Fighting the COVID battle shoulder-to-shoulder with the doctors and nurses is an army of sanitation workers. Four million of the Safai Karmacharis are the backbone of India’s waste management system.
Even before the onset of the pandemic, they were the most vulnerable group suffering from poor and inconsistent pay, lack of insurance, bad health due to exposure to filth and noxious gases, and facing rampant caste discrimination (as most belong to the Dalit community). Despite laws, sanitation workers have always been neglected. The 2013 Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act mandates that they should be provided ‘protective gear’ yet they are cleaning hospitals, residential colonies, and commercials spaces without masks, gloves, boots, and protective gear. Part of the informal sector, they are employed by states and private citizens for doing the job no one else wants to stoop to. What they provide is “essential service”, but despite the efforts of Safai Karmachari unions and activists, the government does not follow the mandated law and do their bit to protect them.
The pandemic has doubled their vulnerability. They cannot stay away from work for that will mean a lack of income as most work as daily wagers. They don’t have transportation and have to walk hours to go to work. They don’t have access to PPEs. They are not even given proper instruction on handling the unmarked contaminated waste. They live in shanty towns where physical distancing is not possible. Their contact with infected waste puts their already frail health further at risk.
The national government has issued guidelines for handling and disposal of Covid-19 waste that is comprehensive enough, but the real question is whether they are being implemented. There is no mass media campaign on how to separate biomedical waste from regular garbage though their generation has increased manifold in containment zones, quarantine centres, and hospitals. Hazardous waste needs to be disposed of in Common Bio-Medical Waste Treatment Facilities (CBWTF). India has only 198 such facilities which are not even enough in non-pandemic times. Only 225 hospitals have captive incinerators. Seven states do not have a single CBWTF. Overall, India’s waste management system is not prepared to handle a pandemic.
While doctors and nurses are being put up in hotels, which is the right thing to do, given the service they are providing in such dire times, the sanitation workers are being ignored. Does this imply that class and caste still play significant roles in policymaking in India? Of course, they do.
But what policymakers don’t realize is that the virus does not discriminate between the rich and the poor. If a sanitation worker is infected, he will pass it to many more since they reside in high-density slums, as has happened in Dharavi, Mumbai. While the country fights to keep the infected numbers down, this lack of will to plug in the right policies to aid the sanitation workers will thwart the primary purpose and adversely affect the entire nation.
The task of taking care of them is too big to be left to the government alone in these circumstances. Private citizens through Resident Welfare Associations and other civil society organizations should take it upon themselves to help out instead of spending their time virtue signalling on social media and shaming people from northeastern Indian states out of ignorance. We need more individuals to walk the talk like Sonu Sood. They can all become COVID warriors in different ways, this being one. Raising your voice and pitching in to protect sanitation workers in India is important and much-needed proof that India has not entirely lost its humanity after how the migrant workers were treated.