Glorified as ‘COVID Warriors’, Sanitation Workers Suffer Worst of All in the Pandemic

Every sanitation worker’s life in India is a nightmare on any ordinary day. Add to this the callousness of administrations leaving them to face the virus without gear and training and the result is pure hell.

Bokaro (Jharkhand): As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic tightens its grip on the country, the Chas Municipal Corporation in Jharkhand’s Bokaro district appears to have learned a few things from the last time around. Its sanitation workers have better working conditions now than they did in the first wave of the novel coronavirus. Although not all their needs have been met, the sanitation workers not only have access to personal protective equipment (PPE) this year, but some of their work-related issues have had a favourable resolution as well.

Unfortunately, the sanitation workers at a government-owned company in Bokaro district of Jharkhand continue to suffer the same abysmal working conditions that have persisted for many years. Their working conditions worsened in the first wave of the pandemic last year and they remain atrocious in this deadly second wave.

Every sanitation worker’s life in India is hell on any ordinary day and the situation only worsens in a pandemic. Even though the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) guidelines state that supervisors should brief the sanitation workers regularly (weekly or fortnightly) to combat fear and stigma, advise them on best practices and address queries related to COVID-19, none of this actually takes place. There is usually an absence of PPE, for instance, or unequal access to it.

The sanitation workers at the Bokaro company were not just left to fend for themselves last year, they were thrust into greater danger even as the government lauded them as COVID-19 warriors. This year nothing has changed.

Also read: Across Waves of COVID-19 in India, Sanitation Workers Remain Most Ignored

Rajkumar’s daily hell

In 2020, when nationwide lockdowns were declared to slow the spread of the virus, the government ordered everyone to stay home. Everyone, that is, except those people classified as providers of essential services: the sanitation workers. The government called them ‘Corona Warriors’ and shoved five million of them to the frontline to battle the virus for months without gear, training, or preparation.

Both last year and this year, Rajkumar, a contract sanitation worker at the Bokaro company, has worked in awful conditions. Like his colleagues, he does not see the possibility of getting vaccinated any time soon.

“We have not received PPE kits even during this second wave. We are made to sanitise the premises of the company twice daily although there are very few officials at the office. And we are not given additional payment for the double workload,” said Rajkumar.

Since the company does not provide its sanitation workers with PPE, directions or training to protect themselves against the coronavirus, the workers buy their own cloth masks and hand sanitisers.

One thing does seem to have changed for the better this year. Last year, getting to their place of work had been a challenge for the workers, some of whom were severely thrashed by the police for being on the streets during a lockdown. Even after several complaints to the company management, it had taken more than three months for the sanitation workers to be provided with passes to show the over-zealous policemen. This year, however, their passes are in hand.

Still, Rajkumar and his fellow workers remain distrustful of the company management. Last April, Rajkumar had suffered an accident at work. A sprayer pipe had burst, soaking his eyes and body in chemicals. His eyes had turned red and burned with excruciating pain. He had lain on the floor squirming helplessly and in need of immediate medical attention. But the medical intervention had taken hours to arrive.

“I thought I would never be able to see again,” said Rajkumar who had to pay Rs 7,000 for the treatment from his own pocket. It is no solace to him that after his accident other workers in the company received poor quality protective gear. In any case, the gear did not last long.

Then the company workers were asked by their contractor to pay Rs 400 to have their blood tested and chests X-rayed for COVID-19 testing at a private clinic.

“I think they will charge us even for the vaccine if they get us vaccinated in the first place,” Rajkumar told me.

To vaccinate or not?

No sanitation worker at the company has been vaccinated. Not due to vaccine hesitancy, but because they fear falling sick and thus losing a day or two of their pay or worse, losing their jobs.

“So we are avoiding vaccinations as of now. The supervisor keeps looking for opportunities to cut our wages anyway,” explained Rajkumar.

Rajkumar works for eight hours a day, 26 days a month. He receives his payment of about Rs 17,000 per month in his bank account. However, he is immediately required to pay the contractor Rs 8,000 in cash, which leaves him with about Rs 9,000 to sustain his family and himself through the month.

