From skin allergies to lung problems, Gurugram sanitation workers brave waste dumps without safety gear
Thirty-seven-year-old Sekh climbs atop a tractor laden with about a metre-high pile of garbage, giving out a foul stench, and stamps the waste with his feet and adjusts it with his hands to accommodate more garbage. He does all this without any protective gear, such as gloves, boots, or a mask, as ‘he was not given any.’
As he descends, a mixture of muck and sludge is sticking to his red rubber sandals and toes. Showing his hands, which had turned black from handling the garbage, Sekh said, “It is all dirty. This is a dirty job.”
Sekh, who did not wish to give his full name, works as a garbage collector for the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram (MCG). He is a migrant worker from Nadia district of West Bengal and lives in a slum cluster in the city.
Spot checks at 10 locations across the city by a Hindustan Times team revealed that the majority of the 4,300-odd sanitation workers in the city are working without safety equipment and gear, leaving them prone to diseases of the skin, lung, kidney and liver.
Of the over three dozen sanitation workers the HT team met at 10 locations across the city, not a single worker was found using gloves or mask, which is in violation of the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, notified by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change.
This is despite daily inspections by MCG officials, even in areas where sanitation work is outsourced, as confirmed by MCG commissioner Yashpal Yadav.
According to the 2016 rules, local authorities should “ensure that the operator of a facility provides personal protection equipment including uniform, fluorescent jacket, hand gloves, raincoats, appropriate footwear and masks to all workers handling solid waste”.
It also states that the local authorities should also ensure “the same (personal protection equipment) is used by the workforce”.
The MCG commissioner said, “In a meeting a few days ago, it was mentioned that the workers were using it (safety gear). If they have not even been issued the gear, it is a serious issue. I’ll ensure that the workers are given safety gear and that they also use it.”
Dr Suranjith Chatterjee of Apollo Hospital in Delhi said that handling garbage without safety gear can affect multiple organs. “Long-term exposure to degrading materials and chemicals released from the waste can cause multi-organ problems. It can affect kidney, liver and lungs,” he said.
Apart from the 2,150 contractual workers, there are about 2,200 sanitation workers directly appointed by the MCG. The workers under MCG said that they were given safety equipment about six months ago, but it was inadequate.
“For the first time, I got a mask about six months ago and used it for a month. As we sweat a lot, it got damaged. It was not washable either,” a 32-year-old woman sanitation worker, who sweeps the road in Sukhrali, said. She did not wish to be named, for the fear of losing her job.
The sweeper said that they were not given any gloves. “Gloves are necessary as we will have to pick up the waste.”
“Gloves are not given to everyone. It’s given to people who clean drains and people who directly handle garbage,” YS Gupta, additional commissioner of MCG, said, about workers directly employed by the MCG.
He said that according to rules, they have to provide a pair of shoes and two uniforms a year to each worker. “Though gloves and masks are not mentioned in the rules, we issue these to them,” he said.
Gupta said that there was no particular number of items given in a year, but that they distribute the gear from “time to time”.
For outsourced workers, according to terms of the contract with MCG, the contractor has to provide safety equipment to the workers.
“The service provider (contractor) shall, at his own expense, provide protective clothing… to all staff and labourers engaged to the satisfaction of MCG and on his failure to do so, MCG shall be entitled to provide the same and recover the cost from the service providers,” reads page 37 of the ‘special terms and conditions’ of the contract for outsourcing sanitation work.
“Such clothing shall include, at minimum, protective footwear and gloves for workmen…,” it reads.
Sekh, a pot-bellied man, sporting a tight blue T-shirt riddled with holes, said that cleaning drains is the dirtiest part of the job.
On a sweltering July morning, standing at one of the mazes of concrete roads of Sector 52, pointing to a drain he is cleaning, he said, “Drains have all sorts of dirty things — water from toilets, sewer and other dirty discharge from houses,” Sekh said.
Sekh’s hands were all muddied and covered with a mixture of sweat and sludge up to the elbow. Flies settled on his hands and feet and he carried with him the stench of the sludge in his pair of black jeans, as it was smudged all over.
The problems workers faced due to not having safety equipment varied from person to person.
In Sector 17, a 24-year-old worker, who was directly hired by the MCG, said he had received a mask about six months ago, but it got damaged after about two months and it is yet to be replaced. Also, he did not receive any gloves.
“It smells a lot and when we have to eat something or drink water while working, who will give us soap to wash our hands in the streets?” he asked.
Most of the workers the HT team met were from scheduled caste or migrant workers, mainly from West Bengal.
At Sector 54 Chowk, five sanitation workers, hired by a contractor, said they were not given any protective gear.
A 35-year-old worker from West Bengal, touching the halfway mark of his forefinger with his thumb said, “There are worms this big in the garbage.”
“Also, our spit is blackish in colour,” he added.
A 65-year-old sanitation worker, who has been doing this job for the past eight years, said he gets fits of cough every night. “I get home and eat a piece of jaggery so that I won’t have any health problem,” he said. “In the past eight years, I’ve never been issued a mask.”
A woman sanitation worker who was brooming the road in Pataudi Chowk held out her hands and stretched her fingers to show a skin allergy on her fingers. “This happens in our line of work,” she said.
Two other workers showed cuts on their hands due to glass pieces in the garbage, as they were working without gloves.
Another 34-year-old migrant worker, when asked about his problems, scratched his left wrist with his fingernails to remove a layer of dirt. “Can you see the skin?” he asked, showing rashes on his forearm.
When asked about the black spit, Dr Chatterjee said that it could be due to the polluted environment they are working in.
“Sweepers can be prone to allergies, bronchitis and lung problems, due to dust and smoke on the streets,” he said.
On rashes reported by multiple workers, he said that there are particles in the waste that can irritate the skin.
Ram Singh, vice-president, Nagar Palika Karamchari Sangh, (Gurugram unit), said workers should be given protective equipment every month.
“Earlier this year, we (sanitation workers) had gone on a 16-day strike raising various demands, including basic safety gear,” he said.
No off days
Sanitation workers in two zones in the city said that they have to work seven days a week and salary is deducted even if they take a day off. There are more than 950 sanitation workers in these two zones, hired by contractors.
The MCG has divided the city into four zones and a part of the cleaning work has been outsourced.
YS Gupta, the additional commissioner of MCG, said that according to rules, each worker has to be given an off every week.
Yashpal Yadav, the MCG commissioner, said, “No one can work for seven days a week. There should be one day’s rest.” He added that he will take up the issue with the contractors.
Ram Singh, the union leader, said, “Contractors are forcing workers to work seven days a week. More than 100 workers have complained to us about this.”
Singh said that according to the MCG contract for outsourced workers, there should be buffer staff, who should work on Sundays.