CHENNAI: In 2013, the UN General assembly officially designated November 19 as World Toilet day (WTD) – a day to raise awareness and tackle action on global sanitation crisis, in collaboration with governments and partners around the world. But, in India, a country with a population of 1.3 billion, only half of it has access to toilets and the rest defecate in the open. With the theme of this year’s WTD being ‘toilets and jobs’, City Express focuses on the people who do their job, after we do ‘our jobs’ — the sanitation workers in the city.
Chennai has 6,640 toilets in 866 locations and 1120 e-toilets in 348 places. “Out of these, 27 normal toilets have been broken down and 25 are sealed. The rest are functional,” says a corporation official. Half the population still uses the open toilet and segregating and cleaning the mess is in the ‘bare hands’ of these manual scavengers.
In Chennai there are over 11,184 sanitary workers with the corporation while there are a significant number of workers who are temporary daily wage workers, and others who work in private companies and as contract labourers. Whether it’s public toilets, or in the corner of a street or the pavement, when things get nasty, they provide us with a sanitized and hygienic environment. But, what about their health?
Saravanan*, a 20-something full-time sanitary worker with the corporation works from 9pm to 2am and goes back to work in the morning. This has been his routine for the last couple of years. With only a bucket and a worn-out broom stick he goes to work every day and cleans the solid wastes in his division. “We are given a bucket and a Kayiru (rope) if we have to get inside septic tanks. We just do the job,” he says casually.
With no gloves or masks to collect the excreta and other solid wastes such as used sanitary pads, and used baby diapers to name a few, they’re vulnerable to diseases and infections. “We are used to it. Our people have been doing this for generations now, and we are seen as ‘super humans’ who don’t need protection, I think,” he shrugs. “But, yes, it would be nice to get these benefits to protect us or even eradicate manual scavenging for that matter!”
Another sanitation worker Lalitha*, who is the sole breadwinner in her family, works on a contract basis and says that she along with other labourers, work under ‘unimaginable’ circumstances. “We clean everything with our bare hands and we don’t even get a coat or a uniform to wear over our clothes for some kind of protection. If we fall sick while on duty (majorly because of working unprotected), we don’t get permission for leave. Even if we do, its deducted from our salary,” she rues. For a monthly salary of `5-6,000, they get paid the full amount, only if they work every single day of the month.
They suffer from breathing issues and diseases due to microbial contamination. Lalitha narrates that she had faced breathing issues while working with fluids that are used to clean the toilet. “When these solutions are poured inside, toxic gases form. Usually, we pour it in, and wait outside for five minutes before entering…but, the lack of masks makes it difficult even after. Our voices are not heard as we are contractual employees,” she adds.
Samuel, the TN state convener for Safai Karamchari Andolan, agrees and adds that the workers aren’t provided with any sort of protection. “Recently, people in Madurai and Karur died because they work inside septic tanks. What protection can a piece of cloth provide?” he rues.
Though the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 states that: No person, local authority or any agency shall, from such date as the State Government may notify, which shall not be later than one year from the date of commencement of this Act, engage or employ, either directly or indirectly, any person for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank. But this remains the profession of a big margin of people.