During the pandemic, manual scavengers kept entering septic tanks because we failed to provide them a safety net. Some migrant labourers also took up the work of scavenging.
The government has focussed on the vaccination of frontline sanitation workers, but the most vulnerable among them, the manual scavengers, have not got the attention they deserve. When it comes to understanding who sanitation workers are and what are their different categories, India has always been far behind.
The “lowest” denominator in the work of sanitation are the manual scavengers, who are by far the most unprotected.
While the sanitation worker who works in a hospital or school may have limited safeguards, the manual scavengers are left to clean dry latrines and enter septic tanks. To many, manual scavenging has already been eradicated since it is legally prohibited and the practice of dry latrines is dying out. But the ground reality is very different.
To name a few categories, sanitation workers can be classified into faecal sludge handlers, sewage treatment plant sanitation workers, toilet sanitation workers (community, hospital, public, school, domestic household), public transportation site sanitation workers (railway, roads), sewer and drain sanitation workers, septic tank sanitation workers, waste recovery sanitation workers (household-community-landfill), operational sanitation workers, sanitation-waste intersection workers. Workers who manually discard human excreta in any form do the work of manual scavenging. For instance, sewer and drain cleaners and septic tank workers do it more often than toilet sanitation workers. Similarly, the risk involved in septic cleaning is the highest, killing one sanitation worker every five days. A toilet sanitation worker forced to clean human excrement because of lack of water supply is also said to be doing the work of manual scavenging. Even waste recovery sanitation workers perform the work of manual scavenging as they come in regular contact with unprotected bio-medical waste, animal carcasses and faeces. The implementation of the many laws banning this practice has always been the weakest. Sewer deaths continue to happen. Caste and economics are complicit in the deprivation of the most deprived.
In the initial days of the pandemic, the absence of policy for the protection of the sanitation workers resulted in the loss of many lives, cases that you cannot even find in the records of the National Commission of the Safai Karmachari (NCSK). The Safai KarmacharI Andolan (SKA) has had a far better grasp of this data. Politicians have washed the feet of sanitation workers but, in effect, left them to die. Toilet infrastructure is of much more value to the government than the toilet cleaners. There is no social security, no accountability in the actual expenditure of the rehabilitation schemes, no definite provision for healthcare or pension. Lastly, no importance is given to the representation of a sanitation worker during formulation of policies for them. The many layers of sanitation work make them prone to long-term diseases, as in most cases they do not even live till the age of retirement. Their children suffer from malnutrition, TB and cholera because they live in settlements on the periphery of the waste generated by the cities. During the pandemic, the sanitation workers worked full time to ensure safety to the people of the land. The manual scavengers have kept entering septic tanks because we failed to provide them a safety net. Some migrant labourers also took up the work of scavenging because of lack of work. Therefore, it does not matter to the sanitation worker if the person to first get vaccinated in India is a sanitation worker or not.
What matters is how many of them have actually been vaccinated without the argument that they have already developed “herd immunity”. The government must urgently prioritise vaccination for manual scavengers.
This article first appeared in the print edition on February 15, 2021 under the title ‘Most vulnerable first’. The writer is the national convener of RRI, India, and secretary of the Bhim Safai Karmachari Trade Union
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