Skip to main content

Whither safety gear for frontline cleaners? 'Caste-based' discrimination amidst Covid-19

By Sanghmitra S Acharya*
In this ‘war’ against Covid-19 a lot has been said about the ‘frontline workers -- the doctors, nurses, policemen, bankers, journalists. In the first place it would not have become a ‘war’ had the machinery for governance been a bit vigilant and considerate about the World Health Organization (WHO) announcement that the Covid-19 is a public health emergency and the governments need to gear up their resources especially PPE, way back on 30 Jan 2020- when India reported its first case.
Most countries including ours did not pay any heed to the WHO warning. In our case, we were busy entertaining foreign dignitaries and with the sub-regional elections. By the time we were done with the two, the ‘war’ had waged itself. And the frontline workers were transformed into ‘warriors’, albeit without the ‘armaments’.
The personal protection equipment (PPE) were requested based on the meeting of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare held on March 18, 2020, acknowledging the shortage. India received 6,50,000 coronavirus testing kits from China; and other medical equipment from the US, the UK, South Korea and France in view of rising cases of the infection. All this in the backdrop of ‘atmanirbharta abhiyan’!
In this ‘armament less war’, the most neglected frontline workers have been the cleaners. From hospice to public spaces, domestic dwellings, offices and institutions, as ‘essential services providers’, they continued working without PPE. That is nothing new for them. Despite the need of their vocation, provisioning of protective gear has been far from real for them even before the pandemic forced the voices for the PPE be heard.
The concern for their condition was tabled way back in 1949 through Scavengers' Living Conditions Enquiry Committee headed by BN Barve. Nothing much happened till 1960 when Report of the Scavenging Conditions Enquiry Committee headed by NR Malkani reiterated their appalling conditions.
Another committee, again headed by NR Malkani, on Customary Rights to Scavengers in 1969; and in the same year Committee on Conditions of Sweepers and Scavengers headed by BP Pandya were constituted. In 1994 the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis came into existence and has been responsible for executing many recommendations of the earlier committees. But much still remains to be done. Especially in the light of the Covid-19.
The cleaners provide an essential public service we all rely on. But it comes at the cost of their health, safety and dignity. They are mostly employed by the railways, urban local bodies and institutions of all kinds, both public and private. The typology based on their work can be as follows:
  • Surface cleaners
  • Waste collector 
  • Cleaners for emptying toilets and transporting faecal waste 
  • Cleaners for pits and septic tanks; entering manholes and sewers 
  • Cleaners working at sewage treatment plants 
  • Cleaners of public/institutional toilets 
  • Hospice cleaners of bedpan, body fluids and biomedical waste 
Their jobs are mostly in informal economy without basic labour protections or rights, making them the most vulnerable workers. They are the backbone of the waste management system of the country. Yet, despite providing an essential public health service to residential colonies, hospitals, and commercial establishments, most work without safety gear, have no social security, face rampant discrimination, but still keep our cities clean.
They remain invisible, unquantified, neglected and ostracized – facing conditions that expose them to debilitating infections, injuries, social stigma and even death from toxic gases and pit collapses. Now, they are also at risk of exposure to Covid-19 from handling unmarked medical and contaminated waste. Those in the hospices, have been exposed to as much viral load as other frontline workers.
They remain invisible, neglected, ostracized, face conditions that expose them to debilitating infections, injuries, social stigma, even death
But safety gears for them had a lower priority in the light of shortage. These are systemic problems which emanate from the caste based society which relegates the cleaning occupations to specific caste groups positioned at the lower levels of social strata. Their historical deprivation has marginalized them allowing poor propensity.
Inevitably, this has become the justification of their continuance of working with minimal support if any. While about half of them do not possess any protective gears, very few of them are able to use them, because they do not fit well and are heavy.
A petition was filed by the Municipal Safai Kamgar and the Delhi Commission for Safai Karamchari on May 8, 2020, pointing that the cleaners were exposed to hazardous material and gases, were using handkerchiefs as masks, and torn gloves in the absence of safety gears as per the WHO guidelines; and were not even paid their wages for the last two months.
The Delhi Municipal Authority and the Delhi Government Health Department categorically stated that the WHO guidelines to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic were strictly followed to ensure protection of the cleaners. But their exposure to Covid-19 continues. Some of them have contracted the infection exposing their families and communities to the disease.
While two lakh PPE kits and two lakh N-95 masks are being manufactured in India daily, but none seem to be for the cleaners who are at the highest risk of Covid-19 infection as they clean gutters and sewers and collect household garbage. Across the country, cleaners have succumbed to the infection. 
In Delhi alone, a woman employee of East Delhi Municipal Corporation, a male of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, and another at Delhi Jal Board’s sewerage treatment plant at Okhla, have succumbed to the Covid-19 in last one month. While Rs 5,000 were announced for the construction workers, cleaners were overlooked. They too are losing jobs and need to be supported.
Cleaning jobs, it must be recognized, are embedded in caste which is rooted in Indian psyche. The nation has not been able to rid itself of considering ‘cleaning’ as polluting. Those who actually are the environment crusaders, are considered ‘unclean’. We need to revisit our perceptions of these people whose contribution towards the upkeep of the surrounding environment is second to none.
The West may be generating more garbage than us but they treat their cleaners with dignity. Their cleaning brigade does not need to be freed from dehumanizing, obnoxious, abhorrent and disgusting practice of caste-based discrimination. They are as much human as the others and therefore the state also cares to provide them with safety equipment. By any standards of measurements, there are more accidents and deaths which have occurred in India among safai karamcharis while at work than anywhere else in the world
Their risk of exposure to health hazards due to Covid-19 has increased manifolds given this predisposition and the shortage of the PPEs. They continue scavenging the mounds of filth at the dumping grounds, collecting and transporting waste -- of all kinds, from domestic and public spaces, offices and hospices- without any masks or gloves, as the bare minimum PPEs.
For years men have used ‘gamchha’; and women the ‘pallav’ of their saris or dupattas as mask. The worst condition is of those who clean septic tanks and sewers. Their frequent deaths is a testimony of their precarious condition. 
Therefore, cleaners’ rights need to be recognized and supported; their working conditions improved to safeguard health and ensure decent working conditions, as aimed in the SDGs 6 and 8; and much needed in the light of Covid-19.
---
*Professor, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India; former director, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, New Delhi (2015-18). Click here for profile

