Sunil Yadav talks to Vinay Shende:
My name is Sunil Yadav. I was born in 1979 in the Mahalakshmi area of Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai. It’s a slum area. My roots are from Ratnagiri district, but later generations had moved to Mumbai. I am a third-generation Scavenger. I work as a Scavenger with Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).
Being born in a scavenging family is itself the beginning of a lifetime of tough circumstances.
The place where I was born was a dumping area. Migrating people from outside would come to that area to live. The bodies of dogs used to be buried at this place. There used to be big craters and we would build our houses above that area. The Corporation would regularly come to demolish structures.
My mother got married in 1971. My elder sister was born in ’76, me in ’79, my younger sister in ’81 and younger brother in ’83. My maternal grandmother was a big influence on me. She loved me a lot. My father would come home drunk but my grandmother took care of me. She used to tell me that I should become a pilot. She was one of the only people who encouraged me to take up a profession other than scavenging.
My father’s drinking kept increasing, and on the other hand, we were also living under the influence of the underworld. One faction was of Amar Naik and the other faction belonged to Arun Gawli. I grew up in such an atmosphere.
I was put into a decent school for my kindergarten and didn’t understand much till then. I was showered with love from my grandmother. In fact, it was only when I joined my Class 6 that I realized who my real mother was – till that time I had been thinking that my grandmother was my mother.
I would see my father drunk, sometimes beating up my mother and sister. I saw this till class 4. My father had rehabilitated many people in new houses, but when it came to himself, alcohol was his biggest enemy. One day, I saw a person being murdered as part of a gang war. That had an impact on me. It made me fearful, but slowly, all such incidents became a part of life. People used to gamble in our neighbourhood and father would send us to buy alcohol from the shops. Imagine the environment that I grew up in.
However, my mother had the great impact of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar on her. Her father had taught her about him. She wanted her children to gain education, but without the support of her husband, it became difficult to fight it out alone. My elder sister had to drop out of school due to the abuse of my father. However, my mother ensured that the other three siblings studied at least till Class 10. She started working as a maid in the homes of high-class women. Passing class 10 was a big hurdle for us due to English and Mathematics. We had no tuition classes due to dearth of money. Also, the Corporation schools were not up to the mark. All of us siblings failed in English and Maths. After being unsuccessful in passing my 10th standard in 1997, I decided to help my mother. I took up the job of a Security Guard, and also did other jobs as an Office Boy, managing a telephone booth, working at a wine shop, etc. I also worked as a delivery boy for a shares company and would travel to places like Gujarat, Chandigarh, etc. I sometimes had to carry 30-40 kilos of goods in a train in order to deliver them at different places. My mother did not like this kind of work.
My father had a stroke in the year 2000, and became 97% paralyzed. He was declared unfit to work. After that, the responsibilities fell on me, and my mother reluctantly asked me if I was willing to take up scavenging work. There were some files (about 4 of them – Father’s Pension, PF, Gratuity and my file) that had to be passed by the BMC. I was demanded a bribe of two thousand rupees for clearing it. However, we didn’t have that much money at the time. As a result, my case/file remained at the same place for 6-8 months. I had to arrange liquor for the officials, owing to me working in the wine shop, and I had to do a lot of other things as well, to keep the file moving forward.
After a lot of hiccups, just as I was going to be hired on the roster, MMU (Municipal Mazdoor Union) called for a strike and halted water supply. Enraged, the Municipal Commissioner stopped hiring new employees. Once again, I had to do other jobs for about four years. I also had to make several trips to the BMC, court and PF office during these 4 years (from 2001 to 2005). After getting some money from my father’s Pension & Gratuity, we married off my sister.
I started work in 2005. It was on a daily basis, with no leaves or weekly offs. I had to learn everything on my own. Due to my good physique, the department put me into tougher work. I had to clean drains where the level of sewage was up to my thighs. While working, my heart would cry about the kind of work I was doing. I just wanted to move out of that job or do something else. I used to give my entire salary to my mother. I was being paid a salary of 3900 rupees per month, but given the work of almost 3-4 people. I used to question the officers.
Since my childhood, I had a habit of reading the newspaper. I would read at the public library. One day while reading, I came across an ad of Yashwantrao Chavan Open University (YCOU). I came to know that one can pursue graduation through correspondence. From 1996 to 2004, I had tried to clear my 10th std exams in four attempts, yet it was extremely difficult and I was unsuccessful. But this time, I was determined to get out of this rut.
I appeared for the entrance exam for the course at YCOU. Since I read newspapers, I fared well and scored 60/100 points in the entrance. This increased my confidence. I had no idea what BA, B.Com, etc., were and what their scope was. I just went ahead with B.Com. I joined and attended weekend classes. I didn’t inform anyone about this. During the weekends, I would finish my work in the day and attend classes in the evening. I used to like the course. I began to understand the nuances of reading and politics. I joined in May 2005 and it was a 3 year course.
