Lives of sanitation workers in pandemic: Undervalued, and battling biases

These are frontline workers whose work, however, remains largely ignored and underappreciated.
The lockdown hadn’t been declared yet when Durga rang the doorbell like any other morning. I found her sitting on the stairs, catching her breath. An elderly woman, with grandchildren, she collects garbage from homes in our locality and gets paid a small amount per house for this service. We chatted a bit about the virus that was beginning to cause some anxiety and why she needed to wear a mask. “Yes, we elderly are at greater risk,” she acknowledged as she pulled herself up, picked up the garbage bag and left with her customary “may the goddess bless you”.

Later, as the lockdown was enforced, she stopped coming. One, two, three days, and counting… In our homes, garbage piled up. The trash bags, tied up tightly so that no stench would escape, sat in one corner of the balcony until something really needed to be done about them. So we loaded them in the car and headed out in search of a garbage dump. Thankfully, we found a place by the main road not far from home where others too had dumped their garbage. The municipal truck, we were told, would pick it up from there.

Such excursions, I imagined, were going to become routine. But then Durga came back, armed with her lockdown pass that qualified her as an essential service provider. There was such relief in the colony the day she returned. We could hear people calling out to her from their verandas and balconies.

Durga is among the millions of sanitation workers who have ensured that we stay comfortable during the lockdown even as they put their own selves in harm’s way. One count puts the number of sanitation workers in India at five million, though it is likely to be higher given the informal nature of their work.

These are frontline workers whose work, however, remains largely ignored and underappreciated. A study by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) conducted during the lockdown hopes to change this by drawing attention to the social and occupational vulnerabilities of this invisible and often ill-treated segment of society that is facing even graver risks to health and safety in the time of a pandemic.

Titled Invisible Sanitation Workers @ Covid 19 Lockdown: Voices from 10 Cities, the study tells the story of 17 sanitation workers from Delhi, Faridabad, Gurugram, Noida, Ghaziabad, Ranchi, Bhilai, Udaipur, Puri, and Bhubaneswar. In the face of apathy, many of them are still forced to work without basic protective gear, such as masks and gloves. “We also found awareness regarding their personal safety completely missing,” says Anju Dwivedi, senior researcher at CPR and one of the three who conducted the study. Many of the workers had not been informed, briefed or given any kind of training on how to work safely in this exceptional situation.

The stories are telling. Jyoti Dei, a permanent municipal sanitation worker from Puri in Odisha, and her husband work without protective gear, clean their hands with soap only after completing their work, and are not aware of hand sanitisers. Paras, a 38-year-old sanitation worker employed by a resident welfare association in Delhi, says the workers, including sweepers, were engaged to sanitise the common areas, doors and knobs of all the flats in the society after a resident tested positive. However, they were not provided with any protective gear. Vijay Pratap Singh, who is employed by a private firm in Delhi as a municipal van helper that undertakes door-to-door collection, says their work is viewed with suspicion by neighbours who see them as potential carriers and a health risk. Asim, an unlicensed sanitation worker in Gurugram, picks up used masks and gloves as also waste that may carry saliva with his bare hands.

There are also examples of residents shouting at the sanitation worker if he or she rings the doorbell, fearing that the touch would contaminate the switch, whereas it is the worker who is in fact at greater risk.

“The ones who are not permanent municipal staff have it worse. They are treated as waste collectors or waste segregators and enjoy absolutely no security,” says Dwivedi.

While there has been some institutional response, with states such as Delhi, Gujarat and Punjab announcing insurance cover ranging from Rs 25 lakh to Rs 1 crore for permanent sanitation workers, people like Durga and other informal workers like her do not qualify for it. If they get infected, they are on their own. There have already been cases in both Delhi and Mumbai of sanitation workers testing positive for coronavirus.

“If they die, nobody will care,” says Dwivedi. “It is a deplorable situation. Our deeply entrenched social biases have pushed them to lead subhuman lives and have jeopardised theirs and their families’ safety in a time like this.”

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