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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 31, New Delhi, July 18, 2020

Caste Discrimination in the lives of Sanitation Workers in India during the COVID-19 Crisis | Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Friday 17 July 2020, by Vidya Bhushan Rawat


by Vidya Bhushan Rawat

July 16, 2020

Calamities are the occasion when nations and societies unlearn many things and build bridges in the greater interest of humanity. The COVID-19 crisis had the potential to be a great learning opportunity for countries like India to overcome the historical baggage of deep-rooted prejudices, and to build social structures which respect the dignity of work and the contributions of those who have made our homes, offices, cities and villages clean and livable.

When doctors and other health workers were being threatened in the localities inhabited by the ‘middle classes’ for being the so-called carriers of COVID-19, the prime minister asserted on national television that doctors are gods and we must respect them. He went on to propose honoring our doctors and health workers by asking people to come out of their homes at 5 pm on March 22, 2020 after the public curfew was over people followed him, and the country provided such so-called honor to those knighted as ‘Corona Warriors,’ with candles and thali-banging.

After the prime minister’s message, there was a change in the media language, and the term ‘Corona Warriors’ was prominently used for doctors, health workers and sanitation workers. The government announced that an insurance coverage of Rs 1 crore would be given to all such workers . Many other state governments said that any Corona Warrior dying during work to being COVID-19 positive will be provided a compensation of Rs 50 lakhs for his or her family. We salute to all those who devoted their life for the safety of the people. However, it is supremely ironical that the most difficult task of the sanitation workers or safai karmcharis has gone unnoticed and unacknowledged. This is outrageous and shows the absolute caste biases prevailing within our society and the administration. This is despite the safai karmcharis having devoted their life and time to such work, with extremely low pay and high risk, as they do not merely pick up the garbage but also provide other kinds of cleaning services, such as handling medical waste, being directly in contact with surfaces that may be exposed to the novel coronavirus, thus putting them in the high risk category.

How sanitation workers are treated in the time of COVID-19

A report published by online portal The News Minute states that at least six sanitation workers in the Chennai Corporation died of COVID-19. Yet not a single worker’s family received compensation as per the government’s promise. The report says, “Saravanan and five other sanitation workers of the Greater Chennai Corporation have succumbed allegedly due to coronavirus. However, not even one death has been recorded as a coronavirus death, allege Corporation workers. In a letter to the Chennai Corporation on June 18, the Madras Corporation Red Flag Union said, “We request the Corporation to facilitate the disbursal of Rs 50 lakh aid announced by the Chennai Corporation to the workers of Greater Chennai Corporation who contracted the infection during the work. The letter mentions the names of four sanitation workers who died of COVID-19, and TNM has been told that one more worker died after June 18, and the union has also come to know of a sixth death. The six people who succumbed to the virus are a malaria contract worker, a permanent woman sanitary staff member, a permanent male sanitary staff member, two permanent electricians and a permanent Storm Water Drain (SWD) worker” [1].

While we use the example of Chennai, safai karmcharis have faced the highest risk and these across all the major cities and corporations. For example, one Safai Karmchari was found Corona virus infected at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.’ [2]. In another case, on April 24, 2020, newspapers reported 39 Safai Karmcharis found to be COVID-19 positive in New Delhi [3]. In Hyderabad’s Gandhi Hospital about 19 health workers were found Corona positive which included several sanitation workers on May 10th [4]. One of the two sanitation workers who were found COVID-19 positive died in East Delhi’s Shahdara region. The union blamed gross neglect on part of the corporation. The head of Delhi’s sanitation workers’ union, Mr. Sanjay Gehlot said,We are being given poor quality safety kits and are threatened that we will lose our jobs if we refuse to work. Firstly we are risking our lives and then no care is given to us. We should be given new kits every day, how can safety gears be repeated.” [5]

Despite the prohibition of putting workers above 55 years of age into sanitation work during this period, municipalities continue to violate resulting in death of one sanitation worker in South Delhi on April 26th. His relative accused the corporation of neglect and demanded compensation of Rs 1 crore [6]. It is distressing to know that authorities never treated the sanitation workers with dignity and their ailment and deaths are taken for granted.

