A few months ago, I booked a deep cleaning service for my flat from a reputed platform. A well-dressed man dropped by, I discussed the work with him. An hour later he came with three female workers, instructed them about the work and left. I tried to talk to those girls but they hardly spoke. I offered them tea but they refused, didn’t even drink water.
Their clothes were laden in mud, I could see shades of the original pink and blue colour behind it. I was paying a decent amount for three hours of work and didn’t expect anyone to be in such poor condition. All along either they worked or sat in a corner. I felt very uncomfortable. I asked my husband to look after work and locked myself in a bedroom.
I recently came across this documentary – Kakkoos which changed my perspective towards manual scavenging. As per definition, manual scavenging is manual handling of human excreta. The labours who pick garbage, the ones who clean drains, public toilets and many other sanitation workers like this are not counted as manual scavengers. These workers also deal with human waste with bare minimum or negligible protection. Sadly they are ignored. Their hands get dirty to make our environment clean.
Have you ever thought that the sanitary pad you throw in the dustbin is manually handled by a worker?
Have you ever thought who cleans public toilets?
Have you taken your dog for a walk, let it excrete on the road refusing to think about who cleans it?
When you ask these questions to yourself and look around you will find many manual scavengers. As per the report by Nation Center of Biotechnology Information, sanitation workers suffer many diseases like hepatitis, dermatitis and respiratory issues. We, as a society, hardly understand their problems let alone treating them with respect.
We are the ones who keep a separate cup or plate for our house help. Then how will we behave normally with someone picking garbage from the road?
There is another incident that got etched in my memory. I kept the garbage bag outside my flat and rushed for office. Halfway through the staircase, I realized I forgot my phone in the flat and came back. The pathway smelled strange. I saw a cleaning worker opening the garbage bag, segregating it and putting in big dustbins.
The corridor smelled very bad from a long distance and all the clearing worker had for protection was a dusty old glove. When I looked at her, she looked down focusing hard on garbage. I crossed her on many other occasions while walking through the hallway. I smiled each time at her but she avoided looking at me.
Both government and private organizations should provide sanitation workers with maximum protective gear. Automation is important especially for the highly dangerous task of cleaning septic tanks. We always have compensation for dead ones but do not provide facilities for living ones. Adding facilities will improve their working conditions.
Secondly, society has to be more inclusive towards the workers. Can you imagine one day in the city when all cleaning workers will go on strike? It won’t be a livable place anymore.
I continued to smile at the cleaning lady, each time we crossed paths. And finally, she has started smiling back.