COVID-19: For Mumbai’s Sanitation Staff, It’s All Risk & No Glory

Who will protect MCGM workers from COVID-19? 

My Report
4 min read
MCGM staff cleaning Kasturba Hospital premise where COVID-19 tests are being conducted in Mumbai.

The 21-day lockdown announced by PM Modi to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has left many businesses shuttered. Private company employees have been told to work form home. All government offices are to function at their minimum capacity except for a few essential ones.

Unfortunately, sanitation workers offer such an essential service that they are to remain working even during the lockdown. But apart from handing down the burden of responsibility, it seems like it’s nobody’s business to ensure that sanitation workers are safe and taken care of while they provide their essential service to the nation.

MCGM workers clean Kasturba Hospital.
MCGM workers clean Kasturba Hospital.
(Photo Courtesy: Sheeva Yamuna, Dhamma Darshan Nigam)

In this respect, the condition of Mumbai’s sanitation workers need to be highlighted.

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With the total shutdown of Mumbai local trains, only the state run BEST and MSRTC buses are functional for the commutation of staff of essential agencies or services such as police, hospitals and sanitation staff of municipal corporations. However, sanitation workers are finding it tough to use these buses for commutation.

An MCGM sanitation worker living in Nalasopara, hit by policemen while traveling to work.
An MCGM sanitation worker living in Nalasopara, hit by policemen while traveling to work.
(Photo Courtesy: Sheeva Yamuna, Dhamma Darshan Nigam)

Some sanitation workers have reported that hospital staff on BEST buses are stopping sanitation workers from boarding the buses, claiming that they are meant for only “hospital staff”.

We received a video clipping showing the bus conductor checking commuters’ identity cards and asking Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) staff to leave the bus, which they did. In another incident reported to us, a sanitation worker was hit by policemen in Nalasopara while he was going to work.

While sanitation workers hardly have any means to go to work, choosing not to go isn’t an option either. To stop absenteeism of sanitation workers, MCGM sent a circular on 27 March cancelling all their leaves. It declared that any worker not reporting to work would be suspended until further notice.

Circular dated 27 March.
Circular dated 27 March.
(Photo Courtesy: Sheeva Yamuna, Dhamma Darshan Nigam)

The circular mentions no exception for sanitation workers who are ill, above 50 years of age, showing any symptom of COVID-19, or who live too far away to commute to work in the absence of local trains running. The circular is a form of coercion without any regard for the lives and safety of sanitation workers.

What Will Protect MCGM Workers From COVID-19?

Meanwhile, the sanitation workers who have been able to report to work are doing all they can to ensure hygiene and sanitation for the public. A lot of them go by rotation to Kasturba Hospital to do the needed cleaning. But these workers themselves do not have any assurance that if they catch the virus and experience any symptoms, they will be tested for COVID-19 and be given free treatment. There is no monitoring going on for their health.

Workers at Kasturba Hospital.
Workers at Kasturba Hospital.
(Photo Courtesy: Sheeva Yamuna, Dhamma Darshan Nigam)

MCGM workers have not had any health insurance for the past three years. The government was planning to offer them insurance plans worth Rs 2 lakh each when a union intervened, asking for insurances worth Rs 5 lakhs each. The matter has been contested in court since then.

The workers are braving COVID-19 without any safety measures to protect them if they catch it.

The Economic Action Plan announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on 26 March promises medical insurance worth Rs 50 lakh each for the “frontline warriors” of this crisis. The plan aims to cover about 20 lakh workers including hospital sanitation staff, ASHA workers, doctors, paramedics, and some others. Obviously, these do not include India’s sanitation workers in general, who number in the millions.

The Finance Minister called some of these frontline warriors “Gods in white costume.”

The ones in brown and blue costumes are not seen as “frontline warriors.”

Why are MCGM sanitation workers not counted among “medical sanitary workers in government hospitals” even when they are cleaning Kasturba Hospital to cope with COVID-19?

Those cleaning corridors, streets, public toilets, and emptying waste bins often come across improperly discarded biowaste, but they are not seen as ‘frontline warriors’.

Even if sanitation workers were seen as frontline warriors, their lives would probably not be considered worth Rs 50 lakh. Sanitation workers are not even valued at Rs 2 lakh insurance each. The MCGM is trying hard to prove this evaluation in court.

Meanwhile, the sanitation workers at MCGM have made a humble appeal to urgently address their concerns. They ask for health insurance, free tests for COVID-19 if needed, and housing near their work locations so that they can report to work and provide their service.

Their appeal can be read here.

(Dr Sheeva Yamuna is a researcher at Youth for Unity & Voluntary Action [YUVA] and lives in Mumbai. Dhamma Darshan Nigam is an independent writer, researcher and poet based in New Delhi. All 'My Report' branded stories are submitted by citizen journalists to The Quint. Though The Quint inquires into the claims/allegations from all parties before publishing, the report and the views expressed above are the citizen journalist's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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