Comments

TRENDING

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Examples of support to Hindu temples, scriptures, saints by 'Muslim' rulers galore

Siya Ram coin issued by Akbar By Bharat Dogra* At a time when the country as well as the world are passing through very difficult times leading to more urgent need for strengthening national unity for meeting several big challenges ahead, unfortunately disputes relating to religious places have been allowed to raise their ugly head once again. It is well-realized by now by many people that it is not historical facts but narrow considerations of political gain and spreading of fanatic ideas of intolerance which are behind such mischief, but due to the increasing threat of mob violence and patronage available at higher levels to groups spreading intolerance many people are reluctant to openly and fearlessly express their views. Hence there is urgent need for broad-based peace committees with wider social support to spread the message of communal harmony and to appeal against the dangers of spreading false messages regarding places of worship which can ultimate

Gyanvapi case: Use of 'illegal' lawfare to keep the communal pot simmering

By Venkatesh Narayanan, Bobby Ramakant, Manoj Sarang* With a steady drumbeat of bad news for the lives of ordinary citizens --  inflation at a multi-year high , rupee at an all-time low , negative job creation and when all forward indicators as seen by industry leaders point to recessionary clouds on the horizon , what’s a serially-incompetent government to do?  Dust out their time-tested-citizen-distraction playbook. The Gyanvapi-Masjid case is all of this -- as a weapon of mass distraction. This zeitgeist of our times is best captured by a recent opinion piece : "The idea is to keep the pot on a perpetual boil, simmering at the top, whirling feverishly beneath. A restless society forever living precariously on the precipice arouses distrst, uneasiness, fear and discomfort, That is a toxic panoply for manufacturing rage, which can then be effortlessly mobilized at short notice. BJP is creating an eco-system of real-time instant delivery of hate-mongers. That is how we are sudde

Targeting mosques, churches: 'Roadmap' for 2025, RSS' centenary year?

416 years old Our Lady of Health Church, Sancoale, Goa  By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ*  Fascists use manipulative strategies aimed at whipping up sympathy and support from the majority community, to which they normally ‘belong’. They do so in a variety of insidious and subtle ways. In the past few months, they have gone overboard in their efforts to denigrate and demonize minorities in India, particularly Muslims and Christians. They have spewed hate and divisiveness through their venomous speeches; incited people to violence and have effectively used officialdom to further their vested interests. The results are there for all to see: greater polarisation of the majority community in a country which prided itself for its pluralism and diversity. Their meticulously planned agenda is in order to gain absolute power of the country in the 2024 national elections. More so it is also a roadmap towards 2025 when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) will complete one hundred years of its existence.

