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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

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