The contractor denies Rajkumar and other workers the Rs 50 a day they are required to get for snacks and refreshments. While the law says that if Rajkumar and his colleagues work on national holidays they are entitled to receive double wages, the sanitation workers at the company have never seen this extra money come their way. The contractor keeps it.

“We have been given a mere verbal assurance from the contractor that we have health insurance, with no written documents as evidence of it on the reasoning that the staff are not required to be given any relevant documents from the company,” Rajkumar said.

But the sanitation workers cannot complain for fear of losing their jobs. When Rajkumar met with the sprayer pipe accident in April 2020, he went to work the very next day in case he lost his job.

Also read: A Year into Pandemic, Chennai’s Sanitation Workers Still Don’t Have the Right Gear

Municipal improvement

Chas Municipal Corporation, which had received a reward of Rs 60 lakh for achieving a high rank in 2016’s Swachh Survekshan (cleanliness survey), has more than 280 sanitation workers, of whom 15 are women who earn daily wages.

With the coming of the second wave of the pandemic, the working conditions of the municipal workers have reportedly become better. “We have access to both surgical and double-layered cotton masks, gloves, head caps and gumboots and almost all of us have received both doses of the vaccine,” said sanitation worker Manohar Ram. “We are aware of our importance and that we have to protect ourselves and others as we work responsibly at the frontline. That’s our duty.”

Last year, according to the workers, no formal training or instructions on personal protection had been provided to them until the months of September-October 2020. That was when they finally received the training through the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation. However, some workers reported not receiving the notice, not attending the sessions or not knowing about the training sessions at all.

“A list was made of some workers who were to receive the training for 10 days,” said Manohar Ram, who works as a sweeper with the municipality. For the rest of them, television and hearsay remained the primary source of information. They reported the inconsistent availability of protective gear such as masks, gloves and sanitisers across the five zones of the municipality during the first wave.

“What wrong have we done to receive such treatment?” asked Amit Ram, a sanitation worker at the municipality. “We carried out all our duties responsibly during the first wave, but were never even offered a glass of water or a single rupee or a reward for being ‘corona warriors’. We worked through all the lockdowns and the peak months of spread despite our fears of being infected and infecting our family members.”

No one from the municipality cared to learn about the sanitation workers’ working conditions and the availability of food at their homes during the lockdowns, said Amit. They went to work fearing contagion, unable to stay home because abstaining from work could result in the loss of their jobs.

“We somehow protected ourselves while working during the pandemic,” said Sunita, who worked as a road sweeper for five years but had to quit in September 2020 due to the insufficient and irregular pay from the municipality.

“How will I run my house or eat if I get my salary once in two or three months?” she asked. The municipality provided her with surgical masks a few times, but no gloves or sanitisers. She feared infection because she knew she could spread it to her family.

On February 3, before the first wave of the pandemic ended, Meghnath Chaudhary, city manager at the municipality, the Chas Municipal Corporation told me: “The municipality had COVID test camps set up for workers and provided those who are working in containment zones with proper PPE kits.”

Vikash Ranjan, the city manager of the Chas municipality’s revenue department, added: “All the workers except for a few who were either sick or on medication have been vaccinated. The ones who are yet to be vaccinated have been asked to go to our zonal office at Chas Nagar Nigam or the Atal Mohalla clinics where vaccinations are carried out regularly. We keep track of the vaccinations being provided to the remaining workers as it is our responsibility to ensure that each one of them receives their complete dose.”

Ranjan said he received his own first dose of the vaccine in front of some workers to encourage them to get over their vaccine hesitancy.

Entrance to the Chas Municipal Corporation. Photo: Author provided

Salaries and security

The municipal sanitation workers earn a gross income of between Rs 6,000 and Rs 8,000 for working seven hours a day, 26 days a month. This meagre salary, they claim, is sometimes delayed.

“The municipality makes sure to cut our pay if we skip a day of work, but can’t maintain the surety of paying us our monthly salaries on a fixed day every month,” said Gopal who works as a sanitation worker with the Chas municipality.

Several workers I spoke with reported that there is no specific date for the payment of their salaries. Usually it’s sometime in the last week of every month. But at times they receive their payment a month later, they said.

