In Rajasthan, No PPE for Sanitation Workers?: The Frontline Warriors We Easily Forget


In Rajasthan, No PPE for Sanitation Workers?: The Frontline Warriors We Easily Forget

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

In the fight against coronavirus, doctors and nurses have been at the forefront. We’ve lauded their efforts and when they came under attack, the government was quick to pass an ordinance to protect them and rightly so. But there are others fighting the war against coronavirus who go about their work humbly, away from the media gaze – the sanitation workers. They are as much on the frontline as healthcare workers and though categorised as essential services they are expected to do their jobs without protective gear and on meagre salaries.

According to a directive by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, sanitation workers in hospitals and other places should be equipped with PPE. But the ground reality is very different.

In Jaipur, Pooja Lakhan, a sanitation worker, packed a body and shifted it to the mortuary. She was later told by fellow workers that it was the body of a COVID-19 affected patient. Lakhan had not used any PPE to handle the body and co-workers suggested she get herself tested. She narrated the incident to hospital authorities but no one paid attention. It was only after she protested in the hospital premises the next morning, that it grabbed the attention of the media and the authorities tested and quarantined her.

Lakhan’s is not an isolated case. In Mumbai, a sanitation worker, who was deployed in Dharavi, tested positive for the novel coronavirus. He passed it on to his wife, who later died. Social distancing is not an option for these poor workers who live in cramped spaces. They clean drains, dispose trash but are not provided with gloves or masks.

“Sanitation workers, especially from the Dalit community, are always taken for granted. They are never looked upon with dignity. This is so deep-rooted that even not protecting the workers during a pandemic won’t appear discriminatory to many,” said Sachin Sarvate, head of Rashtriya Vanchit Lok Manch told The Wire.

In Tamil Nadu, coronavirus cases among sanitation workers is on the rise, reports The News Minute. Already subject to stigma, they are facing more discrimination during pandemic. “People look at us like we are the coronavirus. They don’t understand that even we have families. They neither give us water, nor a place to sit. They stigmatise us and it is painful,” said Sangeetha, a sanitation worker contracted with the government in Tamil Nadu.

Workers like Sangeetha get a meagre salary of ₹379 per day, and no leaves. And now during a pandemic, their exploitation continues. Lack of protective gear, makes them more vulnerable.

The World Health Organisation defines sanitation work as “A service we all rely on but which far too often comes at the cost of the health, safety and dignity of those workers.” And while we cheer our doctors and nurses, we don’t spare a thought for our sanitation workers.