Amalawathi sweeps her cares away
After nearly half a century of sweeping the roads in Colombo,
70-year-old Amalawathi is not ready to hang up her ekel broom and take
that long vacation she deserves.
"Who will keep the home fires burning if I stay home, doing nothing?"
she asks me when I stop to talk to her as she sweeps up dead leaves from
the pavement at Darley Road, into a dust pan. Looking at her worn hands,
her legs knotted with varicose veins, and a body darkened by long hours
of exposure to the merciless sun, it is obvious that this septuagenarian
has spent most of her life on the pavements. Left widowed at the age of
twenty-five after her alcoholic husband was run over by a bus,
Amalawathi tells me she was forced to find a job as she was the sole
breadwinner for her three young children.
"I needed the money to feed them, buy them clothes and school
requirements. The only job I could get was as a road sweeper, when the
Colombo Municipality hired me as a casual labourer. And even though I am
now too old to do this work, I need to continue working for the sake of
Although her son and daughters are now grown-up, she says her three
grandchildren depend on her for anything extra which their parents can't
afford to give them... She pulls out a photograph of three little
children in clean white school uniforms and slippers and tells me with
pride: "They are lovely children aren't they? Take a look at their
uniforms which I bought for them last month, after they complained they
had only one set of uniforms as their parents couldn't afford to buy
them a second set...This is why I have to continue to work".
To save up every cent she earns from her small daily wage, Amalawathi
confesses she gets through the day by chewing betel when she's hungry.
"A lunch costs over a hundred rupees. Even a slice of bread would
cost between 50 to 75 rupees with some curry. So I made do with a betel
chew and a cup of plain tea." When I warn her she could end up with oral
cancer, she shrugs and says, "Most of us road sweepers chew betel all
day when we work because we simply cannot afford to buy a proper meal.
If one of us gets a free packet of lunch from a passerby, we share it".
Although Amalawathi no longer works for the Municipality, since
cleaning of the city has now been privatised, she says life continues
unchanged. "As casual workers, we are not entitled to ETF and EPF
allowances. Nor do we get a meal allowance. The company that hired us
only gave me this 'T' shirt (she points to the grubby faded orange 'T'
shirt she is wearing), and nothing else. No slippers, no umbrella and
not even a cap."
Like the others, she works in shifts and in different locations
within the city. "Our working hours are not that long. But we have to
complete the work given us before we leave. That means leaving the
pavements and side walks as clean as possible without even a leaf
allowed to by left lying on the ground", she says. Which is why she
confesses, 'every time a pedestrian throws a piece of paper or a used
lunch sheet on the pavement, I get so angry because it means I have to
sweep that part of the pavement all over again.!" Sweeping the city's
roads and pavements for nearly 50 years, I wondered what changes she had
witnessed in the past few years in the city itself. Was it cleaner than
when she started out? "When I began my work this was a city of gardens
and flower trees.
Then it became a garbage city where the roads were lined with piles
of rubbish.Today, thanks to the present city development program, I have
seen a transformation.
The roads are much attractive after the pavements have been newly
paved. And certain parts of the city now resemble the garden city it
once was. Let's hope the public will maintain this image of the city".
Pausing to shout angrily at a motorist who threw a bag of half eaten
take-away food on the pavement she had just swept, she tells me, "It's
because of people like them that our work has doubled.
All road polluters in this country should be fined like they do in
other countries. We need some organisation to undertake the task of
educating the public to be more environmentally friendly and
considerate. This can make our lives as road sweepers much easier as
Picking up her ekel broom and her dust pan to collect the contents
that had spilled from the bag thrown on her newly swept pavement, she
turns back with a request, "Next time you see a person doing this, take
a picture and publish it in your papers. That will prevent them from
repeating this offence".