Sunil Yadav talks to Vinay Shende:
Continued from here.
I used to attend classes in the day and work in the night since it was a full-time course. It was tough managing my family, work and studies. Yet I realized that it was a great opportunity being provided to me, and it was for a brighter future. I would sleep for only about 3-4 hours a day. My wife and mother worried about me. Due to multiple commitments, I had to miss many morning classes at TISS. While the classes were tough, I had good friends who helped. I had a classmate from Bangalore by the name of Satyanand. He was an IT engineer. He would help me in translation after the class. I couldn't attend the English speaking course at TISS since I had no time at all.
Bhowmick asked me to speak to Ramkumar regarding appearing for the exams in Hindi. Ramkumar refused, saying "how can I bend the rules and grant you permission?" I was directed to Prof. Wankhede. He gave me a solution, saying that I could bring along a writer who could translate my answers, and that extra time would be given for this. During TISS, I learnt about things like Email, Social media, etc. I passed the exams. I also took my daughter's help, since she studied in an English medium school.
At that time, there was a University in Switzerland that wanted to do a study on security guards. Prof. Bhowmick suggested my name to them for the project, since I had prior experience of working as a security guard. I got selected along with two others for that project. We used to get 20000 rupees for that project. Our initial work wasn't up to the mark and we were reprimanded for it. I took it up personally and requested for some additional time. After getting a three month extension, I single-handedly completed the project. The work done was appreciated by all – so much so, that I was selected to complete a project on security guards in Johannesburg, South Africa. At this time, some friends in BMC began to help me. They filed an RTI asking why leave wasn't granted by BMC. The BMC gave a response claiming that the course did not fit the criteria; the entrance was different, etc. I was harassed a lot by BMC in those days. They would not allow me to enter certain places and often made me wait for 5-6 hours. One day, this whole story was taken up by the media, and was also published in the Indian Express (in 2013), with the help of Prof. Bhowmick. The name of the journalist was Sukanya Shantha. She was kind and helpful to raise this. At this time, one TISS PhD Scholar, Nilesh Kumar, helped me in preparing myself for the media. Anoop Kumar would also help me and provide me with encouragement. After the news came out, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh informed the SC commission about the case and instructed them to help me out. A hearing was held. The SC commission rapped the BMC and directed them to grant leave within 6 months. I realized that maybe I was not alone in this fight.
This increased my confidence. I was finally granted leave on the eleventh day. But by that time, I was in my last semester. Since I had to go to South Africa, I took a leave of 3 months and left to South Africa for the project. At that time, my wife was pregnant with our second child. Since she was carrying twins, she was facing health issues. I then decided to come back. I finished the 3 month project in just one month and returned. We lost one of the twins during delivery.
Even without knowing English properly, I still managed to complete my project with determination. I asked myself - when I can manage without English in a foreign country, why can't we have similar systems in India? Why is there so much emphasis on English? I was given a target of 37 interviews and I completed 54. I then completed my course in TISS in 2014.
After that, there was a vacancy in BMC for the post of Labour Officer. I filled up the form and knew that I was the most qualified applicant for the job. But unfortunately, my MA course was not registered with the Maharashtra Government. It was an International course. I was literally almost kicked out of the office room by Kunte after he checked my form. He said that if they give a concession for me, then everyone else would also want it. "Who will then do the scavenging job?", he asked. "Should we always continue to do these jobs? Why can't someone from your village or community do it? Someone who is poor and needy", I argued. He got angry with these questions. I said "I am not asking you to select me. I am asking you to provide me with an opportunity to appear for the Interview". He replied that I could come to the interview, and that they would deal with me then!
I requested them to at least give me a letter stating the reasons so that I could take it up with TISS. But they refused. I then went to TISS and requested them to register the course. I was told that it was not possible since the course would not get funds if it got registered - that was the arrangement they had.
After this, I told BMC that since they did not allow me to apply for the Labour Officer post, I needed to study further. I joined MPhil and continued working as a Water Loader. I requested BMC once again to grant me unclaimed leave for this course. I asked for a leave of 21 months, but did not get even a single day of leave for my study. The BMC would deliberately give me more work and pressurize me. They also tried to kill me by running a vehicle over me. Some of my friends then wrote to various authorities such as the PM, CM and the Police, that I was facing a threat to my life. This made BMC cautious.
It was during MPhil that I started conversing in broken English mixed with Hindi. Some of the political parties tried to approach me but my stand was clear - I didn't want to be a servant again, anywhere. I had great friends in TISS like Vimal Kumar who helped me. Vimal would help me in attending hearings in the court and my whole class would back me up. I feel more people from the Scavenging community should study and join various courses. From 2013 onward, I got a lot of media attention, even in states outside Maharashtra, such as Assam, Punjab, Bihar, UP, Delhi, etc. I spoke on Radio and FM channels as well. Yet I never got any support from the narrow thinking BMC, and I know that it was because of my caste. It was in TISS that I began to understand Babasaheb more. I would read about him, talk to other Dalit students and read his books at the library.