My mother began to pressurize me to get married, and I eventually got married to a girl from Badlapur in Dec 2005. I didn’t know anything about Babasaheb Ambedkar till 2005. I was part of a Hindu group of friends, celebrating festivals like Navratri and Ganpati but never Ambedkar Jayanti. Many people would do the same with the motive of networking with the local MLA or MP. Due to this, I got some contacts and people had started to reach out to me to get their work done. While all this was happening, I got married. My wife had passed 12th class at the time of marriage.
Within a month of my wedding, my younger sister was set on fire by her in-laws for dowry. The case and the police were completely managed by my sister’s in-laws, and the entire blame was thrown on our family. She passed away after 6 months. I was very attached to her. That incident left a deep impact on me. We tried to fight in court and lost. But what that ordeal gave me was an understanding of the judiciary and police.
I continued studying. In the year 2008, I got my B.Com degree. I was happy but couldn’t share my happiness much. While studying B.Com, somebody suggested that I should pursue MSW (Masters in Social Work) and that it would increase my social skills. When I came to know about Nirmala Niketan College, I went there and asked for the admission form. The staff asked me who I was taking the form for, and if I knew English. When I told them that I didn’t know English, they said that the entrance exam was in English. I told them that I shall learn, and asked them to give me an opportunity. They gave me the form.
During the exam, I was asked to write an autobiography in 1200 words, in English. It was a tough job for me since in those days, even to remember the letter ‘M’, I had to look into a chart of English alphabets. I didn’t succeed. Later, one of my well-wishers advised me to meet one Jagtap Madam. When I met her, she suggested that I join the Diploma in Social Work (DSW) course. She explained that it would help me understand some basics of how to write an assignment, make presentations, etc. I enrolled in the course by paying 8000 rupees. It was a one year course.
The classes were held on the weekends, from 5 to 7 in the evening. Here I came to know about things like projectors, presentations, etc. The teachers would come, teach in English and leave. I could not understand much, but my classmates would explain to me later. One of them, Ghogi, was very helpful. He was the son of a potter. He informed me that there was an MSW (Masters in Social Work) course in Marathi at Tilak University in Pune. Their office was in Belapur. After going there, I was told that the admissions had closed and I needed to go to Pune. I went to Pune thrice. I appeared and passed the entrance exam. Initially I was given the admission in Pune, but after several requests, I was finally moved to Belapur. I completed the two year course in Belapur. There was no Scholarship or Freeship scheme for SC/STs there.
During the course, some of the students used to do their projects at TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences). Through an acquaintance, I came to know that there was a course called ‘MA in Globalization’ at TISS. One day, while going to Belapur by train, I got off at Govandi station and went to TISS, to see how it looked. The security did not allow me, and I got in with the help of Mr. Lokhande, an acquaintance. I loved the campus, the diversity and the buildings. But I had no courage to tell them that I was keen on joining there. I would go there frequently but hesitate to express my feelings. One day, Lokhande got irritated with my frequent requests and questioned me. It was then that I shared. He was surprised, but was supportive.
He suggested that I meet Prof. Sharad Bhowmick of the Labour Relations department. I met him and told him that I wanted to study in TISS. The professor suggested that I bring a letter from the Labour Union, and that it would be useful for admission. I then went to the Union office to meet the Secretary of the Union. He laughed and asked how I was going to manage among convent educated people. I informed him that I had already graduated in 2-3 Degree courses. I had also completed a BA (Journalism) course from YCMOU. I cleared DSW and BA in the same year. I finally got the letter from the Union after pleading with them for 6 months! I studied MSR (Masters in Social Research) in the meantime. I did this for higher education, since employees could avail leave for up to 24 months for that purpose. All this was in 2011.
When I told BMC that I wanted to appear for the entrance exams, they took 6 months to grant me permission. I started my preparation, and that was the time that I began feeling angry at the Brahmin/Savarna community for dominating us. I had extreme hatred against the BMC administration and higher authorities for the manner in which they treated me, and I always wanted to fight it from within. I never felt the need to change my job. Even after completing my Degrees, the BMC never treated me with respect or dignity.
I passed the TISS entrance exam using Hindi as the medium, and took admission in the MA (Globalization & Labour) course in 2012. It was a 2 year course with 11 students. I didn’t have any scholarship, but I didn’t have to pay the fees as Prof. Bhowmick helped me out with that. The course was unique, in collaboration with Universities of India, USA, Brazil, South Africa and Germany. I used to get a stipend of 6500 rupees per month. I got awesome classmates who would help me. However, BMC was unhelpful. They would not grant me leave. I used to go several times every semester, but to no avail.
Please read the concluding part of the interview here.
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.