry for the generation born now — would they know of stars only through nursery rhymes?

Can we ever get our blue skies back? I am a security guard. Every day, I am exposed to polluted air and harsh weather. As a precaution, I wear a mask, but I don’t know if it is actually of any use. After completing my 12-hours, when I go back home, wash my face and rinse my mouth, the sink turns black. Over the years, my health has deteriorated. It takes an effort to breathe. My chest is always congested and medicines have become a staple.

I have visited Lal Bahadur Hospital and local doctors in the past for treatment. What worries me the most is the health of my children. Children now have a compromised immunity. Air pollution is killing children and we are helpless. I have noticed that people living in high-rise apartments have stopped sending their kids to play in the open.

Air pollution has snatched away their childhood. It was never like this when we were young. We used to spend hours playing in the ground and even in mud. Smog has forced parents to keep their kids locked inside their homes. Parks, tennis and badminton courts are lying vacant. Only some senior citizens come for walks. It is just not about Delhi, people living in other parts of the country are also complaining of pollution-related issues. The situation is apocalyptic and I do not know if we have the power or capability to reverse the damage that has already been done. Companies are minting money selling masks and purifiers and the time is not too far when we will have to pay for clean air. 

Toxic Air V

#Toxic Air V – ‘I Cannot Stop Breathing'

Sometimes I feel that the common man should not even attempt to think about the problems caused by air pollution. Do we have the luxury to leave the city and stay in a hill station or lock ourselves up at home on bad air days? The answer is a big NO.  Every day lakhs of people like me are forced to venture out on the roads to earn our daily bread.

This poisonous air is an integral part of my workplace, and I cannot stop and think about it. I left Jharkhand seven years ago and took up odd jobs to survive in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. Then soon I started my chai shop near Rajnigandha crossing. A large number of people board the metro or the bus to travel to Delhi –opening a tea-shop here made good business sense.

I start my shop at 6am in the morning and continue till 9pm in the night, all this hard work fetches me Rs 300 a day, on an average. For 15 hours I battle air pollution silently, negotiating extortionist policemen, who threaten to evacuate street vendors and demand free food. Over the years, I have learnt how to deal with them. In the fight to survive on the street and to cater to customers, these are tricks of the trade that I have had to master.

Dealing with air pollution is something that I haven’t mastered, neither do I have the capacity to do it. Simply because I do not have the time. However, at night, before I go to bed, I can feel a kind of heaviness in my chest. I do not have the guts or the money to get it checked. What I earn is just enough to run my household, paying medical bills is something that I have not included in my monthly budget.

I left Jharkhand because I had no job there. Some of my friends there work in factories, but their lives are even worse. And some worked in thermal power plants and mines. They not only have to deal with air and water pollution as a result of the mining, and the thermal power plant, they are also paid very less. Their bodies have grown hollow from inside. Here, at least I have a better life.

My kids are the only silver lining in my life and I try to shield them and keep them safe as much as possible. They go to school and are learning about environmental protection and hygiene. I make sure they learn and do what I failed to do in life.

Toxic Air IV

#Toxic Air IV – ‘I'm Teary-Eyed Whole Day’

Arun Singh Munda, 26, is a traffic constable in Ranchi, the Capital city of Jharkhand. He braves all kinds of weather and air pollution to report to work at 9 am every day. His day ends at 7 pm and in between these 10 hours, he directs traffic on roads, catches hold of violators. But while he does it, his eyes are constantly watering and burning. Pollution is a work hazard that he cannot avoid.


Ranchi, the state capital of Jharkhand has a huge forest cover. Naturally, the common perception is that it a green city with healthy, clean air. But people couldn’t be more wrong. Ranchi’s air is getting more toxic by the day. By some media reports, Ranchi is now competing with Delhi in air pollution. Last year, I had got to know during a workshop about vehicular pollution and the PM2.5 levels (particulate matter less than 2.5 micron). It is a dangerous pollutant that can enter the lungs and invite a host of infections. The monthly PM2.5 level in Ranchi was measured at 200 while at Delhi it was 320 (The safe level is considered to be 31-60).

Given the larger forest cover and the lesser number of vehicles as compared to Delhi, Ranchi’s PM 2.5 levels should have been much lesser. But there are multiple sources of air pollution that have worsened the air quality in our city. Besides dust and toxic fumes from vehicles, which openly flout pollution norms, thermal power plants dotting the state of Jharkhand and the mindless incineration of garbage must also be contributing to the foul air.

