COVID-19, Safety and Security of Sanitation Workers


Ajit Kumar Lenka

ajit kumar lenkaCurrently, millions of people are affected by Covid-19 (coronavirus disease). The number of infected cases and deaths due to Covid-19 is increasing rapidly. As per the WHO data, more than two million people are affected and thousands of people have died from the coronavirus Covid-19 across the globe. In the case of India, as per the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), thousands of people are infected from Covid-19, and hundreds of deaths are reported. As per the WHO guidelines, everyone should follow basic hygienic such as regular washing of hands with soap and water, wearing mask and maintaining social distancing of at least 1.8 meters from others. One needs to avoid unnecessary, unprotected contact with animals and be sure to wash hands properly.

In India, the majority of sanitation workers directly involved in cleaning work are working without protective gear. More than 1.2 million workers are engaged in cleaning work under the supervision of municipalities across the country. In the battle against Covid-19, sanitation workers are playing a major role in cleaning and maintaining hygiene. These workers are more vulnerable than the other workers because they are dealing directly with hazardous work. They are most vulnerable in the current pandemic situation. They face social distance as well as exclusion in both villages and cities (Kumar, 2014). The majority of the workers belong to lower castes. Their educational level is also low and they have very little ownership of resources. They are at the lowest rung of society. Considering these attributes, the present article focuses on special attention for the safety and security of the sanitation workers during the Covid-19 crisis.

These workers are mainly engaged in garbage collection, sweeping, drainage cleaning, disposing of animal dead bodies, cleaning community toilets. This results in direct contact with human excreta, liquid waste from toilets and domestic waste. The health condition of sanitation workers is very poor due to their nature of work. They are facing health related diseases due to hazardous work conditions. Regarding safety equipment, majority of the sanitation workers do not use any type of safety equipment in the course of their work which directly impacts their health. Most of them are employed as contract workers on low salaries and do not have medical health insurance either, which makes them more vulnerable.

In such a pandemic situation, these workers face the direct brunt of the disease. Ramesh (name changed), a 31-year-old sanitation worker in Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation, reported that "in this situation, we have to work regularly, otherwise I may lose my job. I cannot stay at home even when I am in fear". One of the sanitation inspectors from Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation says "Due to lack of funds we are not getting any safety equipment since 2006". Susanta, 46-year-old sanitation worker, says that when he joined the job they used to provide various facilities like uniforms, soap, gloves but from the last six years they did not get any of these. On April-2- 2020, India Today reported that a 52 years old sanitation worker is infected from Covid-19 and now he is in quarantine. The chances may be higher among these people because they are directly dealing with garbage collection and cleaning without any protective gear.

Various organizations, independent researchers are continuously fighting so that the government pays immediate attention to them. Bezwada Wilson, Ramon Magsaysay Awardee and National Convener of Safai Karamchari Aandolan (SKA), says "Right now, sanitation workers do not have any safety gear and the loss of their lives hardly matters to anyone". Prof. Sanghmitra. Acharya (Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU, New Delhi, says, "In the present situation, sanitation workers need free health check up on a regular basis because they are working regularly in filed. Agencies have to provide tools and safety equipment that protect sanitation workers from direct exposure to sewerage water and waste" (over telephone conversation on March 30, 2020).

"Occupational health and safety of women workforce have been ignored and workers are constantly being exposed to a new set of diseases and illnesses. So appropriate implementation of the legal provisions to provide better women's health and safety" says Dr. Sigamani Panneer, Associate Professor CUTN, Tamil Nadu. "Sanitation workers need to more attention, from safety and security point of view, because they are directly dealing with the garbage and government should pay more attention," says Dr. Golak B Patra, Assistant professor, Kaziranga University, Assam. "Sanitation workers are working hard in the current situation, government should raise their salaries as well as extend free medical health insurance facilities to all," says Dr. Navin Narayan, Senior Researcher, Action Aid, New Delhi.

Even after the constitution of various committees and commissions (Kaka Kalekar Commission-1953, Barve committee in 1992) and enactment of legislations (1993-Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act and Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013) for the welfare of sanitation workers, they continue to live in impoverished conditions. In March 2014, the Supreme Court said "The entry of workers without safety and protective gear entry is a criminal offence. Ten lakhs compensation should be given to families of those who die in such cases". Then in 2019, a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra questioned attorney general K. K. Venugopal, and raised serious concerns over people dying during manual scavenging and sewage cleaning. The apex court asked, "Why proper masks and oxygen cylinders where not being provided to people who clean sewers and manholes. Four to five people are dying due to this every month. In no country, people are sent to gas chambers to die".

Under the current pandemic situation, sanitation workers are working without any protective gear. Sanitation workers are more vulnerable by the nature of their work. In the Covid-19 situation, if they work without safety gear, their condition may be worse. Every day their bodies fight against various communicable diseases and their immune systems are already weakened. If they contract Covid-19, then the chances of death may be higher among them. In this situation, both the government and private agencies need to provide all safety equipment, health check-up regularly, strong remuneration and health and life insurance to them immediately without any conditions. Agencies that have not yet taken steps to provide these safety and security measures need to do so now.



* Kumar M, S. (2014). A Study On Socio-economic Conditions Among Scavengers With Special Reference To Ganeshapuram, Thiruvearampur Block, Truchirappalli. Indian Journal of Applied Research, (12), 101–104.

* Secretariat, L. O. K. S. (2013). Manual Scavengers : Welfare and Rehabilitation, Lok Sabha Secretariat Parliament Library and Reference, Research, Documentation and Information Service (LARRDIS)(18)

* PTI (2019) https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/nowhere-in-the-world-people-sent-to-gas-chambers-to-die-says-sc-on-manual-scavenging-1600455-2019-09-18 Accessed on 24/03/2020



Ajit Kumar Lenka is working as a Research Consultant in Delhi. He has completed his PhD from JNU, New Delhi.

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