Corona, caste discrimination and the lives of Sanitation Workers

sanitation workers

Calamities are the occasion when nations and societies unlearn many things and build bridges in the greater interest of humanity.  Corona crisis would have turned into a great opportunity for countries like India to overcome historical baggage of deep rooted prejudices and respect the dignity of the work and contribution of those who have made our homes, offices, cities and villages as clean and worth livable.

When doctors and other health workers were being threatened in the localities of the ‘middle classes’ for being the ‘careers’ of ‘Corona’, the prime minister appealed on the national television that doctors are gods and we must respect them. He went on to give an idea to ‘honor’ doctors and health workers by asking people to come out of their homes at 5 pm on March 22nd after the public curfew was over people followed him and country ‘honored’ our ‘Corona Warriors’ with candle light and banging of Thali.

After Prime minister’s message, there was a change in the media projection and term ‘Corona warriors’ came into usage for the doctors, health workers and sanitation workers. Government announced that an insurance cover of rupees One crore would be given to all the ‘Corona warriors’. Many other state governments said that any ‘Corona warrior’ dying during work with Corona positive, will be given provided a compensation of Rs fifty lakh for his or her family. We salute to all those who devoted their life for the safety of the people but it is supreme irony that the most difficult task of the sanitation workers or safai karmcharis have gone unnoticed and unacknowledged. This is outrageous and shows the absolute caste biases prevailing in our society and the administration. Even when these Safai Karmcharis have devoted their life and time and I say so because they are the lowest paid and at the maximum risk as they not merely pick up the garbage.

How sanitation workers are treated in Covid

A report published by online portal ‘The news minute’ informs that at least six sanitation workers in Chennai Corporation have died of Coronavirus yet not a single has got the compensation as per the government’s promise.

“ Saravanan and five other sanitation workers of the Greater Chennai Corp[i]oration have succumbed allegedly due to coronavirus. However, not even one death has been recorded as a coronavirus death, allege Corporation workers. In a letter to the Chennai Corporation on June 18, the Madras Corporation Red Flag Union said, “We request the Corporation to facilitate the disbursal of Rs 50 lakh aid announced by the Chennai Corporation to the workers of Greater Chennai Corporation who contracted the infection during the work. The letter mentions the names of four sanitation workers who died of COVID-19, and TNM has been told that one more worker died after June 18, and the union has also come to know of a sixth death. The six people who succumbed to the virus are a malaria contract worker, a permanent woman sanitary staff member, a permanent male sanitary staff member, two permanent electricians and a permanent Storm Water Drain (SWD) worker”.

Since April, Safai Karmcharis have faced the highest risk and these are not confined to merely Chennai but perhaps all the major cities and corporation. ‘One Safai Karmchari was found Corona virus infected at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.’[ii]

On April 24th, newspapers reported ‘39 Safai Karmcharis Corona positive’[iii]. In Hyderabad’s Gandhi Hospital about 19 health workers were found Corona positive which included several sanitation workers on May 10th[iv]. One of the two sanitation workers who were found Corona positive, died in East Delhi’s Shahadara region. The union blamed gross neglect on part of the corporation. We are being given poor quality safety kits and are threatened that we will lose our jobs if we refuse to work. Firstly we are risking our lives and then no care is given to us. We should be given new kits every day, how can safety gears be repeated,” said Sanjay Gehlot, Delhi head of sanitation worker’s union.[v]

Despite prohibition of putting workers above 55 years of age into sanitation work during this period, municipalities continue to violate resulting in death of one sanitation worker in South Delhi on April 26th. His relative accused corporation of neglect and demanded one crore rupees compensation[vi]. It is sad that authorities never treated the sanitation workers with dignity and their ailment and deaths are taken for granted.

The problem in cities like Delhi is that they are not ready to pay compensation to sanitary workers as per the promised amount. Hence even after six deaths in Delhi, the authorities ‘declare’ the death but will provide argument that ‘report’ is awaited. A fifty two years old woman died but the cause of death was given ‘heart failure’ when her family was confidentially been told that she had Corona positive. Her relative said,  ‘ ‘We have been verbally told that she had contracted the coronavirus infection. We are not being handed over the body and have been told to reach the Nigambodh Ghat directly for her last rites. The doctors also said only a maximum of four people can be at the crematorium and a team of doctors will be there to supervise the last rites. She was only given a mask by EDMC to carry out her duties — she did not even have gloves on.[vii]

Another sanitation worker, a 53 years old female died in the Timarpur area of Delhi working under North Delhi Municipal Corporation about a week ago, as reported by The Hindustan Times, on July 7[viii]th.

