The whole world has come to a standstill, struck frightfully by the deadly Coronavirus (COVID-19). There is an unending list of problems and difficulties faced by people from various sections of society. However, there are a few positives too! Mother nature is healing. The Earth seems to be rejuvenating and most importantly, people are finally getting some time to step back, introspect, disconnect to reconnect with family, friends and nature. But this does not hold true for people who do not have the privilege to be within the safety of their homes.
Undoubtedly, this pandemic has increased the need for sanitation and as a result of this lockdown, sanitation workers in our country are one of the worst-hit communities. Unfortunately, things weren’t much better for them before the virus brought the world to a halt, as they have struggled for years to achieve dignity and recognition in the Indian society that has normalized their shunning and suffering.
Despite all this, our sanitation workers have been doing their part, day in and day out, risking their lives, with no dignity attached to their work of cleaning and sweeping city premises, public toilets, choked drains and sewers. They handle all sorts of municipal waste including untreated, hazardous medical discards, with hardly any safety measures in extremely detrimental conditions.
Emptying, carrying, and disposing human waste from dry latrines, getting inside septic tanks of households and community toilets, handling carcasses, cleaning leather, managing dead bodies, welcome cleaning at childbirth, and much more are a part of their daily lives. The waste that we generate doesn’t disappear, it is discarded by these very individuals while we never take the responsibility of or take the time to think about what happens to all the waste we generate.
You might not spare them more than an insincere thought, but can you imagine all the sanitation workers going on a strike for even a single day? Well, I can’t. Yet, their misery and suffering remain unknown to most of us.
Even during this crisis, when the entire world is shut down, cushioned safely inside their homes, these warriors are still out there, keeping our cities clean and helping us fight this deadly disease. For the first time, these forgotten warriors, lost heroes, are finally being acknowledged as ‘Frontline Workers’.
My job gives me the opportunity to work in person with sanitation workers working in the field of municipal solid waste. I work with a not-for-profit organisation called Waste Warriors, that works in the field of solid waste management in three locations, Dehradun, Dharamshala and Corbett. One of the most important goals of this society is to improve working conditions for waste workers and take positive steps towards integrating the unorganized waste sector into the formal Solid Waste Management industry whilst reducing the stigma attached to waste. Across locations, Waste Warriors has been working with waste workers for over 10 years now.
Most of our work happens on the ground, directly with the waste workers, government and other non-government entities, and educational institutions. For the past month and a half, we have been working from home, adjusting to the new work culture. Every alternate day, we go to our office to pack dry rations as part of Waste Warriors’ COVID-19 relief work.
The experience of packing this ration and witnessing my co-workers go out into the field for distribution with the district administration, risking their lives, is what made me write this as I wanted to tell their story. It’s peculiar how it takes a crisis for us to appreciate the beauty of fraternity and human relationships. We are practising social distancing, taking all safety measures, but we are still standing together for each other in whichever way possible. So, I thought of sharing the beautiful experience of my coworkers being out in the field for COVID-19 relief work.
The idea of relief work started when we realized that the lockdown would mean different things to different communities. But one of the most important realizations was the fact that the community of sanitation workers would be rendered helpless and jobless as they are daily wage earners who earn living selling recyclables to various stakeholders each day. This meant that in the absence of formal employment, this entire community was at risk of starving. Strange, right? Even the most universal of measures, such as this lockdown, do not have a universal impact, especially in countries like ours where the wealth gap is enormous and relief measures are never enough.
Having anticipated the problems that would follow, we wanted to stand alongside our family of sanitation workers in Dehradun and Dharamshala and acted quickly. I am extremely proud of my entire team for their quick thinking. They have managed to reach out to not only sanitation workers but have also assisted a lot more people who needed support in this grave situation.
As of now, more than 21,000 kgs of ration has been distributed in over 1,323 relief kits supporting 5,040 people, and Rs. 5000 cash relief has been given to 100+ verified families.
So, this story was told to me by my co-worker Etosha, after she came back from a distribution round. The officials from the DC office had been looking for an old man who lives around the Inter-State Bus Terminal in Dharamshala.
I was inquisitive to know why they were interested in this man. She explained that the man was born and raised in Dharamshala and has lived his entire life in a small 3 walled tin shed below the bus stand. The tin shed was also his place of work as he earned his daily bread by selling perfumed oils.
But his old age and the ongoing pandemic put an end to his only source of income, and he was left to fend for himself, with no living family to take care of him. It immediately struck me that in bleak times like these, when all of us feel the overwhelming need to reach out to loved ones for emotional comfort, it is heartbreaking to imagine the plight of those who have been rendered both financially and emotionally helpless, such as the man in question. The thing that tugged my heartstrings was the welling empathy shown by the DC office and the determination to help out every individual, no matter how insignificant he or she might have seemed to others.
Etosha reminisced the broadest smile on the man’s face as the ration kit was handed over to him. Laughing out loud, he said how he didn’t have the provision to cook but still was extremely grateful that someone cared. To think that such a small gesture of basic acknowledgement can make someone feel seen is eye-opening to my own privilege. But the part that stayed with me was the bit about how, even at a time when scarcity shrouds his life, he didn’t fail to be generous and invited the administration staff and Etosha to come back and have tea, when the crisis is over. Like I said, human relationships and behaviour, during this pandemic, continue to amaze me.
My other team members also shared similar experiences of some beautiful smiles of gratitude and relief and lots of blessings showered upon them. One thing which is common in each of these experiences is that ‘smile’. The smile which touches the heart, the smile which is a symbol of strength in these testing times, the smile which makes the efforts of the whole team worth it.
It is very easy to lose one’s self in the minor inconveniences of our own lives during this pandemic but to imagine that what we consider the most basic right might seem like a privilege to some, puts the whole thing into perspective for me. Hope that we value the importance of human relationships even when this virus ends, and the world is so-called ‘normal’ again. And the very definition of normal will keep evolving, till we have rid our society of at least some of its systematic injustice.
Another takeaway from this experience for me and my colleagues has been the fact that the community members are genuinely taken by surprise at the aid that is being extended to them. Perhaps, generations of neglect have led them to believe that even in times of an unprecedented crisis, they will remain invisible. It is heartbreaking but at the same time makes me determined to strive harder at what I do, so that my colleagues and I are able to do everything so we can to ease a little bit of their suffering and yet it might take us a lifetime to pay back the community what the society has taken from them.
We look at our government for help and demand what is rightfully ours. But stranded without proper ration or Aadhaar cards, some of these people are unable to even exercise that right. As I said before, what is a basic right to some shouldn’t be a privilege to others. Yet, this is a very real problem for most of these people a problem that will not cease to exist unless we all come together as a society and extend a helping hand.
This entire interlude of Corona spread has made us learn a lot of new lessons. One of them definitely has to be that sanitation workers have always been our frontline soldiers. Yet, they are hardly registered officially; they are severely underpaid, are rarely provided with any protective gear, making them vulnerable, not only to the current pandemic situation but on any other day as well.
Let’s respect and value them for their indispensable contribution, pay them adequately, provide them with the required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) especially during these life-threatening times, and most importantly accept them in mainstream society. The taboo surrounding their brave and selfless profession needs to be eradicated completely and should be instead replaced with the dignity and respect it deserves.
So, the next time you cross one of these warriors in the garbage truck, on their foot collecting waste from your door, or with brooms sweeping the street, the least you can do is pass a gentle smile of gratitude! Bestow these unspoken heroes the dignity they deserve!