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

The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis chairperson has said that coupled with absence of Central data, state governments too have not even bothered to reply to the panel's notices for data.

New Delhi: Even with a recent data study showing that over half of the COVID-19 deaths among employees of the three municipal corporations of Delhi were among safai karamcharis, there is still no nationwide record of similar data. Nor is there uniform insurance or compensation schemes for sanitation workers who have been at the frontline of the fight against the pandemic.

Talking to The Wire, Chairperson of National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, M. Venkatesan, said despite the high number of deaths among safai karamcharis due to COVID-19, the states have not come up with a uniform policy for the welfare of these workers.

“We have been speaking to all the states to protect the lives of the safai karamcharis. This is with respect to both their work during COVID-19 and manual scavenging. We have asked for details from all the states on the schemes for their welfare. But so far no state has provided any details,” Venkatesan said.

Venkatesan added that since the Commission is a non-statutory body, it is limited in scope. “Every year we ask the states for reports. Since the start of COVID-19, we have written to all states on two occasions. The problem is being a Commission we cannot even approach the Supreme Court to assist us in getting a feedback or response from the states.”

The state governments, he said, provide details on manual scavenging and other issues to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment as the finance and development corporations under the ministry also provide development funds to the states.

Also read: Sanitation Workers Holding the Fort Against COVID-19 Have No Protective Equipment

“But COVID-19-related details have not been coming to us from the ministry,” he said, adding that the Commission has asked state government to provide insurance cover for all sanitation workers.

‘At least Rs 25 lakh compensation’

Now, Venkatesan said, the Commission was pushing individual state governments to at least provide Rs 25 lakh compensation to families of safai karamcharis for deaths due to COVID-19. “We recently wrote to Tamil Nadu chief minister in this regard,” he pointed out.

Tamil Nadu is one of those states which have witnessed a number of deaths among sanitation workers due to COVID-19. In July last year, there were reports that six Chennai sanitation workers had succumbed to the novel coronavirus.

It was also pointed out that since these deaths were not recorded as COVID-19 deaths, the families of the deceased were not eligible for the Rs 50 lakh compensation and job for an immediate family member which the Chennai corporation had announced for COVID-19-related deaths.

Though the Madras Corporation Red Flag Union urged compensation for them saying they had “contracted the infection during the work”, and the hospital details of these patients showed that they tested positive for the coronavirus while they were on duty, as per the reports they have not received any compensation.

Delhi municipal employees 

The recent revelation that a high percentage of municipal workers in Delhi, who died due to Covid-19, were sanitation workers has once again shown how vulnerable safai karamcharis remain.

The data provided by the three Municipal Corporations of Delhi revealed that sanitation workers comprised 16 of the 29 dead employees in South MCD, 25 of 49 in North MCD and 8 of 16 in East MCD. In all, 49 of the 94 municipal employees who died were sanitation workers.

Also read: Sanitation Workers: At the Bottom of the Frontline Against COVID-19?

Together, the three civic bodies employ around 50,000 sanitation workers, who include both permanent and temporary employees.

Incidentally, the number of deaths among safai karamcharis was found to be much high than even healthcare workers – 13 of whom lost their lives due to COVID-19 during the same period.


In Delhi, too, compensation for deceased safai karamcharis remains a political issue.

East Delhi Mayor Nirmal Jain, who belongs to BJP, said, “Every sanitation worker should be given Rs 1 crore compensation in a week and permanent jobs should be provided to their dependents”. But, added that the Delhi government under Aam Aadmi Party leader and chief minister Arvind Kejriwal would be approached in this regard.

The other corporations, also under BJP, are also raising a similar demand with the AAP government but the outcome of these moves remains uncertain.

There have been similar instances in other parts of the country where safai karamcharis have been dying due to COVID-19 and yet their families struggled to access the promised compensation. Earlier in May this year, a sanitation worker was a garbage collector died to COVID-19 in Shimla in Himachal Pradesh.

His death triggered a demand for payment of the Rs 50 lakh ex-gratia, that was promised to all frontline workers in the state, to his family. Former Mayor of Shimla, Sanjay Chauhan, was among those who raised the demand saying, “The city didn’t lose a sanitation worker but a COVID-19 warrior.”

‘Sanitation workers lack safety gear’

At the start of the pandemic in India, The Wire had reported on how it may impact the sanitation workers very adversely considering the hazardous conditions they work in. The report had pointed out how many of them were forced to work without proper protective equipment.

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

It quoted Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and National Convener of Safai Karamchari Aandolan (SKA),  Bezwada Wilson, as saying: “Right now, sanitation workers do not have any safety gear and the loss of their lives hardly matters to anyone.”

The report also had chief executive of WaterAid India, V.K. Madhavan, wondering “why the society doesn’t care about the people doing our most essential work”.

Over the past year, these words have proved true. While the working conditions of the sanitation workers have not improved much, the pandemic has only exposed them to greater hazards. From picking garbage from COVID-19-positive households to being tasked with the disposal of bodies of COVID-19 victims, sanitation workers have had to shoulder all kinds of responsibilities. A case in point being Chhattisgarh where some sanitation workers were employed in April this year to ferry bodies of COVID-19 victims in a garbage van.

‘No data on safai karamcharis with Union government’

The absence of data was acknowledged by Union Minister of State Ramdas Athawale in Parliament in September last year when in response to a question by MP Bhagwat Karad, he said: “Hospitals and dispensaries being a state subject, no data is maintained in the Union Government about Safai Karamchari, who have died due to health and safety hazards related [to] cleaning hospitals and medical waste during COVID-19 pandemic.”

On being asked about the measures taken to protect the health of sanitisation workers, Athawale said that the Ministry on Health and Family Welfare had provided guidelines on the rational use of PPEs and Infection Prevention and Control Practices.

He added that Infection Prevention and Control Committees were constituted in States to monitor the exposure status of healthcare workers. An advisory for managing health-related work in COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 areas of hospitals was also issued by the Ministry on June 18.