Reports of safai karmcharis or sanitation workers getting infected to Corona positive are actually coming from various parts of the country as they are most vulnerable as a majority of them are in informal sector, their cases are not being reported plus they are not ‘supposed’ to get any support from the corporations or government authorities. In fact, their wages are cut and they lose their job if they do not report to the work. Recently, seven workers[ix] of Vijayawada Municipal corporation reportedly tested Corona positive.

The empty Promises

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that his government would pay one crore compensation to all the frontline workers who die working on duty to protect us yet not a single sanitation worker who passed away has got money.

‘Today, as a mark of respect, I want to announce that if unfortunately, any health worker – a sanitation worker, doctor or nurse – is martyred while serving COVID-19 patients, their families will be given Rs 1 crore,” said Kejriwal[x].

However a war of words erupted after chief minister’s announcement as local BJP leaders claimed that Kejriwal’s announcement was not meant for the MCD Safai karmcharis and they felt that municipal workers were demotivated because of this.

Growing risk in cleaning toxic waste

Most of the Safai Karmcharis are feeling the pressure of the work now. With an ordinary mask and hand gloves, they are expected to engage in the most difficult task of cleaning the toxic waste. Those working in the hospitals face the risk of getting contracted. Reports continues coming in about their maltreatment from many places. Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamilnadu have reported of contemptuous behavior towards the Safai karmcharis.

Unfortunately the categorical announcement by the government that those Safai Karmcharis will not be put on the duty who are above 50 or suffering from ailment was merely an advertisement as safai karmcharis like Manoj Kumar continue to work though his family is always worried about his health as he suffer from diabetes.[xi]  Similar reports have come from other parts of the country. In Delhi alone many old safai karmcharis suffering from various diseases were compelled to do sanitation work. “Two sanitation workers of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation, deployed in Darya Ganj and Tagore Garden, tested positive for COVID-19 Monday. One of them, a 56-year-old, has a medical history and is on ventilator in AIIMS. Officials said he was not working in any containment zone. An assistant sanitary inspector with the North civic body, posted in Wazirpur JJ Colony, also tested positive, following which 39 sanitation staffers have been sent to home quarantine”[xii]

It is sad that powerful municipal corporation took the safety of the sanitation workers very lightly. Though the Supreme Court order about safety gear for the sanitation workers is very a long period, it was rather shocking to hear that over 24000 sanitation workers in Greater Hyderabad limits are living in fear of Covid infection as the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) has not provided safety kits to them till march 20th and the sanitation workers had to do work with their temporary masks[xiii].

The sanitation workers are not merely cleaning the hospitals but also handling the medical waste which put them in high risk category and for which they need all attention. A report in the Indian Express gives the details of the work that sanitation workers are engaged in a hospital in Madurai gives details.

“Since the workers who work at the isolation ward are usually told to take a day off the following day, I returned to work at the isolation ward on the third day. The ward was empty by then. That day, a few other workers and I cleaned the ward by mopping the floor, dusting the fans and lights. I also collected the used PPE kits that were discarded by the staff nurses and doctors, who were posted on duty at the ward, for biomedical waste disposal,” the worker said adding that “While the staff nurses and the doctors were dressed in blue suits (PPE kits), with gloves and triple-layer masks or N95 masks, the other workers and I were only given gloves and cloth masks (stitched at the hospital) on the days of my duty at the ward.”

“Neither did they give us PPE kits and nor did we demand any, thinking that our work at the ward was only for a short duration compared to that of the duty doctors and nurses,” he said[xiv].

Most of the safai karmcharis are on the contract basis with no ‘social security’ provisions. Their salaries too are not fixed. Unfortunately, even in terms of the providing safety kit to them they are at the last. “Gurpreet says she is a contractual worker and is paid Rs 7,600 by the Ludhiana Municipal corporation in Punjab. “I hope the government will hear our voice and the contractual employees will be given regular jobs,” she added. Another woman employee said: “The safety suits/PPE kits should be provided to all safai karamcharis as we come out of our house to keep the city clean. We come in contact with all kinds of waste. We do not hesitate from doing our duty but we want issues related to women employees to be addressed at the earliest. We should be employed as regular staff.[xv]

