This morning I went for a run inside IIT Delhi campus. While running on the south side of the campus, I saw a person emerging out of the bushes with an empty plastic bottle. Considering that it’s 6:15am in the morning, I had a strong feeling that the person was defecating behind those bushes. I immediately looked around to see any informal settlements. I saw a large camp of people. I thought that they must be there working on some temporary maintenance or construction project. Not to embarrass anyone, I just continued running without striking any conversation with any of those people.
I went in search of that camp during lunch time and found another large camp of 30-40 people right by the side of the main road, next to the swimming pool. I went inside the camp hoping to speak to someone. A guy in the camp greeted me and we started chatting.
People in the camp are from Bihar, a state with large dalit population. The people in the camp don’t have access to toilets or washrooms. Everyone, including women, bathe near the water pump and defecate in open. Fortunately, they have access to water and electricity. They run tiny fans inside their tiny tents to get some reprieve from the heat of Delhi. I walked through the camp-site into the construction site. The huge hole in the wall led to into the swimming pool premises. No surprises here. No worker, other than the people who were cleaning the pool, wore any safety gear; not even the guy who was using a big demolishing driller. No goggles, no gloves. I took some photographs and returned to the campsite.
I am more concerned with lack of sanitation than lack of safety gear. That brings us to this question of – Why are people defecating in open inside IIT campus? My guess it this. When the contractor hires temporary / migrant workers to do the job, he does not account for the proper living conditions and facilities. These workers are compelled to live in shanty houses or tents without basic amenities like water, toilets, and electricity. Contractor either makes more money by not paying for these services or charges less money and hence appears competitive by not providing these basic services to his workers. The administrators at IIT Delhi, one of the technologically forward institutes in the country, should insist on providing better living conditions to these informal workers inside its campus.
What is the result of all this? Ordinary public thinks of migrant workers as dirty and shameless people. While the reality of the situation is that these people want to live a life of hygiene and dignity. But it comes at a cost. Construction and maintenance of toilets costs money, washing and bathing costs too – cost of water, cost of storage container, cost of soap, and cost of the washroom structure itself. The builder is not willing to pay that cost. The helplessness of the workers makes them take up jobs even if those jobs don’t provide any basic services.
The hot and humid climate of Delhi is a killer. I am staying in one of the boys hostels. A fan inside a badly ventilated room does not provide any respite from the heat of Delhi and IIT students are not allowed to have coolers (not AC) inside their rooms, unless you bribe the security. If a student cannot sleep well at night, he cannot be alert and productive in class during the day. But that room is any time better than the tents in which those workers are living in this heat. The bathrooms of the hostels with broken doors and dysfunctional taps are any time better than defecating in open. I am grateful for what I have but I am deeply troubled by what is provided to the workers inside the campus.
Apathy is deeply embedded in Indian society and IIT administration is no exception to that. The double standards of Indian government is appallingly visible in its own institutions. At one end, the government talks about safety regulations and total sanitation campaigns. At the other end, the same government is not providing any basic facilities or safety gear to the construction workers working inside its own premises.
I don’t know what happens in other government projects. But I am deeply disappointed with IIT Delhi. A premier institute in the country should know better and set an example for rest of the country. Every human being has the right to be treated with dignity. Exploiting the helplessness of the lower class in a society is social and political, tyranny.
Upset with the situation, I started walking out. I stumbled across a woman preparing pakoras.
“They smell good. I am sure lunch is going to be delicious” I said peering through the tent.
“Come, eat with us,” she invited me with a bright smile on her face.
“No no, my friends are waiting for me. But thanks”
I started walking towards the entrance of the camp and I saw a guy carving a lotus out of a sheet of foam. Two kids were staring at the process with complete concentration.
“Wow, that looks beautiful. Who is this for?” I asked. The kid standing next to the guy raised his hand. Another kid ran inside the house and fetched a large bird.
“Look at the peacock he made for me,” said the kid raising his hands to show me the bird. His prideful face was hiding behind the bird.
“It’s so big and colourful,” I replied.
“Oh it’s getting late. I should go and get something to eat,” I said looking at my watch.
“Why go somewhere, eat with us!” the kids said earnestly
“My friends are waiting for me. I have to go,”
“Come some other time then”
“Sure,” I said with heart filled with gratitude.