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Mainstream, VOL LX No 22, New Delhi, May 21, 2022

Open letter from the sanitation workers to the residents of Chennai

Saturday 21 May 2022


Open letter from the sanitation workers of ‘Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board’ to the residents of Chennai (16.05.2022):

Dear Chennai residents,

Be it summer or drought, cyclone or flood, festive time or disaster time – if it were not for us, Chennai would not be inhabitable. We contribute immensely in giving form to our rulers’ sky high fantasies such as ‘Singara Chennai’, ‘Clean India’, ‘Smart City’ etc. Even when everyone else was confined to their homes during the Corona Lockdown, our work did not stop nor did we find any rest. Even though our labour has been an indispensable part of this city’s growth and in people’s everyday lives, we have always been avoided in the gaze of society and of the government. Yes, we are the hundreds of Temporary Sanitation Workers working for many years under the ‘Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board’ (CMWSSB)

We have been working for about 20 – 30 years as Field Workers, Silt Vehicle Drivers, Jet Rodding and Super sucker Vehicle Drivers and Operators. Before the law prohibiting manual scavenging was enacted, we were regularly risking our lives inside septic tanks and in underground sewer wells.

You yourselves would have witnessed how absolutely no safety gear is provided to workers like us. We are tasked with clearing sewerage blocks, but without adequate or proper machinery. Whenever the city’s centuries old sewerage system fails the needs of the public, it is we workers are called upon to instantly attend to their grievances. The toxic gasses and fecal contaminants have been occupationally affecting our bodies in many ways. There is not a day that goes by without us facing accidents or humiliations at work sites.

Even though we have been working full time for decades together, we are still being employed as ‘Temporary Workers’. We are excluded from the benefits of labour laws such as paid leave, ESI, PF, pension, gratuity etc. The very low wages that we earn are hardly enough to fetch us any medical treatment for our occupational illnesses, as a result of which many of us lose our health and lives. Some among us have even committed suicide due to mental agony. If we die on duty, our children don’t have any guarantee of a government job. Our wages are deducted arbitrarily, nor are they paid on time. We are not being issued any ID card or even an official employment certificate. We are in a sorry state of paying for the uniforms we were out of our own pockets.

We have naturally realized that, the only measure that would provide minimum social security for us and for our families, is to be absorbed as ‘Permanent Workers’. To this end we have been repeatedly imploring the CMWSSB authorities for many years, but in vain.

After the new government assumed office, we fondly expected that we too would see a marked improvement in our lives under the ‘Governance of a New Dawn’. We have met and petitioner our Chief Minister, the CMWSSB’s Managing Director and our Department’s Minister, Mr. K.N Nehru. All of them had guaranteed that our plea would be taken into consideration, but on the contrary over the past two months we have been brought onto monthly contracts and have been treated as daily wagers. Under the given circumstances, we have decided to commence an indefinite strike demanding permanent employment as the only solution for our travails.

Dear students! We are keenly aware that at this time of the year you would be struggling hard with your exams, for a better future. We only urge you to spare some attention for the cause of our protest and help spread the word on social media. If possible, do support us by joining us at our picket as well.

Dear working people! The CMWSSB runs on your tax money. We are certain that you who breathe life into this city with your blood and tireless hard work, would definitely understand our pain. You would be able to appreciate that, the intent of our strike is not to inconvenience our fellow citizens but only to convey to the state machinery that we too are human and we too deserve a life of self-respect and peace.

Gone are the days when those who kept this city sanitary and hygienic lived and died as a mere statistical blip. Till the time that we are recognised as beings who think, dream, aspire, and till the time that our single point demand is met, we are confident that all of you will extend your heartfelt support to us, to our families and to our struggle.

With regards and seeking solidarity,

CMWSSB Sanitation Workers

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