THE COVID-19 epidemic has starkly highlighted the role of sanitation in our everyday lives, even as it has also brought into relief the unrewarded and tragically under-appreciated labour of sanitation workers, who are actually frontline health workers that play a profoundly important role in the business of keeping us all well. As opposed to this reality, the sentiments that inform much of the popular imagination on sanitation work are those relating to its horrific casteist foundations.
A group of concerned persons have utilised the occasion of the pandemic to address this important issue of public health and collective fairness. The statement has appeared on the portals of—among others—Sabrangindia, PMARC (Peoples Media Advocacy & Resource Centre), Counterviews, Punjab Today, The Scroll, and The Wire. The following summary of the statement is part of an effort to extend the reach of its message—in this case through The Leaflet, which is an important medium for the dissemination of ideas on human rights and human dignity.
We have all heard recent reports of sanitary workers being appreciated for their work in this time of collective emergency. These tokens of appreciation have mainly assumed the form of small amounts of money and food. We have here the seeds of an understanding that hygiene and wellbeing are complementary, even identical, just as the tasks of sanitary workers and doctors are complementary, and their purposes identical. For this understanding to take root, we have to go far beyond the dispersed gestures of tokenism that we have witnessed.
What is called for is the implementation of a set of concrete, practical proposals that will reflect our appreciation of the values of sanitation and justice, and their grounding in enlightened self-interest and common sense. Specifically:
In the interests of both accuracy and dignity, sanitary workers should be classified as health workers, along with doctors and nurses; all sanitary work should be mechanised; no sanitary work will be contract labour; a minimum wage, of at least Rs.20,000, should be implemented; there must be comprehensive health insurance for sanitary workers and their families; they should be eligible for pension benefits and for all allowances that are covered under the description of ‘hazardous work’; they must be provided with accommodation and transport services because like the police, they work at keeping citizens safe; in time, they shall come to play a supportive-cum-supervisory role in which they will assist citizens to establish fruit- and vegetable-bearing gardens; and children of sanitary workers should be eligible for sound and free education.
It is to be hoped that all good people of conscience and common sense will come forward and participate in defending and advancing the merit of these proposals, in a spirit that is mediated by considerations of cleanliness, fairness, and practical wisdom. The fear of transmission of the coronavirus has presented us with an opportunity to not only emerge a clean and dignified nation but to also break the caste transmission of sanitary work from mother to daughter, from father to son.
(Submitted by S Subramanian)