The following is an unedited excerpt from Rivers Remember: #CHENNAIRAINS and the Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood by Krupa Ge, to be published on June 28, 2019.
Everyone in the city remembers the day the floodwater drained out, differently. Some were relieved, some were still in shock, some continued to look for loved ones, while others came home to devastation. But for almost all of us it was heartbreak. The city wore its defeat for days and nights on end. For a week after the floods, on the footpaths outside most homes were stinking piles of mattresses, pillows, quilts, cushions, straw mats, bedsheets and swollen rotting wood and food grains, and cars left open, even as the sun came down hard on us, making a mockery of it all.
Entire homes were being emptied out, like in my parents’ case. And before you knew it, the city was on the verge of a crisis. A garbage crisis. Thousands of sanitation workers from across the state were called in to Chennai by the government. And these workers had to deal with a city that had dragged decades of filth from its river beds, lakes and all kinds of things from people’s homes on to the streets, as well as animals that were handed the death sentence—about 100,000 tonnes of putrid trash. Apart from extricating dead human bodies from nooks and crannies, which had washed away in the flood, sanitation workers also had to deal with people defecating in the open, as flood-hit public toilets were non-functional.
The city’s sanitation workers, many of whom had their own homes destroyed, also reported back to work because they needed the money. They live outside the city, because of slum relocation drives, and neither help nor warnings had reached any of them. The city of Chennai clearly felt no senjotrukkadan for its brethren who came from other cities to clean it, it would appear, and instead ill-treated them.
Hundreds of workers complained that they were transported to and from their work places for the day in the same lorries in which they had transported garbage all day, exposing them, without proper protection gear and aid, to trash and diseases, and that they were treated worse than ‘kothadimaigal‘—bonded labourers. Several workers—who were involved in other trades before being engaged by the municipality for cleaning (agricultural labourers, electricians, and quarry workers)—complained of cuts, bruises and illness from the prolonged exposure to garbage as well as bleaching powder.
Many newspaper and independent media reports during the floods spoke of the poor conditions under which sanitation workers were being made to work. They also pointed out that help had not reached north Madras or the working class populace affected by the floods in the southern parts outside the city limits.
In a scathing report on the relief work related to the November floods that affected Cuddalore district, titled ‘Tsunami to 2015 Floods—No Respite For Dalits In Disaster Response, Tamil Nadu’, the National Dalit Watch – National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, and Social Awareness Society for Youth Tamil Nadu, said that ‘in most of the places Dalit households have complained about the wilful negligence of government and other agencies of assessing the losses occurred to Dalits.
Many of the workers who were exploited by the state and made to work in dangerous conditions in the aftermath of the floods were temporary employees. Writing in detail for the Hindustan Times on the issues faced by the sanitation workers, Sudipto Mondal reported on 11 December 2015, ‘As many as 78 men from the Dindigul municipality are camping in a marriage hall in Gajalakshmi colony of Chennai. They were provided with only seven gumboots. None of them have been given gloves, masks, soap or oil. These luxuries haven’t been granted to local sanitary workers either. … Here is another well-known fact: all of Chennai’s and indeed all of Tamil Nadu’s sanitation workers are either Dalits or Adivasis. Most of them are from the Arunthathiyar Scheduled Caste. … Only around 700 of the 7,000 sanitary workers in the city are permanent employees of the corporation and get above Rs 15,000 per month. The rest are on contract and are paid anywhere between Rs 200 and Rs 290 as daily wages. No work means no pay. There are no sick leaves.’
Forty-two-year-old Palanichamy, who was brought to Chennai from Sholangapalayam in Erode, and Kantha Rao from Chennai, died as they were made to work under unsafe conditions for prolonged hours, while on duty, cleaning up the city. Conservancy workers had to clock over twenty hours cleaning up the garbage piled up everywhere. Adhiyamaan, founder of the Aathi Tamizhar Peravai—the Arunthathiyar movement that aims to ‘re-establish Arunthathiyar’s economic, cultural and social status’—also rued the fact that sanitation workers were not treated with even basic human dignity and that 400 of them had to share two toilets. They were not given glasses to drink water from and had to drink water using their plates. He also said that many workers were paid a paltry sum of Rs 50 per day for their work.
He asked, ‘Is this the right way to treat government employees? If a government servant who’s working as a peon, for instance, was being asked to travel, he would be given an advance or a TA/DA [travel and dearness allowance], right? They were given nothing of that sort and, to add insult to injury, transported in inhuman ways—in lorries, as if they were cows and goats—from far-flung districts like Ooty and Gudalur. Someone came from out of town to clean Chennai and died because of this. How did they decide that these people didn’t deserve the same kind of transport, stay and treatment that is offered to government employees who travel on work? In any case, what was the need to bring people from other districts to clean the city? Why didn’t they use machines to clear the debris everywhere, which would have been faster anyway? Many of them weren’t given any safety gear, neither gloves nor boots. People who belong to only one particular caste are doing this work. Our casteist society and people belonging to other castes think that these people were born only to serve others as if they are slaves. A deeply entrenched casteism among everyone here is the reason that these workers were treated this way.’
He also pointed out that people say, ‘This is their job, their duty. Let them do it.’ He added, ‘It is because of this mentality that even now, every month people die of toxic gas from sewage holes in our state. These are people who have been forced violently to perform these jobs because of the caste system. Nobody who’s doing this work enjoys it.’
To those who ask, ‘Why are you doing this job? Find something else,’ he said, ‘Even today in our villages, people are punished if they do not do this work that is heaped on them by other castes. Our belief is that not just our people, no human being should be asked to engage in manual scavenging and sewage cleaning. Use technology and machinery entirely. Everyone, including politicians, maintain silence when it comes to this topic alone. Why is there no political and societal will to end manual scavenging in our country, despite the laws?’