Many Frontline Workers Have Been Left to Fend for Themselves in the Pandemic

From salary cuts to not enough protective equipment, essential workers are having to protest and plead just to get their basic dues.

Chennai: During the COVID-19 pandemic, frontline workers are keeping the country running, putting their own health and safety at risk.

Despite all of this – and the public recognition they have received for their work – their struggles for fair pay continue. Grave diggers haven’t received the pandemic hazard pay they were promised, sanitation workers are facing arbitrary pay cuts and unpaid time off to make up for lack of revenue, doctors haven’t received their full salaries and the economic fallout on farmers has been staggering.

On graveyard shift, unpaid for over three months

Since the lockdown, Nasir Khan and five other grave diggers have done the final rites of 90 bodies at Jhada Kabristan in Bhopal but have been paid for only four.

Nasir Khan (38) leaves home at 5 am to reach Bhopal’s Jhada Kabristan, where he wields his shovel and keeps digging graves till the familiar hearse van of the Bhopal Municipal Corporation (BMC) can be seen at a distance. At that point, Nasir starts donning a PPE kit. Once the van has arrived, the next two hours are charted out for Nasir, who has been a grave digger since the age of ten. Since the lockdown, Nasir and five other grave diggers have done the final rites of 90 bodies but have been paid for only four.

Earlier, they would receive Rs 1,700 inclusive of the cost of materials required for a funeral from family members of the deceased, and this amount would be divided among them. But with COVID-19, this source of income had been wiped out. Following the first phase of lockdown, the BMC had announced that graveyard workers would be paid Rs 5, 000 for every dealing with coronavirus-infected corpses.

Nasir lives walking distance from the cemetery with his parents, wife and four children, but on most nights, the grave digger just sleeps in the burial ground, located in Jahangirabad, a COVID-19 hotspot in the city.

Each day, the workers race against time as every grave takes at least four-five hours to be dug. On May 6, the graveyard received six corpses at a time. Since then, the cemetery workers have kept at least ten graves ready in advance. As per World Health Organisation guidelines, graves for coronavirus victims have to be dug six feet deep, at the minimum.

On most nights, Nasir Khan just sleeps in the burial ground.

“We don’t know the COVID-19 status as the bodies come in airtight double plastic packing. We do the namaz and try to swiftly carry out the final rites and issue a certificate to the BMC worker or the family member of the deceased,” said Rehan Ahmad, chairman of the cemetery’s management committee.  He had approached the BMC requesting JCB machines, to help dig pits.

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On June 12, Nasir buried Gaffar bhai, a fellow grave digger, who had gone home the previous night, developed chest pain and died on the way to the hospital. “To dig a grave for one among us had been gut wrenching. We will never know whether he had coronavirus, but his family didn’t receive any help from the government,” said Nasir.

Divisional commissioner and administrator of the BMC, Kavindra Kiyawat, said, “Releasing the pending payment for the disposal of COVID-19 victims’ bodies is a long-drawn process, as we have to verify the cases with the nodal centres involved. We have as of now paid Rs 80,000 to the grave diggers for the burial of 16 COVID-19 victims from the city,” he said.

The Central government had announced Rs 50 lakh insurance cover for frontline health workers under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan package in March. “Unfortunately, the workforce of gravediggers, which is unorganised and not on any official payroll, has been left out. In fact, they had not been trained on how to handle coronavirus cases initially and were provided with PPE only when the pandemic had peaked,” said Amulya Nidhi from Jan Swasthya Abhiyan.

Arbitrary pay cuts for sanitation workers

On July 2, four young men lost their lives due to asphyxiation while cleaning a septic tank in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district.

In Chennai, 38-year-old Simon moved from manual scavenging to being a sanitation worker only after the lockdown. Simon, who used to clean septic tanks privately, found no work when the pandemic set in. On May 4, he joined the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) as a contractual worker.

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He starts his day at 6 am and goes about disinfecting coronavirus containment zones till 2 pm, for which he is paid Rs 225 per day, and on days when his work continues till 5 pm, he is paid an additional Rs 100. “I had worked without taking a single day’s leave, yet ten days’ salary was deducted. When I approached the officials, they said I had the option to leave this work. This happens to all workers, but none will speak up,” said Simon. Officials of the Greater Chennai Corporation were unavailable for comment.

Across the country, sanitation workers are facing a tough time. Vicky Delikar is a sanitation worker at Satranjipura, one of the most affected COVID-19 zones managed by BVG (Bharath Vikas Group) India, an agency appointed by the Nagpur Municipal Corporation to lift door-to-door garbage. The 35-year-old has to prep his own PPE before he leaves for work as he can no longer use the two disposable masks provided by the company, to be used for three months. His handkerchief and a bar of soap are his saviours.

Sanitation workers from Nagpur have been grappling with arbitrary pay cuts and delayed payment during the lockdown.

Work starts at 7 am with pushing the garbage trolley, which is filled halfway to the top as he goes through the narrow lanes of the city’s slums. By 1 pm, the half-hour lunch slot begins, but considerable time is spent finding a place to eat, away from the dump yard and after washing hands. A few minutes into his lunch, Vicky is busy attending to complaint calls from his supervisor. Most days, lunch goes unfinished.

