Life & Style

Meet the people who keep Kathmandu running

  • This May Day, here are five workers who work tirelessly to keep this city functioning

Apr 30, 2019-

Every May 1, Nepal’s various communist parties indulge in rallies and parades. The worker as an archetype is feted and paid homage to.

But it is all a farce, Ram Rana, a road repairman, says. The only people who celebrate International Workers’ Day are those who don’t need to work, he says. Workers continue to work, keeping the city functioning.

This May Day, the Post profiles five men and women who tirelessly work Kathmandu’s streets every day, keeping this city from falling apart.   

He repairs roads

By: Anup Ojha

On a sweltering April Monday, Ram Rana was cracking the tarmac in Balkhu, near the Tribhuvan University. He was drenched in sweat, digging up the road to lay drainage pipes. Rana has been repairing damaged roads and installing drainage pipes for the past year.

“We work where our contractor assigns us,” says Rana, who works for the Surmise Company as a labourer. He works nine hours a day, from 8am to 5pm, breaking, digging and laying. Neither the scorching heat, nor pelting rain or unbearable dust and smoke prevents him from working by the roadside, where thousands of vehicles ply every day.

Rana, 26, is the youngest of five brothers. While two of them have left the country to work abroad, Rana came to Kathmandu. Born to a poor family in Hetauda, he came to the capital with four of his friends and quickly found work in roadside construction.  

Rana makes Rs 950 per day and up to 25,000 per month, he says. He sends Rs 10,000 to his father and mother back in village in every month.

“We don’t have our own lands back in the village. Unlike in Kathmandu, the work we get in Hetauda is not regular. Even if we get work, we are not paid ,” says Rana. “I came here so I wouldn’t be idle.”

Rana wants to get married once he earns enough to throw a lavish feast to feed his relatives and neighbours.

“I am thinking of getting married, but I don’t have enough money yet,” he says.

Rana is well aware that May 1 is International Workers’ Day, but he also knows that little will change for working-class people like him.

“It’s not us workers who celebrate this day,” he says. “We need to earn our daily bread. Those who are rich celebrate the day in our name.”

Every day, Rana copes with the stink from the open drains, and his palms have numerous wounds and blisters. He is not happy with the work, he says, because society looks down on his profession.

“The work that people like me do keeps the city safe,” says Rana. “The only thing I know is that if we don’t repair the roads, this filthy city will only become worse.”

She directs traffic

By: Abani Malla

During peak office hours, Saraswati Karki can be spotted atop a traffic island at one of Kathmandu’s busiest intersections--Thapathali Chowk. In the crisp blue uniform of the traffic police, Karki directs vehicles from the island, gesturing to them to stop or go. The sunglasses she wears are not so much a fashion statement as protective gear.

Although responsible for managing traffic from 9 to 11:30 in the morning and 4 to 7 in the evening, Karki’s day starts at 5:00 am. After scouting Thapathali and Tripureshwor chowk in the wee hours of the morning, she submits a daily traffic status report to the Traffic Metro Head Office at Baggikhana by 5:30am.

Karki’s day ends late, as she stays up till 11 pm checking for drunk drivers. On alternate nights, she is a night duty officer, for which she stays back at the barracks and is responsible for any incidents that can take place until the next morning.

Due to her long shift hours directing traffic in polluted Thapathali, the 26-year-old has had numerous health-related complications. Once, her eyes had swollen due to excessive exposure to the pollution and heat; her mouth is usually dry; and her ears hurt due to constantly whistling at traffic. The dust and scorching heat tires her out within a few hours and she can’t breathe well without a mask.

Despite all her complications, Karki actively looks out for the safety of both drivers and pedestrians during her duty hours. Whenever she catches people breaking the rules, Karki fines drivers and sends them to remedial traffic classes. If the situation gets out of her hands, she is authorised to arrest violators and take them to Singha Durbar for processing.

“Most of the time, people don’t understand that we’re only doing it for their own good,” says Karki, for whom punishing lawbreakers is a way of saving them from the negative consequences of their own actions.

When she first applied to become a part of traffic police, she was mentally prepared to take up the responsibilities and challenges that would come her way, she says. And due to the nature of her job, she cannot complain about her health or personal problems when duty calls.

Even when she has severe period cramps, she still needs to report to the field. Whenever she asks for sick leave during menstruation, she feels that her male colleagues do not understand her predicament.

“Although the work is tough, I feel happy to be able to turn both my father’s and my dream into reality,” says Karki, who grew up dreaming of becoming a police woman in Sankhuwasabha. “My father lets us make major life decisions, unlike other people in the village. He was the proudest when I got this job.”

He collects garbage

By: Rose Singh

Suraj’s day begins at five in the morning, as he goes door-to-door to every house on the Harisiddhi-Hattiban stretch in Lalitpur, collecting garbage. He does this all day, every day, working without any holidays. His day ends only when the sun goes down.

“I decided to move to Kathmandu in 2015 when I saw no prospects in my village,” says Suraj. “When I came here, I quickly realised that garbage collecting was a profitable job.” He now works for the Satdobato Ward Office.

The 21-year-old doesn’t remember his parents or his hometown very well. He says he doesn’t even know his last name. When he was 10-years-old, he lost both his parents and villagers from Nijgadh, Bara forcibly took away his home, he says.  

