The dirty picture: 'Typical day' in the lives of Chennai's sanitary workers

From picking broken bottles to blood-soaked napkins, dignity of labour is a distant reality for conservancy workers in the city

Published: 12th September 2019 06:16 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th September 2019 02:02 PM   |  A+A-

Chennai sanitary workers

There are at least 30 temporary conservancy workers in each zone  Debadatta Mallick

Express News Service

CHENNAI: In the wee hours of Monday, 40-something-old Mala* was busy segregating coconut shells, food waste and plastic from a mountain of garbage that she had collected from different households in Alandur. Suddenly, she yelled in pain and quickly pulled her bare hands out of the garbage pile to find a sharp blade jammed in her palm and blood dripping down her elbow. Beside her, another man in his 40s with a band-aid on his naked feet calmly continued to segregate garbage from another pile, and so did ten other conservancy staff members working with Mala. CE witnessed this scene, which the conservancy workers call as a “typical day” in their lives.   

“Last week, a big alcohol bottle slipped from the garbage bin and broke into pieces on my leg. Also recently, a broken window pane in the garbage completely tore the back of my hand,” the man said, showing us the fresh wounds in his hands and legs.  

Those who toil 

While the Greater Chennai Corporation’s (GCC) push for effective source segregation is a welcome move, the contribution from the public and the civic body to support the conservancy workers who toil in the field under questionable conditions has been inadequate. 

A majority of the public still haven’t got into the practice of segregating garbage — they dispose of sharp objects, blood-soaked sanitary napkins and food waste, all in one bin. On the other hand, the GCC has failed to provide the workers safety gears including gloves, masks and proper footwear. 

While permanent conservancy workers who work for a monthly salary get gloves and masks at least twice or thrice a week, temporary workers who work for a daily wage of Rs 350 seldom get it, some not even once a month. “The Corporation provides rubber gloves which tear as soon as they come in contact with any sharp object. So, we cannot use a glove more than once. Once it tears, we operate without gloves for the rest of the week or even a month,” said another conservancy worker, adding that most of them spend money from their own pockets to buy woollen gloves. 

Skin diseases 

In the long run, these conservancy workers become victims of several skin diseases due to dampening of the rubber gloves while sorting wet waste, which leads to the formation of fungus. “Technology has advanced. GCC can do something about the problem if they wish to,” the worker shared.

When CE visited a compost yard, we noticed women working without a protective mask. Instead, they are forced to close their nose with their sari pallu. “The stench is unbearable and the only time we get masks is during an inspection by higher officials. As most women working here are temporary employees, officials don’t even bat an eyelid,” said a worker. 

Not a safe haven 

The workers are denied proper footwear too. They get gumboots during monsoon and some workers, during summers, are provided with chappals that seldom do anything to protect their feet. 

Though the conservancy workers who operate the government’s brand new battery-operated vehicles to clean the roads seem to have no qualms, a section of workers continues to work amid appalling conditions. When contacted, the concerned official said enough safety gears are being transported to all the wards each month and that he will look into the issue. *Name changed

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