The problem in cities like Delhi is that they are not ready to pay compensation to sanitation workers as per the policies extended to them by various governments. Hence even after six deaths in Delhi, the authorities might declare the death but will state delay in compensation on the argument that an ‘official report’ is awaited. A fifty-two year old woman died but the cause of death was stated as heart failure, while her family was confidentially been told that she had tested positive for COVID-19. Hindustan Times quotes her relative as having said, “We have been verbally told that she had contracted the coronavirus infection. We are not being handed over the body and have been told to reach the Nigambodh Ghat directly for her last rites. The doctors also said only a maximum of four people can be at the crematorium and a team of doctors will be there to supervise the last rites. She was only given a mask by EDMC to carry out her duties — she did not even have gloves on.” [7]

Another sanitation worker, a 53 year old woman died in the Timarpur area of Delhi working under North Delhi Municipal Corporation about a week ago, as reported by The Hindustan Times, on July 7, 2020. [8]

Reports of safai karmcharis or sanitation workers getting infected to Corona positive are actually coming from various parts of the country as they are most vulnerable. Given that a majority of them are in the informal sector, their cases are not being reported, and the treatment meted out to them insinuates that they should not expect any support from the corporations or government authorities. In fact, their wages are cut and they lose their job if they do not report to work. Recently, seven workers of Vijayawada Municipal corporation also reportedly tested COVID-19 positive [9]

Empty Promises

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that his government would pay Rs 1 crore as compensation to all the frontline workers who die working on duty to protect their communities. Yet families of not a single sanitation worker who passed away have received money. [10]

However a war of words erupted after the chief minister’s announcement as local BJP leaders claimed that his announcement was not meant for the MCD safai karmcharis and they felt that municipal workers were demotivated because of this.

Growing risk in cleaning toxic waste

Safai karmcharis are facing a lot of pressure as they are expected to engage in the difficult task of cleaning toxic waste with a mere coverage of ordinary mask and hand gloves. Those working in the hospitals face the risk of contracting the virus. At the same time many reports are coming in about their maltreatment from many states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamil Nadu.

The announcement by the government that safai karmcharis above the age of 50 or those who are suffering from comorbidities will not be posted for duty seems to be a mere advertisement. For example safai karmchari Manoj Kumar continues to commute from Noida to JJ Colony in Delhi, despite being diabetic, even amid concerns from his family about his safety [11]. Similar reports have come from other parts of the country. In Delhi alone many old safai karmcharis suffering from various diseases were compelled to do sanitation work. In April 2020, two sanitation workers deployed in Daryaganj and Tagore Garden tested positive. Indian Express reports, “One of them, a 56-year-old, has a medical history and is on ventilator in AIIMS. Officials said he was not working in any containment zone. An assistant sanitary inspector with the North civic body, posted in Wazirpur JJ Colony, also tested positive, following which 39 sanitation staffers have been sent to home quarantine.” [12]

It is pitiful that a powerful municipal corporation took the safety of the sanitation workers very lightly. Though the Supreme Court order about safety gear for the sanitation workers is very a long period, it was rather shocking to hear that over 24,000 sanitation workers in Greater Hyderabad limits are living in fear of infection as the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) did not provide safety kits to them till March 20, 2020, and the sanitation workers had to do work with their temporary masks [13].

Most of the safai karmcharis are on a contract basis with no social security provisions. Their salaries too are not fixed. Unfortunately, even in terms of the providing safety kit to them they are considered to be the last priority.

Salute to their concern and offer to voluntary work

It is a well-known fact that sanitation workers engage in lowly paid work which is looked down upon by Indian hierarchical society. A majority of the sanitation workers hail from swachchkar communities who still face the scourge of untouchability and discrimination from upper caste groups. In the fight against this disease, it is this community which has done the most heroic work in term of keeping our hospitals sanitised. Safai karmcharis are also involved in the disposal of dead bodies. The irony is that they have to take care of public areas, while their own areas remain covered in dirt and filth as they are the least prioritised areas for the policy planners so far. Hence, in this hour of crisis, the community too understands the importance of cleanliness and is taking the onus of taking care of itself with innovative ideas. One such great idea has emerged in Trichy in Tamil Nadu where “over 400 other persons who are family members of sanitation workers have currently taken up the task of curbing the spread of coronavirus and ensuring cleanliness in 23 slum settlements in Trichy. The settlements are areas where largely sanitary workers in Trichy live.” [14]

Keeping aside their own pains and agonies, there are stories of sanitation workers contributing not merely through their laborious work but also through donating their salaries, such as in Hyderabad where a municipal corporation sweeper donated Rs 10,000 out of her Rs 12,000 monthly salary. [15]

Harassment for public service

Public service workers who are facing discrimination. For example, in some cases workers have not been allowed to enter their residential colonies if they have come after cremating the dead who happened to be COVID-19 positive. In Andhra Pradesh’s Tekkali village, 10 sanitation workers were forced to spend the entire night at the village outskirts [16].

This crisis has not changed the heart of India’s hypocritical caste forces. They continue to humiliate and look down upon sanitation workers. The major issue is that the entire sanitation work is now contract-based and with minimum payment. It is the contractors who grab more money. Those who collect their money from individual households are in much difficult situation as the middle classes have shut their door on them. In many places, they did not get paid for many months. The exposure to toxic mass is also quite high, such as through discarded masks, tissues, gloves in residential areas [17].

A Muslim sanitation worker in the Jamalpura area of Bhopal was accused by people of spreading the coronavirus since he was wearing a cap. They did not allow him to disinfect the area [18]. Another worker Radhika got infected with COVID-19 and her family was ostracized. It was difficult for her family to manage the house. No help came despite the fact that she was a ‘Corona warrior.’ Her brother reflects on the pain, “My sister contracted the virus while she was serving the people, but she did not receive pay for the non-working days (when she was recovering from the disease). My sister and her children are unable to get food. Since their street is a containment zone, no one is coming forward to help her family.” [19]

Dedication and commitment go unacknowledged 

Sanitation work in India needs to be seen in historical perspective. Beyond the theme of ‘purity’ of work, it is essential to see how a community was forced into this work, which is not less than slavery. Yet, when governments should have focused on paying them better and look towards economic wellbeing and dignified settlement, we see their vulnerability growing further. There were government jobs, public sectors, corporations and railways where there was some job safety. Government of India initially asked all the departments to not dismiss any employees from their jobs during the lockdown period, but shockingly and not surprisingly, it is the sanitation workers who are facing the biggest brunt of our ungratefulness. It reflects how government of India and various other industries and corporations care for them. In March, the Indian Railways announced that they will release full salaries for all their contractual workers including sanitation workers for the lockdown period [20]. It is shocking that the sanitation workers engaged in the most difficult and thankless tasks are not getting their dues on time. A large number of them are contract-based and have no social security as such and hence their plight is much difficult. The New Indian Express reports a sanitation worker Sitha (name changed) as saying, “There are 32 sanitation workers in the railway station. We are divided into two batches and working on alternate days. Hence, we are paid only half month’s salary. Since we do not have any other option, we somehow manage. I do not know how I’m going to pay my son’s college fee with this amount.” [21]

In Chandigarh, railways have dismissed 72 sanitation workers and 16 technical staff with IRSDC for cleaning platform at Chandigarh and Panchklula. According to reports The Indian Railway Station Development Corporation limited will be laying off 50% of its staff deployed for sanitation and other technical work at the Chandigarh Railway Station [22] In the period of this pandemic when they should have been respected and taken care of, the government agencies actually left them shamelessly.

