Babasaheb Ambedkar had said, “scavengers are the lowest in a system of graded inequality. This is their caste ordained occupation over which they have been handed the monopoly is the cleaning of latrines and toilets and handling human excreta. This monopoly has survived for centuries and persists even in the so-called modern era”.
Urbanisation and capitalism have not undermined caste-based occupations and discriminations but have intensified and varied its manifestations. We now see its COVID-19 era adaptation, with ‘social distancing’ encouraging untouchability in India. The continued exploitation of powrakarmikas (municipality sanitation workers) and the criminal negligence in protecting their health is living proof of this.
The callous attitude of the State towards protecting powrakarmikas is due to their historical double oppression as a majority of them are women and belong to the Dalit community. The Manusmriti preordains women and Dalits to do the job of cleaning households and public property, and therefore we see that women belonging to oppressed castes and minority communities being hired for this occupation. The replication of feudal and casteist oppression is apparent in the sham contract system to this day. The powrakarmikas, under the aegis of the BBMP Powrakarmika Sangha and the Karnataka Pragatipara Powrakarmikara Sangha (both affiliated to AICCTU), had launched a strong opposition questioning the feudal and casteist contract system for several years in Karnataka. As a result of which, thousands of workers across Karnataka overthrew the exploitative contract system, albeit partially. While those workers who sweep roads were brought under the direct-payment system of municipal authorities, several thousand workers who transport garbage in vehicles continue to be under the oppressive sham contract system.
As of today, over 50 workers have contracted coronavirus and 5 of them have succumbed to it. This is solely attributed to the criminal negligence of the State in ensuring their occupational health and safety. The workers are not provided with PPE kits from time to time, neither are they provided with disinfectants to clean the equipment they yse. They are provided with neither changing rooms nor washing facilities where the workers can clean themselves after work. This means that the workers are not only susceptible to contracting the disease, but can potentially carry the virus back to their families. Thanks to the hazardous nature of their jobs, the powrakarmikas also have comorbidities and suffer from diseases such as tuberculosis, cancer, and heart and lung related ailments. The workers are well aware of their vulnerability to health issues as well as of the dangers of contracting and spreading of the disease. However, the State seems to be criminally negligent in safeguarding the health of these workers as they continue to be exploited and oppressed.
From the time coronavirus cases began to be reported in Karnataka and in Bangalore city, the Union began its struggles for the protection of powrakarmikas, firstly in conducting awareness on the spread of the pandemic and the precautions to be exercised by the workers in a decentralized manner. On the other hand, the Union also moved the High Court of Karnataka demanding that the powrakarmikas across the State be protected against coronavirus. The Court recognized the vital role of powrakarmikas in curbing the spread of the pandemic and directed the State Government to provide every single worker with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits, including full-body PPEs in containment zones. It is unfortunate that despite such orders of the court, the same has not been implemented and the workers continue to work in hazardous conditions.
It was when a worker died of Tuberculosis three weeks ago, that the BBMP tested the worker for COVID-19 postmortem as a matter of protocol. When the worker was found positive for COVID-19, about 80 workers in the ward were tested, of whom 23 tested positive. Many residents who had taken the initiative to get powrakarmikas in their wards get tested, came out to say that several of them were testing positive in their areas. Until such time, the BBMP had no record of how many workers have symptoms, how many tested positive, etc., as there was no protocol in place for random testing, or even basic thermal scanning or health camps organised for these workers. Subsequently, a 28 year old worker, Smt. Shilpa Prasad, passed away on 16 July after being turned away from all hospitals she had approached. It emerged the next day that not only have there been at least 5 known powrakarmika deaths from the virus, but more than 30 had tested positive. The deaths of these powrakarmikas was a natural and expected consequence of the wilful neglect of the Corporation. This sparked an outrage amongst the workers and concerned citizens of Bangalore, who organised a candle-light vigil, demanding that the State provide protective equipment to all powrakarmikas. The subsequent inaction of the State has led to the workers launching an indefinite struggle before and after their day’s work, and wearing black bands during the course of their work, from 20th July onwards. Their struggle continues today.
Despite the lockdown imposed across the country, it was the sanitation workers who worked tirelessly to keep our cities clean, even as the number of COVID cases increase manifold. These workers who are out on the roads every day, come in contact with recklessly disposed used masks, gloves, people’s spit and other waste which may be infected. These workers were made to work through the week for half day, i.e., without a day off, for the entire period of the lockdown. Deprived of their wages for several months and no PPE provided to them whatsoever, the garbage vehicle drivers and helpers who are still under the exploitative contract system, are at high risk of exposure to coronavirus, as they are involved in door-to-door collection of garbage. Since fresh PPEs are not provided at regular intervals, the wear and tear of the safety equipment is putting the workers lives at risk. While the waste generated from quarantined households and containment zones are considered to be biomedical waste, the powrakarmikas were forced to sweep roads and collect garbage from red zones. Without any proper safety equipment, with comorbidities and high exposure to COVID-19, along with criminal negligence of the BBMP, it was only a matter of time before the workers began to be affected by the pandemic.
When the biometric attendance system was discontinued in government offices, Courts and other private institutions to curb the spread of the pandemic, the municipal authorities continued to administer attendance of powrakarmikas in this form. The Union urgently demanded that the same be stopped. For the past four months, the Union has been demanding that fresh PPE kits are provided to workers on a regular basis, that they be provided with sanitizers and disinfectant solutions regularly, for changing and washing rooms to be provided, for risk allowance to be paid, and that basic facilities of transport, food, and drinking water be provided during lockdown as they had no access to the same. The State has failed to ensure that the workers are well safeguarded against the pandemic.
The workers refused to be cowed down by the negligent attitude of the municipal authorities and have been organizing protests in a decentralized manner every day, demanding that the BBMP put in place protocols for their occupational safety, including institutional quarantine, setting up a helpline for their grievances, for insurance to be provided, along with essentials such as PPE kits, disinfectant solutions, changing rooms, toilets, etc. The powrakarmikas are fighting valiantly not just for their right to health, but the right to the health of entire communities by curbing the spread of all diseases, including coronavirus.