While Bengaluru’s civic body is distributing some safety gear to those handling waste, activists say it is not being done uniformly.

Coronavirus Civic workers waste pickers are at a high risk
news Coronavirus Monday, March 16, 2020 - 15:48

Even as state governments are working at war-footing to identify active cases and contain the novel coronavirus in India, one section of people, while indispensible, continue to remain more vulnerable to the disease: civic workers and those engaged in solid waste management.

Activists in Bengaluru are advocating for fair work conditions for pourakarmikas – the city’s civic workers – and allege that the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) is not doing enough to protect these workers who are responsible for maintaining everyday health and hygiene in the city.

“We have instructed our officers to ensure that gloves, masks, shoes and sanitisers are made mandatory for them,” BBMP Commissioner BH Anil Kumar confirmed to TNM.  He added that the Zonal Joint Commissioners have been tasked with the implementation of these guidelines. This was done after a meeting between the government officials on March 13. The Chief Engineer of the Solid Waste Management, Vishwanath, meanwhile, told TNM that they will also screen the civic workers if have symptoms of the coronavirus disease.

However, activists point out that it is not being implemented uniformly, and allege that in many areas, men and women are being seen inside the waste compartments of vehicles, and have not been given safety equipment like gloves.

Lekha Adavi, an activist and lawyer, said, “Many workers don't have access to water or toilets, where they can wash hands. What can 60% alcohol-based sanitizers do if they are dealing with toxic materials without any safety equipment like gloves?” she added.

Uma, a pourakarmika in Indiranagar, confirmed that last week, their contractor had come and informed them about the coronavirus pandemic. “We have masks, gloves, shoes. The shoes are not very good but we can manage. We were also told that we should sneeze by keeping people at a distance. So we have been doing that. However, we are seeing a lot of masks thrown in the waste now. We are using gloves to separate them.”

Activists reiterate Uma’s observation and point out that now, the increase in the number of disposable masks and other biomedical waste, in addition to the general mix of toxic garbage, is putting pourakarmikas at higher health risk.

Sandhya Narayan, a member of the Solid Waste Management Round Table, a panel of experts, pointed out that while pourakarmikas have always been asked not to touch sanitary or biomedical waste, the lack of waste segregation at source poses as a problem.  

“Mixed waste is anyway not processed and dumped in the landfills. What we need is a proper mechanism for segregating waste at source, reducing the need for pourakamikas to touch and separate it,” Sandhya stated. “We are now trying to emphasise even more to pourkarmikas that they should not touching the sanitary or biomedical waste,” she adds.

Another suggestion is for the BBMP by experts is to withdraw the system of biometric attendance for these workers for the time being, as has been done by the state an.d central governments in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. The All India Council of Central Trade Unions (AICCTU) had written to the state Chief Secretary and other top bureaucrats for the same

But at the moment,  this has not been accepted. " We have advised personal hygiene while capturing biometric details  to our supervisors. That is being followed." Randeep D,  BBMP Special Commissioner (SWM) told TNM.

(With inputs from Prajwal Bhat)

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