This varsity succumbed to extra-academic mobocracy, 'ignored' Hindutva archives

By Shamsul Islam* Open letter to Sharda University vice-chancellor Sub: Discarding a Question on Linkages of Hindutva with Nazism/Fascism is blatant Academic Dishonesty! Dear Professor Sibaram Khara Saheb, Namaskaar! According to your esteemed University’s portal: “The name of University, 'Sharda' is synonymous to 'Goddess of knowledge and learning-Saraswati'. She is identified with 'veena', an Indian musical instrument and the ‘lotus’, where she resides. The lotus in our logo symbolizes the seat of learning that the University is created for.  "Variety of colours signify the variety of disciplines the university offers and the overlap between petals creating new colours demonstrate the ethos of collaboration between students and teachers of different programme, nationality, creed and colour working towards creating new knowledge…the University's cherished mission to provide education beyond boundaries and to facilitate the students and faculty to achie

Whither climate goal? Increasing reliance on coal 'likely to worsen' India's power crisis

By Shankar Sharma*  Recent news articles, How to shock-proof India’s power sector and Power minister points finger at states for worsening electricity crisis , have highlighted a few current problems for the ongoing power sector issues as in April 2022. However, there is a lot more to it than a few temporary solutions as indicated in the articles. It should also be emphasised that it is techno-economically impossible to completely shock-proof a highly complex and geographically wide-spread vast power network, such as the one in India, which is only getting more and more complex with the passage of each year due to some irrational policies/ practices in the sector. A business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, wherein more and more of conventional technology power plants, including coal power plants, will be added in the near future, will also necessitate the increased complexity in the integrated national grid, and as a result the instances of power shortage/ disruptions can only escalate for

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

A former Modi ally, Prashant Kishor wanted to enter Congress 'on contract, as trader'

By Anand Sahay*  The Congress Party and the election campaigns specialist Prashant Kishor, whose company has done strategic communications for a host of political parties across ideology, should both count themselves lucky that they could not reach an agreement for Kishor to join the party. News reports suggest that the Congress rejected Kishor’s terms. This is not wholly unexpected. People join a party because they are attracted to it, and wish to serve it in any capacity that the party may see fit. But that isn’t Kishor at all. He gave the impression of entering into a contract, as a trader might. If news reports are to be believed, he sought freedom to report directly to party chief Sonia Gandhi, and sought untrammeled control over party communications. When such ideas did not find favour, the consultant withdrew. It is clear he has no particular love for the Congress, and its ideas, ideology and politics. In contrast, look at the key personae in G-23. They

Dalit scholar's comment on Lord Shiva 'harming' Muslims, 'damaging' secular cause

Shahid Siddiqui, Bobby Naqvi By Our Representative   Bobby Naqvi, who is with the "Gulf News", and is a well-known name among Muslim intellectuals, strongly objecting to the social media post of Prof Ratan Lal, has said that "a big reason for majoritarian hatred against Muslims is irresponsible remarks by people like Prof Ratan Lal of Delhi University." In a Facebook comment , which has attracted paise, among others, from journaliat-politician Shahid Siddiqui, Naqvi said, "Their commentary on Hinduism and icons of Hinduism (while angering religious and liberal Hindus alike) also triggers a massive backlash against Muslims. When the likes of Prof Lal criticize Hinduism on social media, Hindus bring Islam and Islamic practices and ask 'what about this' or 'what about that'." Naqvi insists, "Muslims (without their fault) and Islam get caught in this crossfire between the so called Hindu liberal class and the religious Hindus. And the ult

Haven't done a good deed, inner soul is cursing me as sinner: Aurangzeb's last 'will'

Counterview Desk The Tomb of Aurangzeb, the last of the strong Mughal emperors, located in Khuldabad, Aurangabad district, Maharashtra, has this epitaph inscribed on it: "Az tila o nuqreh gar saazand gumbad aghniyaa! Bar mazaar e maa ghareebaan gumbad e gardun bas ast" (the rich may well construct domes of gold and silver on their graves. For the poor folks like me, the sky is enough to shelter my grave).