Overlooked, ostracized: Sanitation workers in TN battle for right to dignity

They remain an indispensable part of the frontline workforce that fights the Covid-19 pandemic in Tamil Nadu, but when it comes to their right to dignity and safety, sanitary workers, who risk their lives ensuring public hygiene and cleanliness, are often forced to take the backseat.

Neglected for ages, sanitary workers have been keeping the state clean by clearing garbage — most of which recklessly thrown out by local residents — washing septic tanks and  toilets clean, emptying pits and unclogging filthy manholes and hazardous sewers.

Most often, they sink into treacherous manholes and sewage channels without any protective gear on. In other words, their work comes with dangers, some of which even life-threatening. All this for too little money and no respect.

Kalaiselvi, of Selam district, is one of many such sanitation workers who dutifully take the risks almost every day, even as clinicians and medical experts are urging to step up measures to ensure hygiene and cleanliness to fight the deadly Covid-19 outbreak.

She said that the workers are discriminated despite being out on the street keeping their respective areas clean while everyone else is staying indoors.  “It is difficult to even eat in comfort if you are a sanitary worker. People always look down on you,” said Kalaiselvi who works in a Covid-19 containment area in Salem.

Dalits make most of the sanitary workforce and 18% of the total population in the state. Despite boasting such figures, they are discriminated in the name of caste and profession, with election being the only time these numbers will be taken into account.

“Whenever there is election, politicians come to us. They know it is a battle they can’t win without our votes,” Kalaiselvi said. When polls are around, parties will be quick to make alliance with regional parties that represent people from lower and middle strata of society, a game plan aimed at winning Dalit votes. “Once they are in power, they forget us,” she said.

While the ruling AIADMK has failed to keep their poll promises given to Dalits, records show that opposition DMK, which now makes this a rallying point for the next Assembly election, was not any better. Dravidian parties that claim leanings to Periyar have constantly failed to address any of the burning issues of Dalits over the years.

In 1967, C N Annadurai of DMK had promised to safeguard Dalits’ rights and solve their long-pending demands for better wages during his tenure as chief minister. However, what his regime witnessed later was one of the bloody episodes in the state over wage between Dalits and DMK party cadre. In all, 44 members of the Schedule Castes (SC) lost lives in the clash.

That Annadurai did nothing to control the bloodbath despite the party promising to defend the rights of the lower caste enraged the public. After Annadurai’s death, M Karunanidhi arrived at the scene as chief minister in 1969, offering schemes for the Backward Caste (BC) and SC. He promised concrete houses under Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board and a higher reservation for the sections.

Consequently, the SC received 18% hike in reservation from its earlier figure of  16% while the BC got 25% to 31% rise.  However, it is easy to see the pro-Dalits acts as mere eyewash as Dalit leaders in DMK are still not considered for ministerial berths. Darvidian parties’ real stance on Dalits only became too evident when their leaders made contentious statements recently.

In February, DMK’s Rajya Sabha MP R S Bharathi drew criticism from all quarters after commenting: “The appointment of Dalits as high court judges was because of the alms given by Dravidian movement.”  State minister for forest Dindigul C Sreenivaasan has courted controversy ordering a tribal boy to remove his slippers at Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, fuelling an already burning anger in the communities.

Representational image

While sanitation workers stare at a bleak road ahead without seeing any proper solutions to their long-pending demands, the present pandemic has put their lives in an even more precarious situation because they work in Covid-19 wards, containment areas and other parts of the town without any personal protection equipment (PPE).

A 44-year-old sanitary worker, identified as Nandhakumar, succumbed to the pandemic at the government hospital in Salem. Recent figures revealed that positive cases are on the rise among them. Though there is no clear record of the number of cases among these workers, attempts to fetch details from the Chennai Corporation by The Kochi Post did not yield any result.

Vinod Kumar, who works in malaria ward at Stanely Hospital in Chennai as sanitation worker said that government must take immediate steps to make their jobs permanent. “I work as a contract labourer for the past 10 years and for over 9 hours a day,” he said. Vinod recently made headlines for pasting a misspelled quarantine sticker on Kamal Hasaan’s residence in Eldams Road in Chennai.

He was later suspended by the hospital officials. “I did what I was instructed by the officers.  I don’t know how to write as I’m uneducated. I wrote Kamala instead of Kamal in the poster,” he said. Another worker said that he faced humiliation from upper caste people, citing a video in which an upper caste man from Pallikaranai Chennai is abusing a sanitation worker.

In another video that went viral of late, a 77-year-old man was seen caste-shaming a sanitary worker, saying, “You eat because of us. The reason why you collect faeces is that we are here.” When the worker asked him, “Are you saying that I eat shit?” The man said, “Yes you do.”

While the sanitation workers continue to dwell in sadness and are vulnerable to Covid-19 due to the lack of proper safety gears, the plight of these workers remain unaddressed.

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