Salute to their concern and offer to voluntary work

It is a well-known fact that sanitation workers or safai karmcharis are the lowly paid work which is looked down upon by Indian hierarchical society. A majority of the sanitation workers hail from particular swachchkar communities who still face untouchability and discrimination from all other communities who consider them above them. At the time of fight against Corona, it is this community, which has done the most heroic work in term of keeping our hospitals sanitized. A majority of the hospital staff engage in dealing with the dead bodies actually hail from this community. Irony is that they have to take care of ‘others’ and their own areas in dirt and filth as they are the least prioritized areas for the policy planners so far. Hence, in this hour of crisis, the community too understands the importance of cleanliness and knows it better that nobody else is going to protect them and hence taking care of itself with innovative ideas. One such great idea has emerged in Trichy in Tamilnadu where ‘over 400 other persons who are family members of sanitation workers have currently taken up the task of curbing the spread of coronavirus and ensuring cleanliness in 23 slum settlements in Trichy. The settlements are areas where largely sanitary workers in Trichy live.[xvi]

Keeping aside their own pains and agonies, the sanitation workers not merely contributed by doing the most difficult task but also donated their salaries. “Yedumekala Alivelu has been with the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation as a sweeper for about six years, operating in the Nanal Nagar area and residing in Jiyaguda of old Hyderabad. Her monthly earning is Rs 12,000 and yet on April 29th she donated Rs 10,000/- towards Chief Minister’s Relief Fund.”[xvii]

Harassment for public service

It is ironical that people who are devoting their time and energy for the public cause and with lowest salary and benefits are facing the discrimination for that.  Some time, they are not allowed to enter their residential colonies if they have come after cremating the dead who happened to be Corona positive. This is not just sad but outrageous when the stories such as that emerged from a town in Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh.

“In one incident, 10 sanitation workers who performed the last rites of an infectee were not allowed to enter their residential locality in Tekkali village of the district. They were forced to spend the night on the outskirts of the village, and the next day, after officials failed to convince the villagers to let them in, the sanitation workers were housed in a college building”.[xviii]

Corona crisis has not changed the heart of India’s hypocrite caste forces. They continue to humiliate and look down upon the sanitation workers. The major issue is that the entire safai work is now contract based and with minimum payment. It is the contractor who grab more money. Those who collect their money based in individual household are in much difficult situation as the middle classes shut their door on them. At many places, they did not get paid for three months. Usha Devi and her entire family lost their jobs as sanitation workers ( all contract based informal sector) in the last one month. “ This one month, she says, has already put the entire family — husband, son and daughter who too have lost their jobs — under debt.

“Residents often discard masks, gloves and tissue papers out in the open. Sometimes inside the lift, sometimes on the staircase. Rich people are only scared of contracting the virus and not about spreading it,” says Mukesh, who does two shifts in the building every day. “Gareeb kab tak virus se bacha rahega. Jab mar jayega aap log tali bajana (The poor can’t dodge the virus for long. When I die, you can clap in my honour),” he tells The Federal in an accusatory tone[xix].

A Muslim sanitation worker in the Jamalpura area of Bhopal was accused by people of spreading Corona Virus since he was wearing a cap. They did not allow him to disinfect the area. This incident was of April first week but such things continue to happen even now[xx].  Sangeetha, a sanitation worker in Chennai narrate her plight suggesting that people think that she is spreading Corona virus. Obviously, with this kind of atmosphere she is worried about herself and the uncertain future without any social security. “I am scared of coronavirus, I am not denying it. I am scared that I will be the carrier of the infection, infecting everyone at home. We don’t even have anyone to take care of us if we fall sick. Though we follow social distancing, wear masks and gloves, we are still scared we may contract the infection,” she says[xxi].

Another worker Radhika got infected with Corona positive and her family was ostracized. It was difficult for her family to manage the home. No help came despite the fact that she was ‘Corona warrior’. Her brother reflect the pain,  “My sister contracted the virus while she was serving the people, but she did not receive pay for the non-working days (when she was recovering from the disease). My sister and her children are unable to get food. Since their street is a containment zone, no one is coming forward to help her family.” [xxii]

 Dedication and commitment unacknowledged

As we have mentioned earlier, sanitation work in India need to be seen in historical perspective. Once we go beyond the ‘pure’ work theme, we will realize how a community was forced into this which is not less than slavery because even the slaves wont do such work. Yet, when government should have focused on paying them better and look towards economic well being and dignified settlement, we see their vulunerability growing further. There were government jobs, public sectors, corporations and Railways where there was some job safety. Government of India actually initially asked all the departments to not to dismiss any of the employee from their job during the lock down period but shockingly and not surprisingly, it is the sanitation workers, who are facing the biggest brunt of our ungratefulness. It reflects how government of India and various other industries and corporations ‘care’ for them. In March, Railways actually announced that it will release full salaries for all its contractual workers including sanitation workers for the lock done period[xxiii]. It is shocking that the sanitation workers engaged in the most difficult and thankless task are not getting their dues on time. A large number of them are contract based and have no social security as such and hence their plight is much difficult. “There are 32 sanitation workers in the railway station. We are divided into two batches and working on alternate days. Hence, we are paid only half month’s salary. Since we do not have any other option, we somehow manage. I do not know how I’m going to pay my son’s college fee with this amount,” said Sitha (name changed), a sanitation worker.[xxiv]

In Chandigarh, railways have dismissed 72 sanitation workers and 16 technical staff with IRSDC for cleaning platform at Chandigarh and Panchklula. According to reports The Indian Railway Station Development Corporation limited will be laying off 50% of its staff deployed for sanitation and other technical work at the Chandigarh Railway Station[xxv].

In the period of Corona Virus when they should have been respected and taken care off, the government agencies actually left them shamelessly.

Bhim Rao Tambe narrate the helplessness as well as the dangers of the waste collection these days in Mumbai. “The garbage often contains medical waste: syringes, masks, gloves. The syringes have penetrated our feet many a time in the past, but now that is especially dangerous. I feel scared every day, but missing work would mean no food on the table for days[xxvi]”. The story published by Foreign Policy journal claim that India has over 5  millions sanitation workers ‘who clear not just garbage but also sewers and public toilets. For paltry pay, these workers often come in direct contact with human waste, working with little or no equipment and protection. Exposed to toxic gases, they are often at risk of chronic diseases[xxvii].

Salary never paid on time

The supreme irony is while the government speak of Swachch Bharat and giving respect to ‘frontline’ warriors, the sanitation workers have never been on the priority list of the government. Their salaries have rarely been paid on time. The backlog of two to three months is a norm. When the big corporation such as MCD and various other corporations of Delhi are unable to pay them salary, what would be the condition in smaller corporations is not much for guess. “North Delhi Municipal Corporation mayor Avtar Singh asked government of Delhi to release Rs 1000 crore to give to employees of the civic body including the sanitation workers and retired employees. It is reported many of not received salary since January. Vijendra Bagdi, president of the sanitation workers’ union, said that while the sanitation workers are working round-the-clock during the lockdown, they have not been paid yet.Many retired employees have also not received their pensions yet. The workers have been borrowing money in order to meet their household needs, which is not right. How will they work like this?”[xxviii] ( Till April 20th,2020)

It does not shock people when reports coming in middle of May which was about two months after the lockdown, that sanitation workers remained unpaid since December 2019[xxix].  We are sure, the university VC and teachers do not remain unpaid for this long period but the sanitation workers, the informal sector workers are the ones who face the biggest brunt of the exploitative nature of our governance structure.

In Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation, many of the contract workers got dismissal notices by their contractor saying that their services will be taken back after the lock down was over. It is reported that the corporation did not renew the contract of those expiring on March 31st, 2020 as it wanted to cut the nightshift because there was not much to be done. Frankly, speaking it violate the government of India’s own commitment where it has asked the companies to desist from firing the staff because of the lock down. It is more than painful to see that municipal corporations which depend massively on the Safai Karmcharis did not think it for a moment, to follow the government diktat’s here. “The Solid Waste Management Department of the MCGM deploys a fleet of 6,500 contract workers, which is over its permanent staff of 28,000. It helps to keep the city precincts clean. The permanent staff gets higher wages, and benefits like holidays and medical coverage, even though the quantum of work is the same”[xxx].

In Tirupathi Devasthanam, over 1,400  sanitation[xxxi] workers on contract basis have been sacked in the absence of ‘work’ and earning.  Sadly, this is the condition of the religious place which has one of the highest earnings in India. As their ‘contract’ ended on April 30th, the Board felt that it was ‘wise’ to call for ‘new’ tenders after the lock down is over. Again, the same forces who have been speaking so much of equality and passion have felt not the same in doing such shameless job dismissal of those hailing from the most marginalized sections of our society. There are many workers who have been working for over 20 years and TTD Board violated all norms of procedures. Shouldn’t the government take action against them or pay the salaries of these people ?

The Chief Minister of Telangana took a decision to provide increasment for Corona Warriors but that too remains highly discriminatory towards the sanitation workers particularly those who are working on contract. “As per the CM’s announcement to provide 10 per cent incentive to health workers, these sanitation and security workers will get a meagre rise of Rs 900. Whereas, the GHMC workers and outsourced staff will get close to Rs 7,500. We request the government to take note of this and increase our salaries,” said M Narsimha, AITCU president. Last month, the nurses and sanitation workers staged a protest, demanding an increase in their salaries. But being duty-bound, they went back to work once they realised how short-staffed the Gandhi Hospital actually is[xxxii]”.  The biggest crisis is that these hospital staff and sanitation workers are not allowed to return to their localities as people fear they might infect them with Corona virus.

Not to be left behind in their competition with other municipal corporations, Nagpur Municipal Corporation too dismissed 63 sanitation workers in March for the dereliction of duty. 28 of these workers were wage workers and 35 permanent workers. The corporation is using GPS watches given to these workers to trace their locations and timings. The corporation has more than 6000 permanent and 2113 wage workers[xxxiii] but then it look that corporation does not believe in giving a notice or even following the diktats of the government of India to not to fire the staff at this juncture.

Why doesn’t the government listen to the voices of the Safai Karmcharis

Sanitation work is the most denigrated work in India. It is not merely an occupation, it is stigmatized work. Even when they did it in the most difficult conditions where municipal corporation failed to provide them proper safety kits despite various courts order, the sanitation work is basically India’s racist caste system. Though there may be a few other community members in this work after the mechanization work started and mass dismissal of the marginalized has happened so that the ‘other’ get better payment. We have seen how vulnerable they have become during this entire phase. We don’t have the full details as how many of the Safai Karmcharis got infected to Corona and how many of them died out of that.  The above analysis is based on news reports appearing between January 2020 till this date but there are many reports which have not been in the media particularly the small municipalities where the caste lines are powerful and Safai Karmcharis face humiliation and insult as if it is meant for them alone.

We have reasons to believe that the authorities do not want to consider them ‘Corona warrior’ as per with other because of the caste reasons. It is a pure caste bias and India must respond to it. World over, we are now witnessing a big solidarity for #blacklivematters’ movement. Why we keep quiet on the continuous violation of the rights of Safai Karmcharis and their discrimination through the hands of all. Government declared one crore compensation if a Corona warrior dies during the work but why has this not been given to any Safai Karmcharis. This is the reason why even the hospital staffs, it seems, are not giving them the Corona positive certificate. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal promised in his election manifesto one crore rupees for the Safai Karmcharis and their kins on their death during work but so far so many deaths in Delhi and we have not seen any such announcement. Why the technicalities of Delhi’s Municipal corporations come in between to implement this ?

Expedite the cases and provide Economic Relief

Time has come for India to come clean on this front. Supreme Court must not let this opportunity go. Call out municipal corporations and governments of India, state governments and seek their time bound response. It is not merely Corona period that they face the tyranny of our society and state but in any normal time as there is no leave or holidays for them to rest. Laws have failed to honorably rehabilitate them and protect them. Government does not have complete data as it dwindle and officers are not ready to think beyond boxes.  As per government’s own admission in Parliament, 427 people have died while cleaning sewers since 2014 and between 1993 to 2020 this figure is 920 people[xxxiv]. As per law, cases should have been filed against those whose places these sewage workers died but nothing happened. Not a single conviction so far. This shows the seriousness on part of the government, society, corporations, and courts. It is a blot on our face. It is criminal to deny the #safaikamgar communities their legitimate due. At the time of Corona, the first thing is that the compensation must be the same for all those who are the frontline workers doing their work diligently and taking enormous health risk. It is the duty of the government to provide categorical guidelines to Municipalities and Contractors not to dismiss Sanitation workers and completely pay their dues. What is the difference between the health workers and sanitation workers fighting on the ground ?

There is no doubt about the great work that doctors, nurses and the police are doing in these tough times. They are the frontline workers. So are we. The safai kaamgaar (sanitation workers) are working to keep India clean, thus safe. But there is one difference. Doctors, nurses, police [personnel] have people from all communities and religions – across class and caste. Safai Kaamgaar are Dalits! How many upper caste people do you see carrying waste or human faeces? We have never had any facilities – nor provisions. We are born in such a life – we will die in such a life, with no one to question on our behalf.” – Dadarao Patekar, Sanitation Worker; Vice President of Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh, KVSS[xxxv].

Let us see how long it takes us to become serious to address this issue. The immediate need is to provide all the Safai kamgars the protection gear to handle the medical waste, their job security and their complete payment apart from one crore rupees compensation as promised to other front line workers. Government can not discriminate people on the ground of their identity. Speaking about racial discrimination globally, we need to show solidarity in our own backyard too with the Swachchkar community who are victims of our vicious caste system. A crisis can be converted into an opportunity to demolish age old prejudices against the community but will we ever learn a lesson and give the Swchchakar community its legitimate due?

  • The focus of this article is the condition of the Safai kamgars during the Corona crisis and it is purely based on media reports which indicate a trend and the real condition may be much more uncomfortable. I have also spoken a number of community activists working on the ground.





































Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at twitter @freetohumanity Email: [email protected]



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Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at twitter @freetohumanity Email: [email protected]

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