The workload for Vicky and his colleagues has increased manifold during the pandemic, as the workforce has been reduced. Each sanitation worker is handling four areas, as opposed to one earlier. They are also being roped in for miscellaneous work such as lifting construction debris and dead animals. The company had asked them to not come to work on some days, and cut their pay citing a lack of funds. The workers received their salary for April on June 8, and the May dues are awaited.

Vicky and his 68-year-old father, also a sanitation worker, have been struggling through the lockdown, along with Vicky’s mother, wife and three children. “If we raise concerns, we are threatened that we will be sacked,” said Vicky, who has been doing this work for over 17 years.

When contacted, additional municipal commissioner Ram Joshi remarked that sanitation workers might not be using the masks provided to them and they should be penalised for the same. He further said that he will look into the salary issues.

Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the Safai Karamchari Aandolan, noted that sanitation workers across the country have been facing arbitrary pay cuts from their measly salaries.

The case of unpaid medicos

The Karnataka government had announced a salary hike for 507 doctors on a contract basis on July 2, giving in to their longstanding demand.

Meanwhile, final year postgraduate medical students at St. John’s Medical College Hospital, affiliated to the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences, a designated centre for COVID-19 treatment in Bengaluru, have been left in the lurch. Their stipends for May remain unpaid.

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The medicos, who in a non-pandemic scenario would have written their exams, received their no-due certificates and be on the verge of securing a job, are at their wits’ ends. “Charity begins at home but the management turned the medicos away and asked us ‘to find our own resources to manage’. How can we look for a job now, without a degree? We are struggling to manage our families, rented houses and other expenses and the following months look bleak. We deserve our dues in these tough circumstances,” said a junior resident, on the condition of anonymity. There are around 200 junior residents awaiting their stipend, even as those from the department of medicine are on the frontlines of COVID-19 care.

On April 22, as per the direction of the Department of Medical Education and the Government of Karnataka, the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences had issued a stern warning in a circular directing all its medical colleges to not stop salary of its faculty and medicos amid the coronavirus lockdown.

The St. John’s Medical College authorities refused to speak on the issue and a mail sent to them went unanswered.

In New Delhi, doctors from the two hospitals under the North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) – Hindu Rao Hospital and Kasturba Hospital – had threatened resign en masse on June 14 because of the non-payment of salaries. Following a Delhi high court order on the same, the NDMC on June 20 had stated that the salaries of doctors due for March and April had been released.

Dr Sunil Kumar, anaesthetist at Kasturba Hospital, New Delhi said that frontline workers don’t deserve to plead and protest for their basic needs.

The doctors, who are well-acquainted with the perennial delays in wage payment, are now anxious about their dues for May. “We don’t deserve to plead and protest for our basic, well-deserved salaries and want to concentrate on just our work. My wife has taken leave from work to take care of our children as I have been working non-stop. With the stigma towards doctors, babysitters shun our homes and we cannot afford to house right now,” said Dr Sunil Kumar, anaesthetist and president of the Resident Doctor’s Association, Kasturba Hospital. Dr Abhimanyu Sardana, an orthopaedic specialist at Hindu Rao Hospital, said that doctors don’t want to be stuck in this vicious cycle of non-payment.

Speaking to The Wire, North Delhi Mayor Jai Prakash said that the salary for the month of May will be disbursed soon for all doctors.

 ‘It took me six months to grow pumpkins and a day to undo that’

 In April, 65-year-old Ramachandra Chachariya, from Khedi village in Khalwa district, Madhya Pradesh, lived through a farmer’s worst nightmare. He had to undo and destroy the fruits of his own labour, by ploughing back to the soil a large portion of his 50 tonnes of ripe pumpkin.

“With borders sealed and hardly any availability of labour, storage, transport facilities and a market to sell crops, the supply chain was broken. We gave away pumpkins for free to almost everyone around but there is only so much that could have been saved,” rued Chachariya, who has a Rs 7 lakh loan to repay to the Bank of India.

In north and east India, mint species are grown on almost 150,000 hectares and the oil that comes from these is widely used in pharmaceutical and cosmetic products. India accounts for 80% of the world’s mint supply. “It is cultivated in January and is ready to be reaped by May. This year, lockdown coupled with rains resulted in heavy losses for mint farmers,” said Rajesh Kumar from the United India, a farmers’ NGO.

With major consumers of dairy products like fast food chains, sweet shops and schools being shut, the loss has been massive. Floriculture farmers have been impacted too, with marriage functions taking a hit, explained Kedar Sirohi, a farmers’ leader.

Shivam Baghel, a 26 year old from Paraspani village, Seoni district in Madhya Pradesh who had spearheaded the ‘online sathyagrah’ move for fixing the Minimum Support Price for maize, said that maize farmers were forced to sell their produce at half its fixed price. On the other hand, maize is being imported and the 60% import duty has been reduced to 45%. On average, a farmer with an acre of land suffered Rs 15, 000 loss at least,” he said.

Nalini Ravichandran is an independent journalist who has worked with The New Indian Express and Mail Today and reported extensively on health, education, child rights, environment and socio-economic issues of the marginalised. She is an alumna of the Asian College of Journalism.