I am a traffic police personnel, manning signals every day and I have a ground knowledge of what air pollution means. I can also sense when things are getting out of hands, and what it is like to stand exposed to polluted air throughout the day. From my own experience I am telling you things are turning for the worse by each passing day in Ranchi. The days after last Diwali made life hell for those who were to remain on the street for work.

I work from nearly 9 am to 7 pm with a few breaks in between. My eyes are perennially watery and burn throughout the day. But I have to report for work braving all kinds of weather, blistering sun or heavy smog. Our immunity is compromised as compared to others since we are not protected by the confines of an office. It is a work hazard and the only protection we have is an anti-pollution mask.

Trucks carrying waste, untreated garbage lying on roadsides, small roadside businesses and eateries not following waste disposal norms make life even more difficult for us, exposing us to a host of infections.

The treacherous weather in Ranchi conspires against us. It can go from comfortably warm to chilling cold within a matter of minutes with the setting of the sun. So we might have less problem from pollution during the day, but in the evenings the air can get heavy to breathe. Life would be easier for us, if people did their bit to reduce pollution levels. The least vehicle owners can do is abide by vehicular norms.

Toxic Air II

#Toxic Air II – ‘A Storehouse Of Pollutants’

So in a way, my body is a storehouse of pollutants and infections. We smell, breathe and handle toxic waste, and other dangerous things, day in and day out. Other people just cover their faces, squirm and move away from smelly dumps but how would we survive if we did the same? My work area in Jharkhand is home to a famous Shiv temple, which means there are a lot of people coming into the town both in hordes.  During the holy month of shravan, the number runs into lakhs.

Though there is a huge green cover, yet with each passing day, our town is getting more polluted. The waste management in the city is appalling. The concept of separating the waste does not exist. The easiest way to get rid of the waste for our municipal workers is incineration. And this means spread of toxic fumes in the air of this divine place. We the rag pickers face the worst. We could have earned some money from sorting out non-biodegradable material if everything wasn’t burnt.

But our job is to earn a living out of the waste. So even after it is burnt we have to scavenge through it, looking for leftover ‘treasures’. Two years ago, I had got the job a daily-wage sweeper but it didn’t last long. I had to return to rag picking. As I am ageing, the impact has begun to tell. My eyes start burning every time I go near a garbage dump.

My skin gets remain excessively dry because of the dust and pollution; sometimes it cracks and bleeds too. When that happens, I pray to find discarded bottles of lotions with some leftover. To make things worse, men here often urinate and throw soiled diapers etc on garbage dumps. Do they not know that someone is going to sort that garbage out with their hands? For many people, we are non-existent and invisible.

At the end of the day, if I have survived without an infection, I thank God. But I worry about my children. They can easily catch infections from us. Living in poverty means malnourishment, which makes us and our children even more vulnerable to diseases. Pollution is not just a work hazard, I can feel its presence everywhere. At home, we use traditional chulhas for cooking, which produce more smoke. With a large family to feed, we are surrounded by smoke at home almost all the time.

Coughing and wheezing are a year-long phenomenon. I do not have access to a robust healthcare system. So illness is something that we have to live until my body gives away. My husband is a daily wage laborer and lays bricks at construction sites. Our incomes therefore, are meagre. On a very good day, I am able to earn around `300. And all of our savings go into our children’s education.

We can’t afford to spend it on our healthcare. My children are the only ray of hope for me. But look at the world we are leaving behind for them. My children and their teachers have told me about pollution, and how incineration of garbage can warm up the planet leading to horrible things. People like us, marginal farmers and poor fisherman, will be most-affected by it, I have learnt.

I wish I could tell the netas and officers that we rag pickers can tell them a thing or two about waste management. Every city or town can be identified by the waste it produces and we rag pickers know the city or the town’s garbage like the back of our hands. We have the local expertise. But getting involved in policymaking is a distant dream for me. All I expect from the world is a bit of respect and regard for the work I do.

Toxic Air I

#Toxic Air I – ‘Dust, Pollution Part Of Life’

paan-gutkha shops here in Deoghar (Jharkhand) on my way home in the evening.

My friends and I laugh wryly every time I see privileged people on television talking about how badly their countrymen are affected by air pollution. They sound like a joke. Do people sitting in those shining studios ever spare a thought about people like us? I am a construction worker and I too am forced to make peace with toxic air, even though my exposure to air pollution is much more prolonged than any of the experts or politicians sitting and making idle talk in television studios.

