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Working 'unprotected' in hazardous conditions, heat wave doubles Safai Karmacharis' sufferings

By Bezwada Wilson* 

The unrelenting heatwave conditions in many parts of the country have gone on record as being the most severe ever in the country. Temperatures have reached close to 50°C in many parts of North and Nort West India, including the National Capital Region. 
This has been the longest spell of heatwave in India because it has been experienced for about 35 days in different parts of the country, according to Indian Meteorological Department. But some essential works -- like those of Safai Karmacharis, which is already hazardous in nature -- offer no protection from this brutal weather. 
An immediate intervention is needed in this regard to protect health and lives of Safai Karmacharis. Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) has written to 12 chief ministers of various states to take swift action for this.
As per news reports, already more than 300 people have died and more than 30,000 have suffered from heatstroke, across country. But the bitter fact is that most of the deaths or severe illness have happened either due to lack of proper shelter or very poor working conditions which exposed people to the extreme heat conditions. It has now become a common sight to see people faint and fell down unconscious even after a very short exposure to the sun. 
The hospitals have seen an alarming increase in incidents of severe headache, fevers, dehydrations- all typical symptoms of heatstroke.
However, the education and many other sectors has already factored in the extreme heat conditions and taken precautionary measures like reduced work hours or change in timings so as to limit the exposure to the heat. Colleges and schools have extended the summer holidays to reopen when the temperatures decrease to a more tolerable level.
But to a large dismay, the working conditions of Safai Karmacharis have always been substandard and in complete violation of the labour laws and policies of the country. The Safai Karmacharis clean public latrines, open drains, railway tracks, sewers and septic tanks in all seasons around the year, without any protective measures. 
The extreme heat conditions aggravates and exacerbates the already existing chronic health problems of the skin and respiratory system that the Safai Karamcharis are facing because of the inhumane occupation of manual scavenging and handling human excreta and waste with bare hands.
Already more persons have been killed in the sewer and septic tanks in the months of April and May this year than corresponding months
Extreme heat conditions also increase the dangers of the toxic gases in the sewer holes and septic tanks. But still the employers and contractors who employ the Safai Karmacharis are making them enter these toxic gas chambers without a break or any consideration of the dangerous conditions prevailing. 
Already more persons have been killed in the sewer and septic tanks in the months of April and May this year than corresponding months.
Compounding the problem, the exclusionary practice of discrimination and untouchability in the Indian social structure on the basis of caste, it is very difficult or nearly impossible for the Safai Karmacharis to access water or shelter either for drinking or washing during the working hours. The employers and offices do not make any provision for water or shade for the Safai Karmacharis and force them to work during the hottest part of the day. 
The Safai Karmacharis are not provided with any protective measures like sun hats, sun veils, water, gloves and footwear. The health of the Safai Karmacharis suffers a lot due to this. They have to bear skin rashes, sun burns, blisters, gastric issues, respiratory issues and severe dehydration.
Keeping this in mind, the Safai Karmachari Andolan has demanded that  state governments must issue an immediate notification on the following:
  • Work to be closed before 9.30 am
  • Plenty of water to be provided for both washing and drinking. Water breaks must be made mandatory once every half hour
  • All sun protective gear to be provided to the Safai Karmacharis
  • Additional renumeration which is at least 30% of their salary should be added to the salary to compensate for working during extreme weather conditions.
Considering that, heatwave forecast is still there for coming days, these steps should be taken at the earliest.
---
*National Convenor, Safai Karmchari Andolan

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