“Three kinds of people run toward disaster, not away: cops, firemen and reporters.”
These words of American journalist Rod Dreher have been immortalised on a plaque at the Newseum (news museum) in Washington DC.
If Dreher were in flood-hit Chennai last week, he would surely have expanded his list to include the celebrities and common citizens who hit the ground running. But would that complete the list?
What happens after the fires have been put out, lives saved and the last news report filed? What happens after the last citizen and celebrity leave? Who takes the disaster zone back to looking as good as new? Who wipes out the bloodstains? Who scrapes up the rotting flesh?
After front page odes to the heroes of the floods, many local newspapers in Chennai carried a small report inside on December 7 announcing that more than 2,000 sanitation workers from across Tamil Nadu had arrived in the city to clean up the mess. They had to be called in because most of Chennai’s sanitation workers hadn’t turned up to work. Most of the slums they live in are also under the dirty water.
But even if they all had turned up for work, the clean-up wouldn’t be easy; all of Chennai is today one large, festering, open air toilet.
The city has around 7,000 sanitation workers, according to R Anbuvedan, state president of the Republican Trade Union of India, which was started by BR Ambdekar. “The population of Chennai is 85 lakh, meaning one sanitation worker is cleaning the waste generated by around 1,200 people. The central government norms say that there should be three sanitary workers per thousand people,” says Anbuvelan who is also a member of the corporation’s manpower reorganisning committee.
According to the city corporation, each person in the city generates 700 grams of waste per day. Chennai generates the highest per capita garbage in the country. That’s 870 kilos of garbage per sanitary worker per day. But that’s on good, floodless days.
It is strange that Dreher doesn’t add sanitation workers to his list of American heroes. It could only be because sanitation workers don’t exactly ‘run’ dramatically towards a disaster zone. It surely can’t be because Dreher doesn’t consider their work disaster management. Because every morning--with trashcans and sewers full of putrefying human, animal and chemical waste--every city in the world is a potential disaster zone. And what we conventionally consider disaster zones must also be cleaned up.
The US department of labour says that sanitation work is among the 10 most dangerous jobs in that country. The department’s report says that sanitary workers--a majority of whom are Black or people of colour--are four times more likely to die of work-related hazards than firemen or cops. And journalism did not make it to the top 10.
Under Indian law, a sanitation worker must be given gloves, masks, gumboots, towels, soap and oil. “If a sanitation worker is not given proper protecive equipment, it constitutes a crime according to the Prohibition of Manual Scavenging Act. The act says that if they are not given protective gear, their work will amount to manual scavenging,” Anbuvedan says.
As many as 78 men from the Dindigul municipalty are camping in a mariage hall in Gajalakshmi colony of Chennai. They were provided with only seven gumboots. None of them have been given gloves, masks, soap or oil.
These luxuries haven’t been granted to local sanitary workers either. “I was given gloves and chappals (not gumboots) but they don’t fit properly. It is not easy to work with ill fitting equipment,” says Kannamma, 50, a sanitary worker with the Chennai corporation. She confirms that she has cleaned human excrement with her bare hands and says, “Toilets everywhere are flooded. Half of the city is defecating in the open. And there are the dead animals.”
At the north zonal headquarters of the Chennai corporation a sanitary supervisor proudly boasts that the workers have been provided with footwear, gloves and masks. When she is persuaded to show the equipment, it turns out the gloves are made of cloth, the footwear is rubber slippers and the masks are made of a kind of sheer material. All the cops and firemen though have been given nicely fitting gumboots that stand out because of their bright yellow soles.
Only around 700 of the 7,000 sanitary workers in the city are permanent employees of the corporation and get above Rs 15,000 per month. The rest are on contract and are paid anywhere between Rs 200 and Rs 290 as daily wages. No work means no pay. There are no sick leaves. “The corporation hasn’t hired permanent sanitary staff for 15 years. There is a severe manpower shortage,” says Anbuvedan.
Kannamma, whose house in the Ezhil Nagar slum is under waist-deep water, is back at work. She has been a permanent employee of the city corporation for the last eight years and is entitled to all the leaves that other government servants get. “Nobody has told me how many leaves I can take. I don’t understand these things because I am not educated. I have come to work because I don’t want my salary cut,” she says.
Here is another well known fact: all of Chennai’s and indeed all of Tamil Nadu’s sanitation workers are either Dalits or Adivasis. Most of them are from the Arundhadiyar Scheduled Caste.
“Everybody in Chennai has suffered equally because of the floods. But only my people will go through the extra suffering of cleaning Chennai’s rotting s**t. Why can’t the concerned citizens and celebrities who are distributing food and blankets also clean up the city? Why is the media only projecting them as heroes?” asks Ravichandran Bathran, a postdoctoral fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study who is also from the Arundhadiyar community.
“Everybody complains of resevations in higher institutions but nobody talks about reservations in the lower institutions. In the business of cleaning s**t, there is 100% reservation for Dalits. Why don’t people from other castes join this work?” says Ravichandran.
To be fair, a handful of the citizens’ groups have picked up the broom. The Jamat-e-Islami Hind made headlines when they cleaned Hindu temples. The residents of Choolaimedu cleaned up their own trash and proudly put up photos on Facebook that were shared 10,000 times at last count. And one Tamil actor is planning to organise a team of citizens who will get down to cleaning. They are waiting for protective gear to arrive.
“They will clean the streets but will they clean the gutters? Will they get into manholes that are clogged with rubbish? Even if they do, they will surely wear all the protective equipment,” says A Narayanan, director of Change India, an NGO that works for the eradication of manual scavenging.
The first signs of an epidemic are already here. Doctors in many government hospitals in the city are confirming cases of rat fever, jaundice and mosquito-borne diseases. While there are bound to be glorious exceptions, as a rule, it will be a silent army of people, mostly belonging to one lowered caste, that will fight this danger with their bare hands.
The sanitary workers are now working in those parts of the city that have not been heavily inundated by the floods. They are waiting for the waters to subside in the worst affected areas. It may be weeks before the water recedes. By then the trash would have decomposed some more. By then most of the cops, firemen and reporters might be back to their regular beats.