My day starts early in the morning as I start walking on dusty kaccha roads waiting for a ride to come by. If I am lucky, I get to hang on the sides of buses or sawari autos. On rare occasions, I am able to get a seat. But then the co-passengers cringe with disgust. Who would want a dirt-laden labourer sitting next to him/her? People talk about air pollution in Delhi and other big cities, but the truth is that it’s a national problem.

The air in villages and small towns is equally bad. Smog is probably not visible here but the amount of construction happening in this town is insane. A new building is being constructed after every 50 metres or so. Every time a lorry unloads bajri (red sand) or reta (sand), it is impossible to breath. My job is to lift soil, bricks, sand and small stones used for construction, for nearly eight to nine hours. I first have to dig the soil, or sieve the sand or arrange the bricks before I can start carrying the load.

In short, I am in close contact with dust particles throughout the day. My load can go up to as much as 40 kilograms at a time. Add to it, the pollutants from industries, coal plants, vehicles and stubble burning.  And I have more breathing issues than the grandparents in family!  Sometimes I have a lot of difficulty in breathing and it becomes worse during winters.

Breathing isn’t the only issue. Take a look at my hands. The skin has got dry and flaky; sand and other dust particles clog my skin pores and make my skin burn. My hands were not like this when I started to work at sites. My friends, who work as labourers in Delhi, sometimes get masks to cover their faces while working. They told me that being the capital city, many NGOs actively conduct regular health check-ups of construction workers, and distribute masks.

Sadly that is not the case in small towns. Here if you fall ill, you have to ignore it and keep working. Labourers, who work for hotel projects are slightly better off. At least they take care of the working conditions of the labourers. But things are bad, where I work. They use huge machinery. We are surrounded by big vehicles such as JCB machines, tube-well boring machines, and road rollers that keep plying at the construction site– the dust never settles.

I understand this is part and parcel of the vocation I have chosen for myself, but if the construction pace was a little slower, perhaps we could get a little space, where we could take little breaks to sit and relax. We do not even have masks to shield us from the pollution, my red gamcha is the only protection I have. To add to our woes, we mostly live in the poverty-ridden localities, where water shortage is often a problem. As a result we do not even get to clean ourselves properly after having been exposed dust and other pollutants.

Indiscriminate dumping of garbage is also a problem in our locality. We live in a haven for infections and the pollution makes us more prone to them. Cold, cough, running noses, burning eyes and headaches have become a part of my life. The situation is worse for female construction workers and older labourers. We earn around Rs 300-400 per day and we cannot afford to spend money on medication. We just pick ourselves up and march on. *(This is a fictitious name. The construction worker was just not interested in identifying himself despite frequent requests. All he wanted was his sufferings be known to others)

Lynch Mob II

#Lynch Mob II – ‘Gau Rakshaks Are Beasts’

It also gets lonely here without my sons but I have my cow Gauri for company. She gives ample milk to allow me a modest livelihood. Gauri is like my daughter, my pride. I have tended her when she was a calf. I consider myself her father, her protector. But I dread the word gau rakshak. For, a group of complete strangers attacked me recently on the pretext of protecting my Gauri. At this age (70), can any man bear a violent physical attack from a mob? Now, I cannot think of leaving this village with my cow.

This happened a couple of months ago. Gauri fell ill and I had to take her to the vet for a check-up. As I couldn’t afford a dalla (a four-wheeler cart used to transport cattle), I decided to walk the entire stretch with Gauri by my side. I started early in the morning, after taking a meal. I could have reached the vet dispensary in one day, but Gauri being unwell and slow to move, I had to break the journey into two days. At dusk, I took a halt at a bus stop of village Sarsavaan.

And the next morning, I started my journey on foot again. By afternoon, as I reached Juathan Srinagar village, I noticed that I was drawing attention. People looked at me with suspicion… and exchanged words as if they had identified a criminal. What I didn’t know then was that some local miscreants had spread the word last evening on mobile phones that they had spotted a man who was taking an old cow to a slaughterhouse for money.

Soon, a small group of people began to follow me. A young man accosted me and asked: “Aur chacha….kahaan chal diye…gaaye kitne me bechne jaa rahe ho (Where are you going, old man? …how much are you going to sell this cow for?)” Amid all this minor commotion and among strangers, Gauri got nervous and freed herself to step into the nearby fields. As I followed her into the fields, I saw a couple of angry men walking threateningly towards me.

Before I could ask anything, they attacked me. They used fists and legs to beat me up. I heard them accusing me of trying to sell my cow to butchers and that they would not let that happen to cows any more. They also asked me my full name and finding that I am a Hindu, they said, I deserved bigger punishment for being a Hindu and a cow killer both.

