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Kathmandu’s Traditional Street Cleaners Fear for Their Jobs

 

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Nani Pode helps her son, Dibya, 9, get ready for school. Pode is illiterate ─ she can only write her own name ─ but her son is getting an education. Pode works as a street sweeper, a job that has traditionally belonged to her caste, which is also called Pode, but fewer caste members are taking on that work, as young people attend school in ever-increasing numbers. Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal
Nepal

One caste has held the capital city’s street sweeper jobs for hundreds of years, but as younger generations became more educated, fewer do this work. In a plan to privatize the jobs, the city government says it will give the sweepers other employment, but critics say this is an empty promise for people who don’t have other skills.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL — It is still dark outside when Nani Pode leaves her house around 4:30 a.m. She sets out with a broom made of wood and sticks.

Pode, 33, is a street sweeper. It’s the only job she’s ever held. She’s assigned streets to clean every day, even holidays. Her family has done this work for as far back as they can remember, she says.

“I like to work,” Pode says.

But Pode could lose her job soon. City officials are in negotiations with private companies to outsource the cleaning work.

That change would be devastating not just to Pode, but also to the caste to which she belongs, which goes by the same name.

The caste has swept and cleaned streets in Nepal for generations. Members of the caste have been cleaning the streets of Kathmandu for centuries, they say. If the city outsources the work, they say, they’ll lose the jobs they’ve always relied on.

Rabin Man Shrestha, chief of the Environment Management Division of the Kathmandu Metropolitan City Office, says a final decision has yet to be made. The city hopes to establish a public-private partnership for street cleaning, rather than full privatization, he says.

The Pode street cleaners will have other options, Shrestha says.

“They can leave with a golden handshake,” he says. “They can be given other work.”

Yogesh K.C., the manager at Ward 15 and president of the Nepal Sanitation Workers Union, says the government’s promise to provide other jobs to the street sweepers is an empty one.

“What work can these people do who cannot even sign their own name?” he asks.

The change is due in part to fewer Pode signing on as street sweepers.

There were 1,400 sweepers in 1997, but just 900 in July 2016, Shrestha says. Younger Pode people are taking on other types of work.

Sweepers earn 17,000 rupees ($158) a month cleaning streets. They also receive three months of extra pay in bonuses because they work holidays.

In August sweepers expected to receive a 25 percent raise in their salary, a benefit that all government employees will receive, Shrestha says.

The Pode are among 126 castes and distinct people groups in Nepal.

King Jayasthiti Malla, who ruled in the 14th century, systematized the castes by linking each caste with an occupation, said Ganesh Gurung, a sociologist, in a phone interview.

The Pode caste was given the occupation of sweeping streets, Gurung says.

Nani Pode works in two shifts every day, the first from 5 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., and the second from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. She is assigned one street in Ward 17 of Kathmandu, a five-minute walk from her home, and she sweeps that street each day, collecting the trash into one place where garbage trucks can pick it up at an allotted time.

She lives with her husband and his extended family in Dhalko, an area in Kathmandu where many people from the Pode community live. There are 15 members in their joint family, Pode says, and all the adults are current or former sweepers and cleaners.

Pode and her husband have been married for 16 years. They have two sons, Dipesh, 15, and Dibya, 9. Both attend school ─ a luxury Pode never experienced. She can write only her name, but she is determined that her sons have a good education.

“Our caste is ignorant and uneducated,” her husband, Dil Ratna Pode, says. “There are only a handful of people who are educated in our community. We can count them on our fingers!”

Dil Ratna Pode, 34, also works as a cleaner, in a police station. But he believes change is coming for the caste, even though it is slow.

“With the money we make from sweeping streets, we send our children to school,” he says. “If we lose our jobs, how will we educate our children?”

Nani Pode is convinced that her sons should never become street cleaners. Her older son wants to join the police, while her younger son enjoys drawing and wants to be an artist.

“The new generation should get education so that they have career options,” she says.

Her husband, in the meantime, is developing plans to establish a business so that their family income will not be dependent on street sweeping, since it has suddenly lost its job security.

“I am planning to start a business,” Dil Ratna Pode says. “I want to establish a grocery store.”

 

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ, translated seven interviews from Nepali.