In PM's Lucknow, night-soil carrying raises no stink

LUCKNOW: This is supposed to be one of the country's most prestigious constituencies, represented by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The truth slinks out in the middle of the night, when hundreds leave slums in Lucknow carrying on their heads night-soil _ a decadent practice banned in the State more than 10 years ago, and soon to become a cognizable offence. But, in Lucknow officialdom, this raises no stink.

Talk to Lucknow Nagar Nigam officials, and they insist that barring one or two areas in the old city, where dry latrines still exist, no one carries night-soil in Lucknow. In reality, the practice survives in a number of slums, and for a simple reason: the residents have no option. To escape the wrath of those who do, they carry it themselves, disposing of the waste after nightfall.

This is the real picture of the VVIP constituency that has been electing the Prime Minister since 1991 and that his trusted aide and Uttar Pradesh Urban Development Minister Lalji Tandon had promised to turn into a model city. Far from being so, such areas of Lucknow lack sewage lines and there is no arrangement for water outflow.

Tandon need not look far. A few kilometres from his official residence, at Gandhi Gram on Faizabad road, Shanti Devi Sharma has been carrying night-soil herself for 20 years. Between 2 and 3 every night, she picks it up from a hole outside her house and carries it to a distant site for disposal. "I have been rebuked and even roughed up many times by people who object to the disposal of the pail filled with excreta near their places of living. But we, especially the women, have no other option," she points out.

There are nearly 500 houses in Gandhi Gram and nearby Kailash Kunj. Almost each family has dug a hole, covered with a wooden sheet, for use as a latrine near their house. The entire family's waste is dumped here at night, and the hole cleaned in night by hand for use the next day. It's the women who mostly carry out the horrific task, sometimes aided by their husbands. "We are now used to the smell and have adopted the practice as part of our daily life because we cannot afford to defecate at the lone Sulabh Shauchalaya in the area," says Khatoon, the wife of a rickshaw-puller and mother of four children.

According to Mohammed Sageer, who has been leading the fight to get decent facilities for the slum-dwellers, "We have raised the issue with a number of officials and also demonstrated, but they are unmoved with our predicament." The residents add that when they contacted local Corporator Kiran Mishra, who belongs to the ruling BJP, she shot back: "You people had not voted in my favour, then why should I care for you?"

Mishra's nonchalance is echoed by the civic officials. Pointing out that the practice of carrying night-soil has been banned for the past several years, Mukhya Nagar Adhikari S P Singh insists "the practice is not followed in Lucknow". At the same time, he adds: "We will have to take care once we get papers saying it has been made a cognizable offence." The officials also admit they have no plans for those who have no choice but to carry night-soil.

Suneeta wonders why. "The government has banned the practice on paper. Does our carrying night-soil in pails daily not come under the practice?" she asks. "The government is unmoved and the officers have left us to lead a painful life."

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Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: June 6, 2001
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