I doubled over with pain but they took no pity on me. Once they had their fill, they painted my face black and put a garland of garbage around my neck and tied me up with the shackles of my own cow. Thankfully, a man informed the police and soon some cops came to my rescue. One policeman gave me an unsolicited advice: “Chacha maahaul kharab hai… akele mat nikla karo. (Bad times have befallen us, do not venture out alone with cows).” Was this is a caution or a threat? I wondered. This was the most humiliating experience of my life.

My clothes torn, my face black, I walked on the road alone, but I still had my companion, Gauri, following me. She was helpless and a mute witness to my humiliation. My wife passed away 20 years ago. And in all these years, I have lived a life of isolation with no one to accompany me but my cattle.

I had dedicated my life to my cows and look at the irony… I was humiliated for a cause that our chief minister, Yogi Adityanath has taken up with gusto — cow protection. An FIR has been registered and some of the ‘vigilantes’ have been arrested. But I still have one question for Yogiji. Is it a crime to serve cows? By cow protection, does he mean to punish people who have dedicated all their lives to serve cows? I know I will never get an answer.

Lynch Mob III

#Lynch Mob III – ‘Abbu’s Murder Haunts Me’

My father drove a Maruti van, transporting coal and other supplies. But days before his brutal murder, he was being watched by these 12 men from the neighbouring villages of Ramgarh (Jharkhand). Not that he had ever talked to them, ‘bas salaam-dua hoti thi inme se do logon ke saath (there would be customary greetings with two of them, named Rohit and Kapil).

Little did we know that they were linked to the Bajrang Dal and looking for a pretext to attack my 45-year-old father. It was a premeditated murder and these 12 had planned every step of the assault. They had planned to get away by claiming that my father was transporting beef. So many vehicles ply the roads, but they had to pick on my father’s only.

All 12 of them belong to different villages, so what brought them together at the same spot on the fateful day? Video clips of the incident showed them attacking and thrashing my father. The court saw that and convicted 11 of them. We were kind of relieved when they were sentenced to life imprisonment for their act. They were identified as Santosh Singh, Deepak Mishra, Vicky Saw, Sikandar Ram, Uttam Ram, Vikram Prasad, Raju Kumar, Rohit Thakur, Chottu Verma, Kapil Thakur and a local BJP leader, Nityanand Mahto.

But within months of the Ramgarh district court’s order, eight of the 11 convicts were given bail by the Ranchi High Court. Their argument in the high court was that they were among the bystanders and not attackers. This was despite video evidence! Later in July, another one of them, Chottu was released on bail too. Now only Deepak Mishra is inside prison.

Chottu can be seen clearly in every clip, wielding a rod and thrashing him. Even witnesses identified and named him. Yet, he was let off. It was a large mob, with many people watching the tamasha, clicking my father’s pictures and recording the assault but not one stepped forward to save his life. The video of my father’s killing is still on YouTube.

A simple Google search with my father’s name brings out those ghastly images. Those images revolve around my eyes every day, not allowing me to sleep peacefully. His killers continue with their lives as usual; only now they are emboldened. They chase other people shouting slogans while policemen stand as mute spectator. It was never like this before in our area.

With six children (three boys and three girls) my father was the sole breadwinner in our family. Now that he’s dead and our van reduced to ashes, we are unable to make ends meet. Ramgarh deputy commissioner Rajeshwari B had promised that one of us (sons of Ansari) will be awarded a sarkari naukri but nothing has materialised as yet.

We plan to move the Supreme Court to challenge their bail. The Muslim community as well as other villagers have been providing us with moral support and funds. We are fighting this together. You know, one of the convicts, Sikandar, who was out on bail, got electrocuted within days of his release from prison. He was the one who had grabbed my father by the collar and dragged him out of the car. Maybe that’s divine justice.

Lynch Mob IV

#Lynch Mob IV – ‘BJP Fanned Vigilantism’

gau rakshak. And I find it painful how this term has come to spawn terror in the minds of common people.

I am aware that many violent vigilantes have declared themselves messiahs of the gau vansh (bovine species) by merely flaunting a saffron scarf and they go about threatening people. They are just gangsters who think they can get away with murder in the name of cow protection. The truth is serving cows is considered equal to serving gods in our religious texts.

And there is no space for violence in this religious service. I have been doing gau seva for over two decades. Our sole aim is to tend sick and old cows. In the times when stray cattle are dying from ingesting polythene and hazardous waste, it is the duty of every human being and animal lover to help the situation.