However, the officials at the municipality denied these claims. City manager Meghnath Choudhary, who is also responsible for solid waste management-related work, said, “The sanitation workers above all the other daily wage workers are paid every month without any delay.”

According to Chaudhary, this year, the sanitation workers who had been serving the municipality for more than a decade without an Employees’ State Insurance card or an Employees’ Provident Fund account, have finally been equipped with both the facilities, with all the backlogs cleared. The workers at the municipality agree that the system is now better than before. But their major dissatisfaction with the wages and the untimely receipt of payments remains.

Dharam Valmiki, the Jharkhand convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, pointed out some of the pressing issues the sanitation workers have to deal with.

“They keep the country clean but their own communities are marred with endless problems,” Valmiki said. Many of the workers do not even have the caste certificates that would enable them to avail facilities meant for them, he said.

“When there are people who somehow study and apply for a job, they are unable to avail reservation facilities as they don’t have the caste certificates,” he said. The Jharkhand government, he added, has no interest in these issues.

It is challenging for people from the ‘lower’ castes to earn their livelihood from tasks unrelated to sanitation. At best they can work as daily wage labourers at construction sites if that pays more. A majority of the sanitation workers in Chas municipality belong to the Kalindi and Dom communities, both of which have a long history and several contemporary events of being treated as ‘untouchables’.

“Some people berate me and my work due to my caste but what can I even do about it other than accept my caste identity as it is?” asked Krishna, a sanitation worker with the Chas municipality.

Krishna hails from the Kalindi tribe, a marginalised caste with little to no social capital, and often faces caste-based harassment and exclusion. The sanitation workers are sometimes asked by building residents to pick up the garbage from their homes but are usually also asked to not enter their residences.

Due to the abysmally low wages at the municipality, many of the sanitation workers residing in Kartik Nagar in Bokaro have had to perform the hazardous task of climbing into sewers and septic tanks to perform the act of manual scavenging for pay ranging from Rs 7,000 to Rs 10,000. As a teenager, Krishna once earned Rs 10,000 to enter the sewers, having first, like all the manual scavengers, consumed a type of alcohol to carry him through this dangerous and unsanitary act.

At the entrance of Kartik Nagar. Photo: author provided

At present, the practice of manual scavenging is less commonly performed by the locals than it was two decades ago due to increasing fears of death and skin infections. Additionally, there are new methods employed to carry out the same task.

However, a few of the locals, irrespective of whether or not they are employed, are compelled to clean septic tanks by climbing into them if money is required to support their families better or repay loans. Krishna asserted that prioritising the welfare of their bodies would result in starvation for their kids. He himself has a debt of around Rs 70,000 to repay. There is no one in the locality who hasn’t taken a loan at any given time, he said.

Kartik Nagar. Photo: author provided

“Who does not want to speak highly of their country?” asked Krishna. “We live in India so we speak highly of it no matter how bad it actually may be. I doubt the intent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi every time he speaks about honouring sanitation workers. I want to ask him, ‘Where has that honour gone missing today?’”

The practice of manual scavenging was banned in 1993, but Anup Kumar Agrawal, a Human Rights Law Network lawyer from Ranchi, pointed out that laws tend to be poorly implemented when apathetic people are appointed to posts.

“Formulation of laws isn’t enough when no responsible people are appointed to implement the laws,” Agrawal said. “Even when people are appointed, they do not work properly.”

A vicious circle

For Dharam Valmiki, one of the worst aspects of the caste issue is the unfairness of it all.

“The whole country creates waste, so why should only we be the cleaners just because we are born in certain communities?” he said. “We too can become doctors and engineers despite severe obstructions, but we don’t even have caste certificates to allow us to apply for employment other than sanitation. As a result, we are compelled to climb inside septic tanks even after getting an education.”

Socially and institutionally trapped in the vicious circle of caste-based occupation and discrimination, with low earnings leading to their further exclusion from attaining education or any other progressive pathway, being glorified as ‘corona warriors’ is meaningless to the sanitation workers.

Valmiki reiterated: “The sanitation workers have been praised as corona warriors, but left to their own fate.”

Names of the workers have been changed to protect their identity.

This story was reported under the National Foundation for India fellowship for independent journalists.