Extending a hand
As we go about our everyday lives in today's extraordinary times, some of us stop and reflect upon the ones who allow us to continue onward with relative normalcy, those who stand on the frontlines of our fight against COVID-19 and those who guard us against foreign trespasses at our borders. That our doctors and our soldiers are heroes, there is little doubt. But there are others that do not find frequent (or any) mention in our daily prayers and sermons for gratitude. And of these obscure frontline warriors, there are none more forgotten than sanitation workers, in many cases, truly the 'last man in the line'. India has a troubled and contentious relationship with its sanitation workers. There are age-old, undying stigmas attached to the work and those engaged in it are typically from historically disadvantaged classes.
Even before the current period of crisis, sanitation work was seen in India as a dangerous, dirty, poorly compensated and thankless job. Take for instance information given by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, which reveals that 282 sanitation workers died cleaning sewers and septic tanks across the nation between 2016 and November 2019. 2019 alone saw 110 deaths due to manual scavenging, a 61 per cent increase over figures in 2018. Almost every one of these deaths could have been prevented with the provision of proper equipment and safety standards. It is important to remember that these are official figures based on reported incidents, there is no real way to tell what the actual figure is in this regard. Also worth noting is that the 'Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013' was supposed to have put an end to this practice and yet, in 2019, a survey identified 54,000 manual scavengers working across the nation. This data is based on a limited survey with data from 11 states not being available.
Moving forward to 2020, another front has been opened up for discrimination and disadvantages for our already beleaguered health workers. During COVID-19 times, sanitation workers have largely been ignored by the Government as it focuses its zeal in protecting the frontline responders — our doctors and other medical staff. How protected and cared for the medical staff truly are is a matter for a separate debate but it is obvious to see that while medical staff have reported shortages in necessary protective equipment, our sanitation workers have received none to speak of. Sanitation work in India is a crude, rudimentary business with waste being separated by hand, a task that already carries considerable danger. Now, as a contagion runs rampant, it is a positively terrifying one. Even those handling hospital wastes are rarely given any feasible protective equipment to speak of, let alone PPEs.
Compounding this problem is the fact that sanitation workers, after a few years at the job, are hardly the picture of good health, with respiratory diseases and heavily compromised immunity systems making them an ideal target for the contagion. For most of them, it is impractical to even assure a steady supply of hand sanitizers, soap and clean water.
For its part, the Government has claimed that it is providing proper protective equipment to sanitation workers as per WHO guidelines. But a number of interviews and surveys conducted reveal that the quality of such protective equipment, if and when it is provided, is largely substandard and untenable. As a result, many have been infected and have inadvertently played a part in spreading the virus to family and neighbours in locales where social distancing is near impossible.
The problem, or rather the bigger one amongst many problems, is that sanitation workers are isolated within their own group, powerless and largely unaware of what they deserve. There are no sanitation worker unions to speak of that can look after their rights, they have no contracts, no stable pay and no leaves. They are marginalised in every way possible and have little opportunity or knowledge to seek recourse and fight for the injustice. It is the job of society itself as much as it is the job of the governing apparatus to uplift our sanitation workers, to give them the care and respect they truly deserve for keeping us safe and secure. And simple wishes and prayers will do them no good. Luckily, there are those trying to bring the required change. In April this year, a group of prominent public figures and concerned citizens wrote an open letter to the Central and state governments asking for immediate measures to provide relief for India's sanitation workers. The measures they suggested include reclassifying sanitation workers as healthcare workers, mechanising much of their work, ensuring a minimum monthly wage of Rs 20,000 with additional hazard pay, a pension and health insurance benefits. While many of these measures are hard to put into practice with any reasonable haste, they highlight a path for us a nation to finally take heed and care for the 'last man in the line', those equally deserving the title of COVID Warriors.