Even though all Dalits are not scavengers, ALL scavengers are Dalits. Scavenging is 100% reserved for Dalits. No one from the government helped me out with my leave issue for MPhil. I got a job offer from Tata Power for the post of Labour Officer, but didn't take it. I started my legal battle with the BMC and had to appear for various hearings - sometimes in Delhi, sometimes in Mumbai. I also got invited to various events as a guest and rubbed shoulders with various people including actor Akshay Kumar. My topic in MPhil was on Women Scavengers. Initially, I wanted to be a Labour Officer. But now, I want to be the President of the National Commission for Safai Karmcharis. When I pursue my PhD, my topic would be on what the Union, Administration and National Safai Commission have done for the scavengers. We have so many provisions and Acts to safeguard us, but why aren't they implemented? Where are the loopholes?
In every other country, scavengers have dignity, but why not in India? I want to be a role-model for the community. Babasaheb Ambedkar had given us many provisions, and we need to leverage that. At one point, Prof. Bhowmick suggested that I take up teaching. I never run for opportunities; I want opportunities to run for me - I would rather teach in a foreign University than here. I need to develop my skills further - skills such as Research, English speaking, etc. I am looking at pursuing a full time 4-6 month certificate program at EFLU, Hyderabad. Currently I am unable to go for it due to constraints, but will take it up one day and then think of pursuing a PhD. I would need a proper study leave for that. It is important that I be granted a study leave because it will then set a precedent and make way for the coming generations to study. It is important for me to challenge now, since I don't think there will be anyone like me later who can challenge the system. Even the BMC knows that whatever it grants to me today will have a long term impact.
Some people question as to why I am in this profession even after studying so much? I want to give back to my community and not leave them in the lurch. Especially since my court case against BMC with regards to my study leave is at a critical stage.I can get jobs now, but I will lose respect & confidence of my people if I do it now. I want to liberate them in years to come.
I intend to pursue PhD from TISS and complete it in 3 years. Since I want to pursue PhD, we have moved to Chembur, closer to TISS. Earlier we used to live in Mahalakshmi. I encouraged my wife to study. She completed her Graduation from Mumbai University after marriage. Currently, she is pursuing LLB. My elder daughter aged 10, is studying in English medium at St.Anthony girls' School. Our younger daughter is 3 years old and we are looking for her admission this year.
I have been facing lot of financial difficulties. Last year I was given a fellowship, but due to an increase of 3-4 thousand a year, I had reached the limit and cannot get further scholarship. I pay 9000 rupees every month as rent, and I earn about 19000 per month. I am barely able to manage my expenses, but I never lose hope. The Director of TISS has been of great help. Even Professor Shailesh Dharokar had helped me with projects and some money. I would love to pursue my PhD abroad and few Universities are interested in taking me as well, but I have family responsibilities. I am weary of taking a loan from the bank since I don't want to burden my family.
Today I want to be focused toward the Scavenging community. My biggest inspirations are Babasaheb Ambedkar and my mother. Whenever any media person comes to click my picture, I insist that Babasaheb's picture is shown in it. I continue to keep reading more about Babasaheb. I feel that the Brahminism within people has to go - it is the biggest threat to development.
Message to people
Education is the only liberator since we don't own businesses or any land. Dress well. Don't portray yourself as helpless beings. I am well dressed in every picture of mine. The media is only interested in showing Dalits as poor, living in the slums, etc. It's time for the media to celebrate our success instead of only showing us in poor light. There is a book written by Rijbul on Scavengers, in which there is a write-up about a Bhangi woman. Such literature doesn't show the real picture. Why wasn't the woman allowed to study? She had passed class 10 and could speak English. Why didn't her Savarna boss allow her to study? Why only help her with money but NOT with her educational needs? Is this what the Savarnas write in their books? Only our sorrows? You want to sell your books and earn profits?
On the other hand, our educated Dalits also need to give back to society. To fight against Brahminism, education is the most important. I came into the limelight only due to education. Our people have studied due to Babasaheb, but why are they not giving back to Society? Why should the privilege be confined only to them?
I don't believe that Rohith Vemula committed suicide. I can understand his situation. How can such a strong personality commit suicide? At the same time, I am extremely happy that our Dalit girls are excelling. Girls like Tina Dabi, Rinku Rajguru are coming up.
My financial condition is worsening, but I have not reached out to anyone for help. I will need help when I start going deep into the Scavenging community to work with them and on various projects. I shall be filing a writ petition in the High Court against the BMC regarding my case, under the SC/ST Atrocity Act and want the people there to face the consequences.
I have known Anoop Kumar since 2013. Through him I came to know about RTI (Round Table India). I read RTI using translation. I have never spoken so much with anybody but I have shared with you so that our people know more through RTI. I have not yet achieved anything for the society, but once I do something, that will be my success. Jai Bhim.
Sunil Yadav is now working as a motor loader in the Brihannmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). He has completed his M.Phil from TISS and is currently on the verge of pursuing Phd. He has a wife, mother and two daughters. Elder daughter is studying in Class 4 and the younger one is in a playgroup. His wife has passed the CET law exam.
Vinay Shende is currently working as Senior Manager-HR in Johnson & Johnson and is an alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences.