Ajit Kumar Lenka
Currently, millions of people are affected by COVID-19 (coronavirus disease). The number of infected cases and deaths due to COVID-19 is increasing rapidly. As per the WHO data, more than two million people are affected and thousands of people have died from the coronavirus COVID-19 across the globe. In the case of India, as per the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), thousands of people are infected from Covid-19, and hundreds of deaths are reported. As per the WHO guidelines, everyone should follow basic hygienic such as regular washing of hands with soap and water, wearing mask and maintaining social distancing of at least 1.8 meters from others. One needs to avoid unnecessary, unprotected contact with animals and be sure to wash hands properly.
In India, the majority of sanitation workers who are directly involved in cleaning workare working without protective gear. More than 1.2 million workers are engaged in cleaning work under the supervision of municipalities across the country. In the battle against covid-19, sanitation workers are playing a major role in cleaning and maintaining hygiene. These workers are more vulnerable than the other workers because they are dealing directly with hazardous work. They are most vulnerable in the current pandemic situation. They face social distance as well as exclusion in both village and cities (Kumar, 2014). Majority of the workers belong to lower castes. Their educational level is also low and they have very little ownership of resources. They are at the lowest rung of society. Considering these attributes, the present article focuses on special attention for safety and security of the sanitation workers during the covid-19 crisis.
These workers are mainly engaged in garbage collection, sweeping, drainage cleaning, disposing of animal dead bodies, cleaning community toilets. This results in direct contact with human excreta, liquid waste from toilets and domestic waste. The health condition of sanitation workers is very poor due to their nature of work. They are facing health related diseases due to hazardous work conditions. Regarding safety equipment, majority of the sanitation workers do not use any type of safety equipment in the course of their work which directly impacts their health. Most of them are employed as contract workers on low salaries and do not have medical health insurance either, which makes them more vulnerable.
In such a pandemic situation, these workers face the direct brunt of the disease. Ramesh (name changed), a 31-year-old sanitation worker in Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation, reported that “in this situation we have to work regularly, otherwise I may lose my job. I cannot stay at home even when I am in fear”. One of the sanitation inspectors from Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation says “Due to lack of funds we are not getting any safety equipment since 2006”. Susanta, 46-year-old sanitation worker, says that when he joined the job they used to provide various facilities like uniform, soap, gloves but from last six years they did not get any of these. On April-2- 2020, India Today reported that a 52 years old sanitation worker is infected from covid-19 and now he is in quarantine. The chances may be higher among these people because they are directly dealing with garbage collection and cleaning without any protective gear.
Various organizations, independent researchers are continuously fighting so that the government pays immediate attention towards them. Bezwada Wilson, Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and National Convener of Safai Karamchari Aandolan (SKA), says “Right now, sanitation workers do not have any safety gear and the loss of their lives hardly matters to anyone”. Prof. Sanghmitra. Acharya (Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU, New Delhi, says, “In the present situation, sanitation workers need free health check up on regular basis because they are working regularly in filed. Agencies have to provide tools and safety equipment’s which protect sanitation workers from direct exposure to sewerage water and waste”.
Occupational health and safety of women workforce have been ignored and workers are constantly being exposed to a new set of diseases and illnesses. So appropriate implementation of the legal provisions to provide better women’s health and safety” says Dr. Sigamani Panneer, Associate Professor CUTN, Tamil Nadu. “Sanitation workers needs to more attention safety and security point of view because they are directly dealing with the garbage and government should pay more attention” says Dr.Golak B Patra, Assistant professor, Kaziranga University, Assam. “Sanitation workers are working hard in current situation, government should raise their salary as well as free medical health insurance facilities to all” Dr. Navin Narayan, Senior Researcher Action Aid, New Delhi.
Even after various committee and commission made (Kaka Kalekar Commission-1953, Barve committee in 1992, 1993-Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act and Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013) for welfare of sanitation workers but they continue to live in impoverished condition. In march 2014, supreme court said “workers without safety and protective gears entry into swear is call criminal offence. Ten lakhs compensation should be given to families of those who die in such cases. Then in 2019, a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra questioned attorney general K.K. Venugopal, the Supreme Court of India had raised serious concerns over people dying during manual scavenging and sewage cleaning. They top court raised voice “Why proper masks and oxygen cylinders where not being provided to people who clean sewers and manholes. Four to five people are dying due to every month. In no country people are sent to gas chambers to die”.
Under such pandemic situation sanitation workers are working without any protective gears. Sanitation workers are more vulnerable by the nature of their work currently this covid-19 situation if they work without safety gears their condition may be worst. Everyday their body fight various communicable diseases and immune system already weak if they received covid-19 then the chances of death may be higher among them. This situation both government and private agencies needs to provide all safety equipment, health check-up regularly, strong monetization, health and life insurance should be provided to them immediately without any condition. Agencies who have not prepared fully yet to provide safety and security point of view they need to prepare themselves in advance as possible so that outbreak the current epidemic conditions.
Ajit Kumar Lenka is working as a Research Consultant in Delhi. He has completed his PhD from JNU, New Delhi.