(SAVARI and Round Table India are doing a series to put together the Bahujan perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic)
Pradnya: Jai Bhim Daulat, How do you look at the pandemic and the ongoing lockdown?
Daulat: Jai Bheem, Corona (covid19) is currently widespread in the world. We cannot deny the fact that in India, although it has fewer patients than other countries, the situation may still be worse in the days to come since it runs on a logic that “more tests mean more patients”. Its day to day outbreak is going to be unambiguously visible.
The first announcement regarding the lockdown was for 21 days, which ended on 14th April, however, it has again extended until 3rd May 2020. If the situation persists like this, we do not have any idea how it is going to be, if it is extended for an indefinite period we cannot predict what it will look like.
The government has imposed this lockdown all of a sudden without making any positive arrangements for the daily wage labourers, who are not financially secure. Who is looking after them? Their survival lies in their hands, if they get no work they will die. Is a bag of groceries enough? The problem is structurally intense, there has to be a cash flow in their own hands. How long can they wait in the queues and be mere receivers? What the government is providing for now is just like applying a temporary solution. A large section of the population has already begun to collapse. Is there anyone to take note of this? Starvation is a massive problem and I wouldn’t be wrong in saying there will be more deaths due to starvation than that of coronavirus. Almost all businesses are closed due to the lockdown, labourers have lost their jobs. But there is a greater demand for the cleaning workers, their work is being counted as the essential service but, are they getting the required protection? Needless to say, there are people who endure work hazards for generations and this pandemic is making their lives even more vulnerable. Because the reason is very simple, they are seen only as cleaning workers and not as human beings, so why would anybody bother about their health? When in history have we looked at them as people with dignity?
Government buildings are converted into quarantine centers, where people suspected of corona infection are kept. Government offices are outsourcing cleaning workers and placing them in those buildings, without giving them any instruments to protect themselves. It is now a big question of safety, imagine if they are putting 10 infected suspects in one center for whom 5-6 cleaning workers are appointed, what if one of them is infected- there is a greater possibility that those cleaning workers who are coming in contact with them gets the infection, they will go back home and may carry it to their families too. Amid, the talks about PPE are we considering the labour and risks of these cleaning workers taking? Who will be responsible for their families? The Municipal Corporation even in the normal course of time does not provide them any adequate security equipment.
Pradnya: You have rightly raised the concerns of cleaning workers being called in as essential service workers in spaces where disease transmission chances are very high. Please continue.
Daulat: Their salaries are in deficits, the government has left them vulnerable, the amount they get for the kind of work they do is absolutely disproportionate. For now, they only need work to survive, to get that meager amount while putting their lives into the risks. You would always find media talking about the importance of soldiers working on the border and its comparison with the medical staff and some over enthusiasts comparing soldiers with cleaning workers and say, see who is the real solider—I feel this kind of comparison is only possible between the two equals but honestly it is utterly stupid, do they even imagine how it must feel like cleaning the roads where thousands spit on, the toilet and inhale the extremely dangerous gases. It is not normal.
My father, who works as cleaning staff in the Municipal Corporation here, he has also got his duty on one of those quarantine centers. He works there with no effective safety measures, how safe is he? What if he gets the infection? Yesterday, I overheard the conversation between my parents, my father was telling my mother to place his bed outside the home near the gate, and also keep all his clothes aside from other family members. I just did not know what to say…
The elders think that if you say something to the authorities, they will keep an eye on you and may target you for asking them questions, we cannot afford to lose the work in the middle of a pandemic and lockdown. My father found it simpler to sleep at the gate than to talk to the officers. They think it is of no use talking to the officer and feels it doesn’t matter if it happens to them but nothing should happen to their family.
I really want to ask, are we fighting on the border?
This only means that a cleaner is working with such insecurity that he is going to work with the mind-set of dying. Why?
And the so-called media is spreading hatred on the lines of Hindu-Muslims conflicts. They are not asking if the government has sufficient resources to get through this crisis if the doctors and everyone working at the front getting Personal protection kits. We are exporting medicines to other countries and what are we facing here in our own country?
The state must provide all the essential protective gears to the workers fighting against Coronavirus, it is the foremost responsibility of the government, what if the cleaning workers decide to strike at work- we will have to pay the heavier price.
And this is the scornful mentality of the government during this ordeal that Haryana Chief Minister Manoharlal Khattar has declared that if the doctor dies while fighting against Coronavirus, the government will give his family Rs 50 lakh. If it is a nurse, 30 lakhs, for medical staff, 20 lakhs. And if it is a cleaning worker, then 10 lakhs is enough. Why? Is the cost of the life of a cleaning worker less than a doctor or a nurse? Why is there such a ridiculous distinction?
In the present case, the cleaning staff does not seem to use any protective equipment except for a mask because no one cares about their lives… And more importantly, the government has to understand that all the medical staff cleaning workers who fight against Coronavirus have the same life and family.
There is lot of money, assets concentrated in the hands of the few, the Savarnas, they run the temples, why are we not talking about using that money to fight to this crisis? On the one hand, we witness people dying of hunger and on the other hand, there is tremendous wealth accumulated by a few. Why not use it for the benefit of the all? These assets should really contribute to the economy.
The government should consider allowing factories that produce essential facilities to operate on the basis of restrictions and safety regulations, this is because if the lockdown continues, there will be a shortage of essential commodities and the prices of commodities will go up which is already happening, it will become unaffordable for the marginalised to buy things essential for the survival.
There will not be a scarcity of essential commodities if the factories are opened, the government will start earning revenue and the workers will get this living support.
All the citizens of the country should strictly follow the law and go out only when they need to. If they follow the instructions and keep physical distance, this time will also pass.
Daulat Siraswal is an activist and aspiring entrepreneur
Translated by: Pradnya Jadhav