KARACHI: Speakers shed light on the plight of sanitary workers in Sindh at a conference titled ‘Shaping a safe and dignified future for sanitary workers in Sindh’ organised at a hotel here on Monday by Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO) and the Sindh Human Rights Commission (SHRC).

Retired Justice Majida Rizvi, chairperson of the SHRC, informed the audience about the commission. She said the SHRC had been working since 2013. It was in 2008 that the government, keeping in view the human rights violations that were taking place in the region, realised that such a body should be formed, and the same year it established a directorate. In 2011, the Sindh Protection of Human Rights Act came into being. It was notified in 2013 under which the commission was set up. The SHRC has two powers: one, it entertains applications about human rights violations; two, it has the powers to take suo motu action.

Shazia Shaheen gave a presentation on a project titled ‘Promotion of social well-being of sanitary workers in Sindh’. She called the project a ‘movement’. Her presentation was followed by a documentary.

Minister says the Sindh government is coming up with schemes to improve their grades and salaries

Zulfiqar Shah talked about the research done on the status of the rights of sanity workers.

Boota Imitaz gave a community perspective on the subject. He praised the SPO for raising awareness on the lives and work of sanitary workers, arguing that prior to that no one even wished to shake hands with them. He also put forward some suggestions, such as on how to handle the issue of working on a contractual basis, health insurance for the workers, putting an end to delay in salaries and removing post-pension obstacles from the workers’ careers.

Shafiq Ghauri lauded the effort of the organisers in enabling society understand the gravity of the problem, as a result of which major English language newspapers were now publishing reports about them.

Civil society activist Anis Haroon said the moot was creating awareness of a segment of society that did not have a voice. “They (sanitary workers) put their lives in danger to keep the environment clean. We talk about human rights of farmers and labourers but forget sanitary workers. We are not willing to treat them on the level of human beings,” she said and urged the sanitary workers in the hall to develop leadership from within their ranks.

Executive Director of the Indus Resource Centre Sadiqa Salahuddin said civil society had always spoken about the marginalised communities in Pakistan but it had to be said that it’s hard to find any other community being marginalised the way sanitary workers were. They suffered from severe discrimination but civil society had not paid enough attention to them. She called ‘doable’ the recommendations given by some speakers to improve the workers’ condition.

Veerji Kohli, special assistant to CM Sindh on human rights, delivered an impassioned speech. He said the first thing that we needed to change about the whole scenario was our mindset. “Who are we to decide what rights they have or don’t? Are there only Hindu and Christian sanitary workers in the rest of the world?” he said. “We don’t treat them like humans. We don’t share food with them or even like to talk to them. It’s the mindset that should be changed,” he emphasised.

After that a sanitary worker, Ishaq, was requested to express his views on the matter. He narrated a sad tale. He said he had been working for the last 22 years and had four children. His eldest daughter is 13 years of age. To date he’s living in a rented house and hasn’t been able to buy a place for himself.

Minister’s assurance

Nasir Hussain Shah, Provincial Minister for Local Government, arrived late in the programme and left early because he had to be with his party chairman for an important development-related event. He said his government was working to improve sanitary workers’ conditions. It was coming up with schemes to improve their grades and salaries, and also to make sure that they used safety kits.

SPO chairman and former senator Javed Jabbar said he learned a great deal from the speakers, and one of the things he got to learn was that it’s not just our social responsibility [to raise awareness on the subject] but also our political and national responsibility. He asked whether it was an issue related to Pakistan. There are about seven billion people in the world a large number of which were connected [through handheld devices], and yet this so-called enlightened man had kept part of his mind in darkness. There’s prejudice. There had been some positive changes, such as the one that took place in 1948 when all nations got together to come with a UN Declaration on Human Rights that said all of us are equals. However, to date, there existed prejudice. For example, in the US, the blacks were ill treated by the white police the same way as they were treated in history.

“So human nature is a complicated thing. When we talk about sanitary workers, we should know that they are not just suffering from professional prejudice (paishwarana ta’asub) but the issue also has a religious element. This requires a rethink, and the change in the mindset should begin at our homes.”

At the end of his speech, he remarked that our sanitary workers were the real VIPs.

Muzaffar Memon, Iftikhar Qaimkhani,Tanzeela Qambarni, Ramesh Kumar, Karamat Ali and Rasheed Solangi also spoke.

Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2019

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