Scavengers, Sanitation workers: the unsung heroes of war against Corona Virus

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Sanitation workers on job. Photo courtesy Flickr
Sanitation workers on job. Photo courtesy Flickr

–Soroor Ahmed

Even on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti (April 14) hardly anyone sang paean highlighting the contributions of  Doms,  Mehtars, Mehatranis,  Valmikis etc, who form  the big bulk of  60.94 lakhs sanitation workers(2011 Census)–– the foot-soldiers involved in the war against Corona Virus pandemic. This also includes at least 20,500 manual scavengers, 90 per cent of them are said to be women.

While the doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other para-medic employees are being applauded for their works and the government is one way or the other fulfilling some of their demands, these most socially dis-empowered lot among the Dalits are virtually waging the battle with bare hands and hardly anything to cover their faces—barring ‘gamcha’ or ‘pallu’.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his televised address on April 14 made just a brief mention of the contributions of the sanitation workers.

In the initial days of lockdown some of the sanitation workers were showered with flower petals and garlanded in Patiala, Nabha, Gaya and a couple of other places in the country. Some state governments announced token measures to improve their lot. They were provided with masks in some big cities and towns. Even these masks are rendered useless after a day or two because they have to live in this condition throughout almost permanently and cannot afford to change them every day.    

Unlike doctors and para-medics, they are fighting the war not only in some hospitals designated to treat the COVID-19 patients but are working overtime in most adverse situation to keep the cities, towns and villages  all over the country clean.  

 There is no curfew or lockdown for them be it cleaning ditches, nullahs, underground sewages, toilets, parks, streets, government and private buildings and all other public places.  

Reports from some places suggest that they had to bore the brunt of policemen while they were going to perform their duties during the lockdown.

While our politicians, bureaucrats and pro-active anchors are repeatedly heard sermonising the people to remain indoor, wash hands as many times in the day they wish and cover the face with mask and use hand gloves when they go out for some very essential work, nobody is venturing to ask as to how many people would, God forbids, die when millions of Doms, Mehtars, Mehatranis or Valmikis strike work.

If the government agrees to the demands of doctors , nurses and other para-medics working in hospitals hardly anyone is bothered about the safety of a large number of those involved in removing garbage, cleaning septic tanks, assisting doctors in performing autopsies and taking bodies to cremation ground. Incidentally many of them work on contractual basis––what to speak about providing proper safety kits.

We have figure on the number of doctors and nurses affected by Corona Virus and those who have unfortunately succumbed to this disease the government is yet to come out with any data on as to how many Doms or Valmikis have lost their lives all over the country ever since COVID-19 first struck India on Jan 30.

Perhaps we do not consider their death worth counting.

In normal situation the death of sanitation workers in underground sewages after coming in contact with toxic gas largely goes unnoticed. Television channels have no time for them. Some newspapers, especially vernacular ones, may carry a brief story in their regional editions and that too in inside page.

After the invasion of Corona Virus in India they are more exposed to all sorts of poisonous gases and deadly diseases.  Yet we are not aware as to how many of them have lost their lives or fallen ill in the last couple of months.

True, their jobs have undergone a big change after the introduction of technology and ban on manual scavenging yet according to the government data there are 20,500 manual scavengers in India.

Notwithstanding the ban hundreds of manual scavengers have lost their lives in the five years period between 2013 and 2018.

The Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Ramdas Athawale, said in Feb 2019 that with 144 deaths, Tamil Nadu tops the list, to be followed by 71 in UP. He was replying to questions posed by Mullappally Ramachandran, Congress MP from Kerala.

However, according to National Commission for Safai Karamchari at least 50 people had died in the first six months of 2019 while cleaning sewage. But this data is only of eight states of the country. 

The government informed the Parliament early this year that in all 282 manual scavengers had lost their lives in India between 2016 and 2019. The other data says that one of them dies every five days. 

These figures are surely before the advent of the Corona Virus in India.

Activists working in this field are of the view that their deaths are grossly under-reported and even the government data may not tell the true story of the number of sanitation workers and manual scavengers losing their lives. The actual number of them may be much higher.

While the government and other agencies provide data of the sanitation workers losing their lives while performing duties what they miss to highlight is that their life span is much shorter and many of them, especially women, generally suffer from serious disease(s).

Be it Corona Virus or not, the sanitation workers and manual scavengers lose their lives not only while performing duties in hospitals but elsewhere too. Today the threat to their life has only increased manifold yet they are getting the least attention. The fact is that if doctors and nurses end their duties they return to their homes to spend comfortable time, the sanitation workers usually live in very unhygienic condition and are addicted to tobacco, bidis etc. There is little scope for nutritious food for them.

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(Soroor Ahmad is a senior journalist based in Patna. He is author of ‘The Jewish Obsession’. The views are personal.)

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