A story published by Foreign Policy journal claims that India has over 5 million sanitation workers who work in sewers or public toilets and work with virtually no protective equipment. Bhim Rao Tambe narrates the helplessness as well as the dangers of the waste collection these days in Mumbai. “The garbage often contains medical waste: syringes, masks, gloves. The syringes have penetrated our feet many a time in the past, but now that is especially dangerous. I feel scared every day, but missing work would mean no food on the table for days”. [23].

Salary never paid on time

The supreme irony is while the government speaks of Swachch Bharat and giving respect to ‘frontline’ warriors, the sanitation workers have never been on the priority list of the government. Their salaries have rarely been paid on time. Backlog of two to three months is the norm. When the big corporations of Delhi such as MCD are unable to pay them salary, what would be the condition in smaller corporations does not leave much to guess. India Today reported that in April 2020, “North Delhi Municipal Corporation mayor Avtar Singh asked the government of Delhi to release Rs. 1000 crore to give to employees of the civic body including the sanitation workers and retired employees. It is reported many of not received salary since January. Vijendra Bagdi, president of the sanitation workers’ union, said that while the sanitation workers are working round-the-clock during the lockdown, they have not been paid yet. Many retired employees have also not received their pensions yet. The workers have been borrowing money in order to meet their household needs, which is not right." [‘Sanitation staff unpaid since January,’ by Rohit Mishra, India Today, April 19, 2020:]]

After two months of the lockdown in May 2020, it was found that sanitation workers remained unpaid since December 2019 [24]. One can be sure that the university vice-chancellors and teachers do not remain unpaid for such a long period but the sanitation workers and informal sector workers are the ones who face the biggest brunt of the exploitative nature of our governance structure.

In Greater Mumbai, the Municipal Corporation which deploys 6500 contract workers and 28,000 permanent staff, many of the contract workers received dismissal notices from their contractors saying that their services will be taken back after the lockdown is over. It is reported that the corporation did not renew the contracts which were expiring on March 31st, 2020 as it wanted to cut the night shift because there was not much to be done. This violates the government’s public commitment where it has asked the companies to desist from firing the staff because of the lockdown. It is more than painful to see that municipal corporations which depend massively on the Safai Karmcharis did not think it for a moment, to follow the government diktat’s here [25].

In Tirupathi Devasthanam, over 1,400 sanitation workers on contract basis have been sacked in the absence of new work [26]. Sadly, this is the condition of the religious place which has one of the highest earnings in India. As their contracts ended on April 30, 2020, the Board felt that it was wise to call for new tenders after the lockdown is over. Again, the same forces who have been speaking so much of equality and passion have not felt the same in doing such shameless job dismissal of those hailing from the most marginalized sections of our society. There are many workers who have been working for over 20 years and TTD Board violated all norms of procedures. The question arises why the government does not take action against such violations.

The Chief Minister of Telangana took a decision to provide increments for ‘Corona Warriors’ but that too remains highly discriminatory against the sanitation workers particularly those who are working on contract. The New Indian Express reported, “As per the CM’s announcement to provide 10 per cent incentive to health workers, these sanitation and security workers will get a meagre rise of Rs 900. Whereas, the GHMC workers and outsourced staff will get close to Rs 7,500. We request the government to take note of this and increase our salaries,” said M Narsimha, AITCU president. Last month, the nurses and sanitation workers staged a protest, demanding an increase in their salaries. But being duty-bound, they went back to work once they realised how short-staffed the Gandhi Hospital actually is.” [27] The biggest crisis is that these hospital staff and sanitation workers are not allowed to return to their localities as people fear they might infect them.

Not to be left behind in their competition with other municipal corporations, Nagpur Municipal Corporation too dismissed 63 sanitation workers in March for the dereliction of duty. 28 of these workers were wage workers and 35 permanent workers. The corporation is using GPS watches given to these workers to trace their locations and timings. The corporation has more than 6000 permanent and 2113 wage workers [28], but then it seems that the corporation does not believe in giving a notice or even following the diktats of the government of India to not to fire the staff at this juncture.

