MUMBAI: Sunil Yadav does not believe in heaven and hell. But he knows what hell feels like. “Narak” is the word he uses to describe what it was like the first time he waded through open sewers with floating garbage and dead rats when, at 25, he took over his father’s job as a municipal conservancy worker in Mumbai.
Part of an almost entirely Dalit taskforce, Yadav figured that, much like Babasaheb Ambedkar’s pursuit of an education, he, too, would have to study further to better his lot.
But a decade on, with four degrees under his belt, Yadav, who pursued an MA in globalization and labour at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), continues to work as a conservancy worker with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). While Yadav, now 36, is currently working on an MPhil at TISS, he spends his nights cleaning Mumbai’s garbage.
Yadav, who grew up in the slums around Arthur Road in the 1980s, during the heyday of Mumbai’s underworld, says he felt the full force of social inequality when he joined the BMC. After his MA degree, when he applied for better positions in the civic body — for which he was well qualified — he was rejected even though there were vacancies, he says.
“I could not afford to quit work and study because I have a family to support,” he says. He hopes that, someday, his degrees will get him a less degrading job.
Yadav, whose family has been involved in conservancy work for three generations, recalls his father coming home drunk after a day’s work and routinely beating up his mother.
“My mother believed in Ambedkar and wanted all of us to study hard,” says Yadav, who studied till Class X in a municipal school, but failed his SSC exams. He went to work as a delivery boy at a share firm, carting 300kg of shares across the country in the pre-Internet era. He also worked as a security guard and an office boy. It was only when his father suffered a stroke that Yadav took over his job. “Even to get that job, I had to pay Rs 2,000 as bribe to push the file,” he says.
When he got time off from cleaning the city’s garbage, Yadav would pore over newspapers. He came across an advertisement issued by the Yashwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University (YCMOU) offering those who failed the Class X exam the opportunity to pursue a degree if they cracked the university’s entrance test. Yadav credits his general knowledge for the ease with which he breezed through the exam.
He went on to do a BCom and a BA in journalism from YCMOU, a diploma in social work from Nirmala Niketan, and a master’s degree in social work from Tilak Maharashtra University before he joined TISS and bagged another MA.
Now, Yadav lives in a pint-sized room in a Chembur chawl with his wife and two daughters. He says his wife has been very supportive of his studies.
He is still bitter about being denied study leave when he was pursuing an MA at TISS. “The BMC’s rules and regulations allow for 24 months of paid study leave. Very few people know about it. Usually only bureaucrats in the department avail of it. But when I applied for it, the civic authorities said they could not give it to someone like me,” says Yadav.
His colleagues and professors at TISS did their utmost to support him in his quest for study leave. Yadav did not get the two-year break, only three months of leave when, in the course of his MA, he was selected to travel to Johannesburg by a Swiss development agency.
Yadav still wants to fight inequities with his education, like Ambedkar. He does not want to give up his job, but aims to challenge the system from within.