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

Lack of protective gear makes sanitation work difficult during normal times. During a pandemic, these factors make them far more susceptible to the virus.

A sanitation worker who was assigned to work in Dharavi recently tested positive for the novel coronavirus. He, inadvertently ended up passing it on to his wife who died on April 12. Like most other urban poor families in metropolitans like Mumbai, his family did not have adequate residential space that allowed for physical and social distancing.

This case has raised concerns around the lives of the sanitation workers during the pandemic. And the “social distance” of class and caste has ensured that these concerns do not linger for long. Sanitation workers come under the essential services category. The government seems to have hung a death warrant around the necks of sanitation workers by sending them to the frontlines to fight the coronavirus.

Ministry of Health and Family Welfare issued a directive saying that sanitation workers in hospitals and other places should be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE’s). But the question remains: how far are these directives being followed?

In Madhya Pradesh’s Panna district, a local activist on March 9, asked the District Collectorate office to provide protective gears to the sanitation workers, on an urgent basis given the current pandemic.

After a few days, he received a call from the Collectorate office informing him that the state of Madhya Pradesh currently did not have an “Urban Development and Housing Minister” and therefore, the state government was not sending any money across for the procurement of protective equipment. Just as sewer deaths have proven time and again, the pandemic has not managed to nudge the apathy of political leaders and administrations.

Sunil Yadav, a sanitation worker and a PhD fellow from TISS, said, “Everyday sanitation workers get exposed to deadly trash but no special training or guidance is provided to them on how to handle trash.” According to the New England Journal of Medicine study, the coronavirus can survive on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours, and on cardboard for up to 24 hours. Nobody knows what kind of waste material is disposed off in dustbins and trash bags.

Also read: COVID-19: 10 Ways We Can Minimise Health and Safety Risks for Sanitation Workers

In India, trash is not segregated – everything is mixed and put in one bag. Many a time, sanitation workers encounter sanitary pads, expired medicines and broken glasses in trash bags. Lack of protective gear makes sanitation work difficult during normal times. During a pandemic, these factors make them far more susceptible to the virus.

A local activist from Panna district of MP said, “Our people are facing the coronavirus pandemic with courage, but there is always a fear in their minds: what if I get infected with the coronavirus? Who will take care of my family and children? Who will feed them?”

So, despite being at the frontlines, sanitation workers are still at the bottom of our priorities. A few days back, the Delhi chief minister’s office tweeted, “Doctors are on the frontlines of the battle against coronavirus. All doctors serving in Delhi government’s Lok Nayak Hospital and GB Pant Hospital on COVID-19 duty will now be housed in Hotel Lalit.”

Similarly, the Uttar Pradesh government has taken over four five-star hotels – Hyatt Regency, Lemon Tree, The Piccadily and Fairfield by Marriott – to lodge doctors in. In Mumbai, Taj Hotel, Colaba and Taj Lands End, Bandra were opened for doctors and other health workers. But for corporates and political leaders, sanitation workers hardly ever count as frontline workers. It bears testament, yet again, as to how caste and class continue to shape our public policy, blinding it to the issues of some while focusing on others.

When I asked Sunil Yadav, who is an essential worker during the pandemic, what had changed for sanitation workers, he said, “Nothing, nobody cares. Here in Mumbai, sanitation workers travel three to four hours to reach their working place, nobody arranged transportation for us as they did for the doctors and other medical staff.”

Renudevi used to work as a maid before the lockdown in Dehri, Bihar. Her husband works as a sanitation worker in a hospital and earns Rs 7,500 per month. Every day, her husband carries an extra pair of clothes to wear at the hospital. The hospital administration requires him to work, but without proper protection gears.

A legacy of exclusion

Poverty makes Dalits more vulnerable and helpless during such times of sustained lockdowns. Shivshankar is a father of five daughters and two sons. He used to work at a hotel in Dhanbad as a cleaner. His wife Rekha is also a cleaner working in the houses of upper-caste Hindu and rich Muslim families. His elder son Virkumar also works as a sanitation worker on contract. They earn Rs 7,000, Rs 3,000 and Rs 5,000 per month respectively. But since the lockdown, they have all been left without a job. Shivshankar doesn’t have money and the PDS ration is far from enough for his family.

Also read: The Murky Underbelly of Sanitation During the Pandemic

The problem faced by sanitation workers like Shivshankar are in the worst condition during this lockdown compared to those working for government institutions as the latter at least have work. He added, “Jab sab theek tha tab to kuchh mila nahi, ab kya milega? Ab to sarkar se koi ummeed nahi rakhte hai (During normal days we received nothing. So, what can we expect now. We have no hope from the government)”.

When asked why Yadav didn’t take any help from his employer, he said, “I can’t ask my employer to provide me with food or give me a salary in an advance. I know them personally. Nobody will help me because I am a Basfor.” Basfor is a sub-caste that is considered even lower than the Valmikis in the Brahminical order of caste.

Caste and coronavirus

The novel coronavirus is detrimental to the human race but the unplanned lockdown is detrimental for poor families. And as it happens, both are disproportionately affecting Dalits.

Sanitation workers today need Personal Protection Equipment (PPEs), minimum wages, food, insurance, accommodation and transportation like other health workers, mechanisation of the work and solidarity. But instead, most are satisfied with just the clanging of empty vessels as if to celebrate our collective failure.

The caste system continues to “reserve” sewer and sanitation work for Dalits be it is Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation or Nagar Parishad Dehri or the private sector. For instance, around 30,000 sanitation workers are employed by the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation and all 30,000 are Dalits. Estimates say that 40-60% of the six million households of Dalit sub-castes are engaged in sanitation work.

The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Rules, 2013, (under section 4 and 5 of the rules) mandates that the person getting the job done must provide workers with ‘protective gear’. Despite the efforts of many organisations, unions, and activists, the government is not following the mandated law.

The casteist apathy continues and has, in fact, been amplified in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. When municipal workers expressed the need for sanitisers, given the nature of their work in the national capital, they were provided with fluorescent jackets so that they can be identified as ‘essential’ workers from a distance. Sooner or later scientists will develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, but as a society, we are far from confronting the viral casteism that continues to determine the fate of millions over generations.

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

Sab log corona ke dar se ghar me hai, hum to yaha pe usise ladh rahe hai firbhi humari koi kadar nahi hai (Everybody is at home because of coronavirus, but we are here fighting it. Even then, there is no appreciation)”, said Radharani, a sanitation worker at Panna, MP. Much like Ambedkar lamented in front of Gandhi decades back, it is for us to ponder if Radharani has a homeland – one that cares?

Hundreds of crores were spent to welcome the US President in February but the government is unable to provide proper protective gears to sanitation workers during this pandemic because in India the cheapest product is the life of a Dalit.

Sagar Kumbhare is a researcher at the Centre for Equity Studies.