Why doesn’t the government listen to the voices of the Safai Karmcharis

Sanitation work is the most denigrated work in India. It is not merely an occupation, it is stigmatized work. Workers have been doing their jobs in the most difficult conditions despite municipal corporation failing to provide them proper safety kits after various court orders. The sanitation work is basically India’s racist caste system. It is possible there may be a few other community members in this work after the mechanization work started and mass dismissal of the marginalized has happened so that the ‘other’ get better payment. However, we have seen how vulnerable they have become during this entire phase. We don’t have the full details as how many of the Safai Karmcharis got infected or died due to COVID-19. The above analysis is based on news reports appearing between January 2020 till this date but there are many reports which have not been in the media particularly on the small municipalities where caste lines are powerful and Safai Karmcharis face humiliation and insult as if it is meant for them alone.

We have reasons to believe that the authorities do not want to consider them ‘Corona Warriors’ because of the caste reasons. It is a pure caste bias and India must respond to it. World over, we are now witnessing a big solidarity for The Black Lives Matter movement. Despite this, we keep quiet on the continuous violation of the rights of Safai Karmcharis and their discrimination through the hands of all. The government declared one crore compensation if a frontline worker dies during the work but this has not been extended to any Safai Karmcharis. This is the reason why even the hospital staff it seems are not giving them the COVID-19 positive certificate. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal promised in his election manifesto Rs 1 crore for the Safai Karmcharis and their kin on their death during work but so far so many deaths in Delhi and we have not seen any such announcement. Gaps between promises and implementation remains wide.

A call to expedite the cases and provide economic relief 

The time has come for India to come clean on this front. Supreme Court must not let this opportunity go. Municipal corporations and various governments must be called out to seek their time-bound response. It is not merely during this crisis period that they face the tyranny of our society and state but in any normal time as there is no basic worker entitlements such as leaves or holidays for them to rest. Laws have failed to honorably rehabilitate them and protect them. Government does not have complete data as it dwindles and officers are not ready to think beyond the box. As per government’s own admission in the Parliament, 427 people have died while cleaning sewers since 2014 and between 1993 to 2020 this figure is 920 people [29]. As per law, cases should have been filed against those places where these sewage workers died but nothing happened, and there has not been a single conviction so far. The seriousness on part of the government, society, corporations, and courts is questionable. It is criminal to deny the safai karmchari communities their legitimate due. At the time of the COVID-19 crisis, the first priority should be to provide compensation at the same level for all those who are at the frontlines doing their work diligently and taking enormous health risks. It is the duty of the government to provide categorical guidelines to municipalities and contractors to not dismiss any sanitation workers and provide timely and complete payments. To not provide this at this time would mean a grave failure in forwarding dues to the workers on whose backs the safety and health of our community rests.

The immediate need is to provide all the Safai karmcharis personal protective equipment to handle the medical waste, and afford them due job security and their complete payment apart from the equal compensation that has been promised to other frontline workers. Governments must not discriminate people on the ground of their identity. Speaking about racial discrimination globally, we need to show solidarity in our own backyard with the Swachchkar community who are victims of our vicious caste system and are suffering from undue historical prejudices. A crisis can be converted into an opportunity to demolish age old prejudices against the community but will we ever learn a lesson and give the Swchchakar community its legitimate due?

The focus of this article is the condition of the Safai karmcharis during the COVID-19 crisis and it is purely based on media reports which indicate a trend and the conditions may be much more grim in reality. It also includes some snippets from discussions with a number of community activists working on the ground. 

