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It is to be seen that around many parts of the country, sanitation workers without masks or gloves have been specially assigned to disinfect and sanitize the outsides of homes of known coronavirus patients. Just as doctors and nurses are the frontline workers in this pandemic, the sanitation community, too, has the dangerous task of washing out the virus.

Talking about who sanitation workers are, they are the reason why a state manages to have a better drainage system, why the trash does not get accumulated by the day outside your door, reason behind how the pot holes are cleaned after heavy rains in the city. They are those who work in any part of the sanitation chain. They ensure that our contact with human waste ends when we leave the toilet, one of the most important jobs in society, and yet they remain mostly unseen and unappreciated who are left alone, festering diseases and sickness.

The ongoing COVID survey shows that out of the 366 workers interviewed only 33.06% were given hand gloves and masks, 2.73% were given hand gloves and mask with other safety equipment and the majority that is 64.20%, were not given any safety equipment.

The disparaged caste system in India remains to be the key determinant of the fate of these workers. In consequence people, families and communities mainly ‘The Dalits’ are forced to perform these tasks which are not just hazardous and stigmatising but as the research states they are highly underpaid without proper health insurance given. Many workers most likely do not have fixed wages and are often victims of extortion. Some workers report getting paid in leftover or basic food items, it said, adding that those “perceived” to be of a lower caste suffer discrimination in healthcare, education, employment, access to land, employment and wages. 

This not only makes their personalities confined to as sanitation workers they are involved in, but also forced them to agree upon the burden of stigma and exploitation as a social norms.

In 2013 The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation (PEMSR) Act came into force. The law prohibits employing manual scavengers, manual cleaning of sewers and septic tanks without protective equipment and construction of insanitary latrines. In contrast to what the law states, The Indian government’s track record of imposing penalties upon those who perpetuate manual scavenging is extremely poor. In fact according to National Advisory Council, “almost no one has been punished under this law”. We still see manual scavengers clean the sewer system, wash the public bathrooms without utmost safety required.

Women like Mukeshdevi, 42, from Bhagwatpura, Uttar Pradesh cleans toilets with her bare hands and disposes it all in the open drain. She attends to around 10 houses, either daily or on alternate days.  Due to constant exposure to dust and dirt, women manual scavengers in Amanganj, Patna often complain of asthma and malaria but do not have access to any medical assistance. Sanitation workers like Deepak and Prabhu from the South of India believe that putting on the boots and the gloves scare the public as they assume that the waste they carry in the truck is dangerous. They also critique  that the boots and gloves present in the market are not designed for the kind of job they do, which is mechanical (that is, truck-and-hose) sludge removal.

While sanitation workers already face several health and safety risks, financial challenges and stigma due to the nature of their work and caste-based discrimination, the COVID-19 pandemic has further added to their challenges and vulnerabilities.

Following to the large percentage of workers who do not have health insurance amidst the pandemic, sources also state the fact that various levels of governments are not even counting them. We do not have reliable statistics of people who are engaged in this kind of work. This problem cannot be addressed without having a detailed understanding of the depth and width of this labour force. The actual number of deaths of sanitation workers is as much a mystery as the data on number of people engaged in sanitation work or manual scavenging.  In July 2019, National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) revealed that at least 5012 sanitation workers have died cleaning sewers in the first six months of 2019 alone.

In 2018, the Government of India introduced standard operating procedure (SOP) for cleaning of sewers and septic tanks, with clear directives for the urban local bodies for engaging sanitation workers. In 2019, emergency response sanitation units (ERSU) that mandates systems for planning and immediate responses for specific emergencies supplemented this.

While these are important initiatives, the country needs more in-depth and sincere approaches for addressing this complex issue. Apart from introducing programmes which are yet to be seen making changes for the betterment, government shall start to have a correct numbered data of sanitation workers around India. This particularly should help not to increase the existing high range number of workers already. Ensure social security provisions like pensions for ensuring a regular guaranteed income for the sanitation workers, especially manual scavengers and install technology-centred alternatives to reduce the risks associated with sanitation work, including provisions for supporting existing sanitation workers. Moreover creating a consciousness around something like this where public shall ought to be aware of the rights sanitation workers hold. 

A large number of our sanitation workers come from the lower background of India or from the lower caste, As dignified citizens of a democratic nation, we do not hold any right on the way they have to be treated. Caste has always been a tradition that India has followed in every fragment of its development. But this particular development has forgotten to treat the unsung heroes with great respect, care and dignity that they hold and deserve. Is the ancient tradition of caste in India, still overpowering the sense of humanity one holds within them?





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K Semanthika

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