“The toilets are always dirty and unclean,” said Kumaran, a worker from Tirupur district.

Cruel irony How Chennais sanitary workers are forced to live in squalor
news Monday, December 21, 2015 - 15:41

In the days following Chennai's devastating deluge, the city looked like a giant garbage dump. Mounds of garbage could be seen at street corners, and from beaches to residential areas, waste was strewn around all over the place, and the city's municipal administration simply did not have the resources to tackle this refuse, which was increasing by the day. So the authorities decided to bring in sanitary workers from all over the state to clean the city.

 The condition in which these sanitary workers are staying, however, present a tale of ironic squalor. At the tenements where hundreds of these workers reside, water-shortage is a perennial problem. Workers don't have proper toilets, and even the wages promised to them have not been paid, according to the workers. They are struggling to survive, they say, and cannot wait to get back home.

 On Monday morning, several workers could be seen sitting outside a mandapam owned by Corporation of Chennai in Kodambakkam where the workers are housed. “There is no water in the toilets and bathrooms,” said Eswaran, a worker from Salem district.

 Workers said that the situation is so bad they have to pay and use toilets and bathrooms outside the premises.  “The toilets are always dirty and unclean,” added Kumaran from Tirupur district.

 Murugan said that they have to walk three to five kilometres to use a toilet and bathroom.

 “We cannot even clean our face and hands after work as there is no water in the bathrooms,” said Murugan. The Chennai corporation water tanks come and provide water for cooking and for drinking purposes, water packets are distributed to the workers.

 There are about 600 workers staying at the mandapam owned by the Corporation of Chennai. For four days, the sanitary workers were staying at the Raghavendra Mandapam where they were provided with proper facilities including bathrooms and toilets, but unfortunately they had to be shifted to the mandapam owned by the Chennai Corporation in Kodambakkam on Friday.

 The only solace perhaps is that they are being provided food at timely intervals. “We have been provided with proper food at the mandapam which is prepared inside the premises,” said Kumaran.

But this has not stopped them from working hard to clean the city. From cleaning the roads, clearing garbage to removing sewage water from the roads, these workers have been working hard to keep the city clean for the past one week. 

Some workers were called in from different districts for five days and others for eight days and had been promised a wage of Rs 2000 but are yet to receive it.

 “I have been waiting for my wage for the past two days,” said Solin Selvam, a worker from Salem. Senthamil, another worker from Salem said that the officials only talk about returning to their districts and not about the remuneration for their work.

 “What will happen to the conservancy work back in their places?" asks A Narayanan, a social activist who has been fighting for the rights of sanitary workers for several years, "The garbage will pile up, defecation will rot, until these people finish their work here and go back to clear the backlog there. It's not like the polythene bag or thermocol plate or the sanitary napkin that's disposable. Sanitary workers and manual scavengers are also disposable commodities, as long as there is steady supply of labour for such jobs. This is the harsh reality."

 Narayana blames the government squarely for the condition of the workers. "The administration says, they have ordered for gumboots and gloves. Is that a solution? Unfortunately, not," he says, "How many of us, or in the administration are sensitive enough to understand that an ill-fitting glove or over-size gumboot will further compound the plight of the worker and make his job all the more messier?"

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