[1‘COVID-19: Deaths of 6 Chennai sanitation workers unrecorded, no solatium for families’ by Bharathi SP, The News Minute, July 3, 2020:

[2राष्ट्रपतिभवनपहुंचीकोरोनाकीआंच : सफाईकर्मचारीनिकला Covid-19 संक्रमित, करीब 100 लोगोंकोकियागयाक्वारंटाइन: सूत्र’ by Parimal Kumar,NDTV, 21 April, 2020:

[3‘MCD के 39 सफाईकर्मचारीकोरोनासंक्रमित, डॉक्टरोंऔरनर्सोंमेंभीफैलासंक्रमण’ by Avinash Rai in, April 24, 2020:

[4‘Hyderabad: 18 on Covid-19 duty including doctors and sanitation workers get infected’ by Amrita Didyala, The Times of India, May 10, 2020:

[5‘Sanitation worker succumbs to coronavirus in Delhi’ by Express News Service, The New Indian Express, April 22, 2020:

[6‘SDMC’s sanitation worker who tested positive for coronavirus dies at AIIMS’ by Vibha Sharma, The Times of India, April 26, 2020:

[7‘Six front-line workers Covid+, sweeper may have died of virus’ by HT Correspondents, Hindustan Times, April 22, 2020:

[8‘Sanitation worker dies of Covid’ by HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, July 7, 2020:

[9‘Seven sanitation workers infected with coronavirus in Vijayawada’ by Express News Service, The New Indian Express, June 16, 2020:

[10‘Coronavirus: Kejriwal announces Rs 1 cr insurance for healthcare, sanitation workers’ kin’, Business Today, April 25, 2020:

[11‘COVID-19: Sanitation workers go beyond call of duty’, PTI, Financial Express, April 13, 2020:

[12‘Delhi: In civic bodies, concerns over PPE kits’, by Abhinav Rajput, Indian Express, April 25, 2020:

[13‘24,000 sanitation workers in Hyderabad suffer sans safety gear’, by Express News Service, The New Indian Express, March 20, 2020:

[14‘Families of sanitation workers turn volunteers to fight coronavirus in Trichy,’ by Bharathi SP, The News Minute, July 8, 2020:

[15‘Big-hearted Hyderabad sanitation worker donates salary to fight COVID-19, by Prasad Nichenametla, Deccan Herald, April 29, 2020

[16‘Workers who cremated victim not allowed home’, by Express News Service, The New Indian Express, July 8, 2020:

[17‘Sanitation workers: ‘COVID-19 or not, our lives are at risk every day’’, by Prabhakar Tamilarasu, The Federal, April 27, 2020:

[18‘मुस्लिम सफाई कर्मचारी का कॉलर पकड़ कर कहा- तुम कोरोना फैलाने आए हो, साथी कर्मचारी ने बताया’, Jansatta Online, April 18, 2020:

[19‘Stigmatised, ostracised’: Sanitation workers in Tamil Nadu battle COVID-19’, by Bharathi SP, The News Minute, May 6 2020:

[20‘Railways to release full salary to lakhs of contractual workers during suspension of service’ by PTI, The Hindu, March 24, 2020:

[21‘Railway sanitary workers pockets ‘cleaned up’, by Jose K. Joseph, The New Indian Express, May 22, 2020:

[22‘Railways sacks 72 sanitation, 16 technical workers’ by Aarti Kapur, The Times of India, July 6, 2020:

[23‘No Masks, No Gloves’ by Puja Changoiwala, Foreign Policy, April 9, 2020:

[24‘Despite the lockdown and months of unpaid salary, JNU’s sanitation workers continue work’, by Parvathi Benu, EdEX Live, May 2, 2020:

[25‘Sanitation workers in Mumbai’s Colaba sent home without notice or pay; ’how will we survive’, ask sweepers, cleaners’ by Shone Satheesh, Firstpost, April 12, 2020:

[26‘Hundreds of outsourced staff left unemployed in Tirupati as contract with TTD expires’ by Jahanvi Reddy, The News Minute, May 2, 2020:

[27‘Stigmatised: Nurses, sanitation workers forced to live in hosps’ by Oishani Majumder,The New Indian Express, May 4, 2020:

[28‘28 daily wage sanitary workers terminated’ by TNN The Times of India, March 19, 2020:

[29‘Over 400 manual scavengers die cleaning filth but not a single conviction’ by Shemin Joy, Deccan Herald, March 10, 2020:

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