Mumbai, India – On Sunday, as India went into a complete lockdown called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to halt the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Sayaba Kunchikorwe spent his day loading garbage on a municipal truck in Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s biggest slums.
Wiping his brow, the 34-year-old shovelled a mound of stinking wet waste onto a plastic mat with his two-pronged rake before tossing it into the garbage truck. The waste consisted of rotting food items, clothes, broken glass, plastic bags, medical waste, and a few face masks.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 infection in the country, he and his colleagues have seen an uptick in the number of discarded face masks in the garbage.
In spite of handling hazardous waste in the middle of a global contagion, Kunchikorwe was working without a mask, gloves, boots, or any other protective gear.
“After we threatened to strike, the contractor gave some of us a disposable mask and low-grade hand gloves,” he told Al Jazeera, holding up a mask and a torn glove. “Both articles lasted a day, so we stopped using them. We’re anyway used to working without them,” he added.
A contract employee with the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), Kunchikorwe’s job is among the essential services excluded from the lockdown.
T Sundararaman, global coordinator for People’s Health Movements, says sanitation workers like Kunchikorwe are in the vanguard of preventive healthcare, especially in dense urban environs.
“If they stop working even for a couple of days, it’ll lead to a public health catastrophe. The number of vermin vectors will increase exponentially, leading to plagues and epidemics,” he explained.
Despite that, he said, India’s socioeconomic milieu, riven by caste, geography, and patchy implementation of policies, ensures that sanitation workers remain marginalised at all levels.
“Sanitation workers need masks, gloves, boots and gowns at all times. In the current scenario, they are at high risk due to the disposal of infectious articles like masks, used tissues, or clothing,” he said.
Even washing their hands, prescribed as a key deterrent to the spread of COVID-19, is not an option for Kunchikorwe and his colleagues.
“There’s no soap. We have to buy shampoo sachets and walk a distance to the municipality office to wash up,” he added.
Kunchikorwe is among 6,500 contract employees who work in Mumbai’s 227 municipal wards to keep the city garbage-free. Many of them get paid Rs 200-350 ($2.6-4.6) a day, well below the minimum wage of Rs 625 ($8.3) stipulated by Maharashtra state.
They supplement the work of the municipality’s permanent staff of 28,000 workers in the solid waste management department. The permanent staff receive three to four times the pay, personal protective equipment, and additional benefits like medical insurance, retirement funds, and leave allowance.
The contract workers are victimised by a contract system under which they are hired by different firms every six months to circumvent the labour laws that would extend safety and welfare measures to them.
Up to 20 percent of sanitation workers in Mumbai, and the majority of those hired to clean sewers, manholes, and septic tanks, are contracted.
Whether permanent or on contract, 90 percent of the employees are Dalits or belong to other marginalised communities.
Mortality rates among sanitation workers are high, some die long before retirement, succumbing to infectious illnesses, alcoholism, and other causes.
One estimate suggests that the death rate of workers cleaning sewers is five times more than other urban Indians between the age of 15 and 59.
Many contract workers such as Zakir Hussain were forced to buy their own masks themselves due to the coronavirus scare. He purchased an N95 mask for Rs 100, which he plans to use for a month.
He claimed that municipal officials did not give him any safety instructions in the wake of the pandemic. “I started taking precautions after watching some videos on social media,” said Hussian, 28, who works at the municipal ward in Colaba, south Mumbai.
In developed countries, Sundararaman from People’s Health Movements pointed out, the risks to sanitation workers have been mitigated by following protocols such as mechanization, providing protective equipment, and enhancing social benefits like adequate compensation for injuries/disease.
“In India, these protocols are followed in the breach,” he claimed.
On Monday, India was put under an unprecedented lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with states sealing their borders, shutting down public transport, and asking citizens to work from home.
But for many, working from home was not an option.
Chotalaxmi Naamdaar, a contract labourer who collects garbage in Fort in south Mumbai, was stopped by the police on the way to work. “They were asking for an ID, which we don’t have, and asked us to return. That meant losing Rs 250 as my daily income,” the 42-year-old told Al Jazeera.
In Thane, a neighbouring district of Mumbai, contract workers have been deployed to clean a building in Kasarvadavali, where 13 people are being kept under observation for COVID-19.
Bala Hivrale, vice president of the Maharashtra Municipal Kamgaar Union (MMKU), said the workers were not provided masks and gloves either.
“All these years they did not provide us protective gear. But for humanity’s sake, this is an emergency. Why are they so callous towards us?” he told Al Jazeera.
The deputy Municipal commissioner of Thane Municipal Corporation, Asho Burpalle, said all workers had been provided masks, towels, soap and gloves. “Who are we to stop what the government has promised?” he told Al Jazeera.
Hivrale countered that the measures were only being announced but not implemented. “Only the permanent workers have received the gear. Contract workers are being threatened with termination when they ask for protective equipment,” he said.
Ashok Khaire, joint municipal commissioner of the MCGM, told Al Jazeera the municipality had issued an advisory to all employees, as well as supplied masks, hand-sanitiser, and gloves.
“The contractors have been instructed to provide all necessary equipment. Those violating it will be black-listed. We are also paying contract workers additional Rs 300 ($4) per day for coming to work,” he said.
However, many workers Al Jazeera spoke to in Dharavi and Chembur in central Mumbai, Fort in south Mumbai, and Bhandup in northeast Mumbai refuted Khaire’s claims.
“We have not been told about the extra compensation. If it’s travel compensation, it should be given on a daily basis, which has not happened so far. Instead, we are paid below minimum wage,” said Dadarao Patekar, who works in Chembur.
Some, like Ravindra Prahlad Gretkar who works in northeast Mumbai, have not even received wages for the month of February.
“When I asked for the salary, they said to submit bank statements for the entire year,” said Gretkar, who had to spend Rs 4,000 ($53) on a cataract operation for his mother the previous week. “Due to the lockdown, the price of everything has doubled. I had to borrow money from a friend to buy groceries.”
Activists stress that the government should recognize the crucial role sanitation workers play in keeping the country healthy and revamp policies regarding sanitation work.
“Coronavirus or not, if we stop working for a few days, people will die,” Hivrale, the workers’ union vice president, said.