Mumbai’s Swachhta Mascots Fight To Preserve Dignity & Life
32-year-old Sangeeta Shingare helplessly watched her husband Santosh Shingare, a BMC conservancy worker battle with TB for over three years before passing away last month.
My husband used to sweep the streets and pick up garbage in Andheri for the BMC for over 15 years. Three years ago he started falling ill and was diagnosed with TB. He kept inhaling the dust while at work and contracted infections as he didn’t receive gloves or a mask. In a month, we used to spend about Rs 4000 out of his salary of Rs 9000 for his treatment. Despite the treatment he couldn’t be saved.Sangeeta Shingare, wife of a former BMC employee
Sangeeta and her three children are now surviving on the meagre amount she receives from her ageing parents as she fights to receive a job in her husband’s place.
A study being conducted by Apollo Clinic on BMC’s solid waste management workers has revealed that over 40 percent of the 2000 workers checked so far, suffer from respiratory infections. While 22 percent workers had skin infections, over 79 percent suffered from allergies.
The most common respiratory illnesses that we found include - bronchitis, sinusitis and rhinitis and among skin problems, fungal infections are very common. Surprisingly, we haven’t found major illnesses so far, we were expecting to find hepatitis-B and C, TB or HIV but that’s very few. Till now we have covered three wards and these are more hygienic. Maybe, a greater part of the disease pattern will emerge in the next 3-4 months.Dr Sanjay Kapote, a director at Apollo Clinic
These medical exams and facilities however, are only restricted to the BMC conservancy workers who are on the civic body’s payroll. The civic body’s contract workers receive little or no protective gear while cleaning the drains. Their medical expenses too are not covered by the BMC, causing many to become complacent about getting regular health check-ups and continuing their treatment.
48-year-old Santosh Patil suffered from heart attacks twice while at work. After undergoing a bypass surgery and an angioplasty, Patil is now seeking treatment for a urinary tract infection that has only aggravated after constantly coming into contact with filth.
“I was pulling a heavy cart and I started sweating profusely. My colleagues realised I was having a heart attack and took me to Nair Hospital. I underwent a bypass surgery and returned to work after a short break. About 2 months later the same thing happened again. My chest hurt so much that I just sat down. I got my angioplasty done at my own risk and today I have rejoined. The doctor told me that if I work inside the drains, I will fall sick again.”Santosh Patil, BMC worker
Patil is now dreading the day he must enter the storm drains once again.
When 35-year-old Anil Maskil was assigned a job with BMC’s solid waste management department about 8 years ago, he was healthy. After initially cleaning storm water drains for over two years, he started sweeping and cleaning garbage from the roads. While he was prepared for a spike in his medical costs due to the nature of his work and higher exposure to dust and filth, he wasn’t however prepared for the severity of it.
I started to sort and load garbage from the streets onto the trucks and then dump them into the Deonar dumping grounds. Over the last three years I have been suffering from asthma and it has become so severe because of the dust and smoke that I cannot work anymore. I cannot tolerate the fumes from the dumping ground anymore. Since I had to go on leave for weeks according to the doctors’ recommendation, I don’t have a job anymore.Anil Maskil, former BMC worker
With his job terminated, Anil and his family of four live hand to mouth by performing odd jobs. His medical bills alone cost at least Rs 5000 per month.
BMC worker Gautam Shirke has had a long day. After cleaning three clogged manholes, Shirke settles down for lunch at about 2 pm. He has barely managed to rinse the muck on his hands from the storm drain but with no soap around, he has no choice but to eat without disinfecting his hand. Does it bother him to eat with the filth still on his clothes and hand?
“I have gotten used to it. We clean up clogged drains and sit barely a few feet away from it and eat with our dirty hands. What else can we do? It’s part of the job” says Shirke passively.
Exposure to such toxins lead to irritation in the lung and cause respiratory diseases like bronchitis, difficulty in breathing and fever over the long term. Apart from this, there will be skin irritation, eyes burning, loss of layers of skin if the individual comes into contact with these toxins. While most of this is inflammatory, over a period of time, if left untreated, they can cause damage to the workers’ organs. This needs to be taken at the same level as an industrial toxin and workers must get health check-ups regularly.Dr Om Shrivastav, consultant, infectious diseases
Ashok Jadhav was just 14 when he became a staffer at the BMC’s solid waste management department in 1988. Remembering his early days on the job, Jadhav says, he was hired to clean septic tanks since his small build helped him enter the manhole easily. In a bid to rid himself of the stench, he took to alcohol at an early age. While he managed to overcome his addiction, most of his other colleagues were not so lucky.
I escaped with an asthma but many people get TB on the job. It is very tough to breathe when you are inside the drain because of the gasses present. The workers also just survive on breakfast all day as most of them can’t eat till the evening, this affects their health even more.Ashok Jadhav, BMC worker
Forced to choose between dignity and earning a livelihood, the choice is obvious for Mumbai’s forgotten swachhta mascots- survival trumps life.