The Covid-19 fight has many of our heroes fighting from the frontlines. Doctors, healthcare workers, delivery personnel, grocery providers and of course sanitation workers. Sanitation workers in particular, have not received their moment or their dues, even during this pandemic and their work still remains tragically under-appreciated.
A study by Dalberg Associates in 2018, estimated that there are 5 million sanitation workers in urban locations across India. 2.5 million sanitation workers face high occupational hazards at work and more than half a million of these workers are women. They receive below minimum wages and have no access to schemes and programmes, neither provident funds nor other health benefits.
In light of this, a group of concerned citizens have utilized the occasion of the pandemic to address this important issue of public health and collective fairness. They have addressed an open letter to state dignitaries and citizens to recognize that it is in the interests of both, public justice and private rationality to support the cause of sanitation and that of its providers.
The open letter to fellow citizens, especially to those who are privileged by caste and class, seeks to touch upon the important nexus between the notions of sanitation, justice and self-interest. Human rights activists, writers, journalists and intellectuals from different fields like Ritu Dewan, Romam Correa, V. Geetha, Teesta Setalvad, JD Parathasarathy, Ulaganathan Karthiga, Sudha Narayanan and Arundhati Dhuru among others, write that though sanitation workers have been appreciated for their work during this pandemic, it is only in the form of small amounts of money and food.
The signatories say it is almost like the privileged class has suddenly awoken to the importance of sanitation workers and acknowledged them as human beings of flesh and blood like themselves. They also say that perhaps, as a country, citizens have understood the importance of public hygiene. However, they advise, if we wish this to become a feature of the nation, we have to go beyond mere tokenism. For this, the implementation of a set of concrete, practical proposals that will lend substance to our awakening and our understanding.
For this, they have made suggestions that are absolutely necessary to appreciate the values of sanitation and justice and their grounding in enlightened self-interest.
1. Sanitary workers should be classified as health workers, along with doctors and nurses. This will, first and foremost, protect their dignity.
2. (a) All sanitary work should be mechanised.
(b) No sanitary work will be contract labour.
(c) A minimum wage, of at least Rs.20,000 should be implemented. (In a metropolitan centre like Chennai, Rs.20,000 for a household of 4 would be just about stringently adequate to secure some minimum necessities of life.)
(d) There must be comprehensive health insurance for sanitary workers and their families.
(e) They will be eligible for all allowances that are covered under the description of ‘hazardous work’.
(f) All sanitary workers will be eligible for pension benefits.
3. Sanitary workers must be provided accommodation, just as the police are, for they both work at keeping citizens safe. Many work at night, so they should be provided safe transport to the site of work.
4. In time, sanitary workers shall come to play a supervisory role. All citizens will participate in keeping public spaces clean, they will separate their garbage, and they will compost their bio-degradable waste locally. Sanitary workers will help citizens establish gardens, and help them grow fruits and vegetables with their compost.
5. Children of sanitary workers must get preferential admission to Kendriya Vidyalaya, Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, and Sainik Schools.
The signatories say that sanitary workers in India are mostly Dalits, and are in fact from ‘scavenging castes’. There have been many liberation movements, for instance the Bhim Yatra of 2012, organised by the Safai Karamchari Andolan, which was successful in liberating many thousands of sanitation workers from the shameful and socially imposed practice of cleaning human excreta, with a broom and a basket.
However, the signatories say that while the liberation of sanitation workers from this vicious cycle of under-appreciation is essential, they seek to instead liberate the upper castes from an imprisoning net of their own making. They say, “The fear of transmission of the corona virus has presented us with an opportunity to not only emerge a clean and dignified nation, but to also break the caste transmission of sanitary work from mother to daughter, from father to son. We have been presented with an opportunity to annihilate caste and untouchability, altogether, from our nation. If we can accomplish this, we would have met the challenge of this virus with a response that will lift us from the depths to great heights.”