The vigilante mobs are only harming the cause by getting every gaushala (cow pen) labelled as mobsters den. I had a religious bend of mind from an early age. I devoured many religious texts and it led to my association with Gita Press. In 1998, the trust which runs the press decided to set up Govind Gaushala in Gorakhpur. Always in love with this gentle, bovine animal, I dedicated my life to serving them at the shelter.

Volunteers at Govind Gaushala rescue ailing cows and bring them to the shelter for treatment. We have been quietly doing this work for over 20 years and no one bothered about us much. But then came 2014. The BJP government at the Centre fanned a militant form of Hinduism, where the bhagwadhari (saffron-clad) would lynch people in the name of gau raksha. The result: people who genuinely work for the cause are being looked down upon.

Years of dedication and servitude have been laid to zilch, thanks to certain anti-social elements. Things are still in control in Gorakhpur as these self-styled gau rakshaks haven’t been able to cause much trouble here. We are proud of our work. An ailing cow, on the side of the street, would have gone unnoticed earlier but now people have begun to take notice. More people are reporting sick cows and cases of cattle smuggling to us.

People here know about us and our work and promptly report any untoward incident or a sick cow. Our gaushala has over 450 cows, oxen and calves. Besides the Trust donation, we are getting help from the government of Uttar Pradesh too. My appeal to LokMarg readers is: We have spent all our lives in the service of cows.

Due to some miscreants, please do not label all gau rakshaks as villains. We believe that we serve God by taking care of a sick animal. Violence is not what we preach. And for the self-styled gau rakshaks: Come, join us and you would know what gau raksha is all about.

Indian sportsperson

'You Know My Name, Not My Story'

I hail from a poor family which falls very low on the social rung. My father used to sell langots (loincloths) for male wrestlers, which my mother sews at our rented house at Gokulpur village in East Delhi. Thus, wrestling was something I grew up with. When I was very young, my father would take me along to watch my brothers wrestle.

I was hooked to the sport from day one. I started watching more bouts. Seeing my interest, at the age of nine, I started learning how to wrestle. Soon I started fighting in dangals started taking on boys with élan. I would pin each one of them to the ground. But the idea of a girl challenging boys at their own game did not go down well with many. My father was constantly criticised for his decision to make me wrestle.

Even my mother and grandparents asked him not to make me fight against boys. They were worried that if I injured myself, no one would marry me. But my father did not pay heed to their constant nagging. He supported me, defying the rest of the world. Maintaining a proper diet and training are vital for a wrestler. For a poor family like mine, it turned out to be a huge burden. In 2015, my mother sold her mangalsutra for my training.

My father had also taken loans from the local moneylenders. The debt piled on and reached Rs 10 lakh! My parents often skipped meals to make sure I could eat well. They were under a lot of stress, but they never let it affect me. However, at the back of my mind, I kept thinking how I could earn money and pay back my parents. Finally, I got a chance to play in a dangal in Punjab, where the prize money was Rs 10 lakh. This was a godsend for me.

I told myself: ‘No matter what, you have to win it. It is not just a dangal, it’s a matter of life and death’. I went out there, gave it my best shot and won! I was ecstatic as tears rolled down my cheeks. I sobbed uncontrollably. The money freed my father from his debts. I now had to buy a mangalsutra for my mother that she had sold for my training. God helps those, who help themselves, I managed to get into another competition — the Asian Championship.

The prize money was Rs 3 Lakh. Once again, I won. And the first thing I did with the money was to buy a mangalsutra for my mother, from the same shop she had sold it to. Even today when I close my eyes, I can feel the warmth of my mother’s arms around me after I got her mangalsutra back. I had assured her that I will do everything to keep her and my father proud and happy. She had hugged me and we had cried holding each other.

From that moment, there has been no looking back. I worked hard on my training. I won a gold medal in the Commonwealth Championship held in Johannesburg in December 2017. And in the same year at Asian Wrestling Championships in Kakran, won a silver medal in the Women’s freestyle 69 kg event. Recently, I won a bronze medal at the women’s freestyle 68 kg event at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, beating Taipei’s Chen Wenling on account of technical superiority.

Yes, life has changed a little following my success, but problems still exist. Most of them stem from government’s apathy towards sports-persons belonging to poor families or coming from rural backgrounds. So before complaining about India’s rank in the medal tally at international gaming events, such as the Olympics, or Asian Games, do not forget the struggle Indian sportspersons have to go through. My story is just one example.