With no means to support himself, he began working as a labourer in construction. He didn’t even think about going to school. But eventually, he decided to pursue better prospects in Kathmandu.

Here, Suraj is happy with his job and how much he earns. “The income is way more than what I made as a labourer,” he says. Suraj makes roughly Rs 40,000 a month.

But even with a decent income, his job is not considered a respectable profession, he says. As he handles all the trash that comes out of residences, he is constantly looked down upon by society, says Suraj.

“I don’t want people to respect me everyday, but a kind gesture once in a while would mean a lot,” he says. As he’s afraid of being ostracised by his friends, he still hasn’t told them about his day job.  

Collecting garbage is not as easy as it sounds. People do not segregate their garbage at home and many times, Suraj has to handle hazardous pieces of garbage without proper preparation.

“When I first started this job, I would cut myself with a broken piece of glass every other day. But now I’m more careful when I handle any garbage,” he says.

Suraj has ambitions--he aspires to work himself up the ladder in the trash business. One day, he wants to have a garbage truck of his very own.

He builds houses

By: Timothy Aryal

From a five-storey residential building under construction about a hundred metres southeast of Thapathali chowk, Anoj Kumar Rajbanshi watches the dust and pollution of the city with quiet resignation. Rajbanshi, in a faded pink shirt, blue jeans and slippers, wears his long hair in a man bun and shuffles sand with his hands.

Rajbanshi is filtering fine grains of sand at the construction site. He sieves the sand on a net that rests on top a drum, using the sole of an old slipper. And as he works the sand, he talks.

This is not something that he particularly enjoys, says Rajbanshi. As a shuttering carpenter, Rajbanshi is tasked with creating temporary formworks in the concrete pouring process. But with work on the pillar yet to begin, he’s filtering the sand to keep himself occupied.

“It wouldn’t matter if I took a break for a while,” Rajbanshi says. “But since everyone is working, I felt it would be untoward to laze around.”

This job pays Rajbanshi around Rs 1,000 a day, for working a 12-hour day, from 6am to 6pm.

“If only higher-up people treated us nicely and there were provisions for a good shelter with facilities, I’d never go abroad again,” Rajbanshi says.

It’s been three years since the 25-year-old returned from Qatar, where he worked at a hotel as a laundryman. Rajbanshi has fond memories of the Gulf.

“The job wasn’t all that hard. My part was to take clothes from one floor to another and serve the customers,” says Rajbanshi. “I was treated nicely. Even when miles away from Nepal, I felt at home there. Even rich people would talk to me. But it’s not the same here. Here, they do not recognise us.”

Rajbanshi left Qatar on a whim. Even after working for two whole years, the employer refused to raise his salary, which was 1000 riyals, roughly Rs 29,000 a month. He’d spent most of his earnings partying with friends from the Philippines who liked feasting, he says.

A year ago, after his return from the Gulf, Rajbanshi left his hometown of Gaurigunj in Jhapa and came to Kathmandu. He didn’t plan to work as a construction worker--he wanted to fly to Turkey for work. But he was unable to get a working visa and he was forced to take up a job to pay the bills.

Living in Kathmandu is a constant challenge, says Rajbanshi, as even renting a room is difficult. He’s been asked to come back with a family at least a couple of times, he says. But Rajbanshi is not ready for marriage yet and so, he’s been living in a small room in the building where he works.

“Any job can be great if you view it through a positive lens,” Rajbanshi says, “You have to enjoy what you do. I’m enjoying this job, but what I’m really looking forward to is Turkey.”

She sweeps streets

By: Sachitra Gurung

Santaki Deula’s job begins before most of Kathmandu wakes up. By 4am, Deula and her husband Kancha have already left their home in Kirtipur, where they live with their son. It takes them 25-30 minutes to reach Om Bahal, where their work starts.

Santaki and Kancha are both street sweepers, employed by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City.

“Even though the government has bought broomer machines to clean the roads, they can’t reach the narrow alleys of Kathmandu,” says the 39-year-old Deula. “We are incharge of keeping the gallis clean.”

Initially, Deula worked two shifts--from 5:00 am to 8:30 am and from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm--but due to the increase in both pollution and traffic, she only works one shift now, from 4:30 am to 10 am.

“The ward chairman is nice to us and he is the one who asked us to work only one shift,” says Deula.

Every morning, she readies her broom and cart, and starts sweeping the roads and collecting garbage, alongside five others. Sweepers like Deula work 365 days a year.

“We don’t get holidays like others, even if it’s Dashain. But the state compensates us with bonuses for working during the holidays.” says Deula.

However, each employee gets an allocated number of sick days. She works part time during the day after her shift if the pay is good; otherwise, she babysits her 3-year-old grandson while her daughter and son-in-law are at work. As Deula herself hasn’t received any formal education--she can only write her name--she wants her son to go to school, which is what most of her salary goes towards.

Deula wants to work till retirement but there have been rumors of the city’s cleaning services being privatised. If this happens, sweepers like Deula might be out of a job, but nothing has happened as of yet, she says. Deula’s been working as a sweeper for 24 years now.

“The state reimburses our medical expenses and there’s a pension plan after retirement,” says Deula. “It isn’t the most desirable job but at least it’s secure and you get paid on time.

Published: 01-05-2019 07:00

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