Fighting from the bottom, India’s sanitation workers are also frontline workers battling Covid-19

Written by Abhimanyu Chakravorty
| New Delhi |

Updated: May 18, 2020 6:21:06 pm

Rag pickers roam unprotected in these dumpyards.

The legacy of social exclusion is deeply entrenched in his conscience. As he begrudgingly hauls this stigma every day of his life, door-to-door, picking up waste from households in Southeast Delhi, 36-year-old Pawan stands at a crossroads yet again: as pots and pans rung out loud from balconies to boost morale of doctors, nurses and frontline workers fighting coronavirus, where’s the round of applause for him?

“We don’t get the same respect as doctors, other medical staff even when we put our health at risk everyday. Our work is still not considered as an essential service,” said Pawan (name changed), a migrant worker from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, who handles garbage of more than 100 houses.

Pawan is part of India’s indispensable 40 lakh waste pickers in the informal sector, and garbage collectors employed by states, the backbone of the waste management system. Yet, despite providing an essential public health service to residential colonies, hospitals, and commercial establishments, most work without safety gear, have no social security, face rampant discrimination, but still keep our cities clean. Now, they are also at risk of exposure to Covid-19 from handling unmarked medical and contaminated waste.

Pawan, who goes by the only name, collects garbage from at least 100 houses from a locality in Southeast Delhi. (Source: Abhimanyu Chakravorty)

When asked if he’s scared of the coronavirus, Pawan stared blankly, then cobbled up his thoughts and said, “Karein to kya karein? Bina khaye mar jaaye? Dar hai lekin bhookha peth marne se acha hai kaam karoon. Mere paanch betiyan hain ghar pe (What do I do? Should I starve to death? I am scared but not as much as dying on an empty stomach. I have five daughters at home),” he added, rubbing his index finger and thumb together to scrape off the stubborn dirt.

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Trash contaminated with bodily fluids from hospitals, quarantine centers, and home quarantine for suspected Covid-19 patients poses a daunting challenge for waste management authorities, sanitation workers and waste pickers alike as even loosely discarded face masks, gloves, tissues, cotton swabs, syringes from households could be likely carriers of the virus, even before a patient is diagnosed as symptomatic.

CPCB issues guidelines for handling of waste during Covid-19

In this regard, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), had issued guidelines in March, and then a revised one in April, for handling, treatment, and safe disposal of waste generated during treatment, diagnosis and quarantine of confirmed or suspected Covid-19 patients. Even though India already has a Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules (BMW), 2016, the updated guidelines were issued specifically to make sure that the waste generated during testing and treatment of coronavirus patients is scientifically disposed of, given the contagious nature of the virus.

For households and quarantine camps, the guidelines said that waste generated “should be collected separately in yellow-coloured bags and handed over to authorised waste collectors engaged by ULBs”.

Read | Rediscovering sustainable development through a Covid-19 lockdown lens

To ensure strict compliance of waste management guidelines, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had directed the Centre and CPCB to supervise handling and scientific disposal of Covid-19 waste. The tribunal said that while the Bio Medical Waste Rules deal with waste generated in dealing with infectious diseases, the coronavirus pandemic has presented further challenge in terms of capacity to scientifically dispose of generated waste.

In its observation, the green tribunal noted that the “disposal of Covid-19 waste in general bins so as to be part of municipal waste or unscientific handling sewage and other liquid waste without safeguards can also be hazardous”. It told the concerned authorities to furnish a consolidated ground status report by June 15.

Hazardous waste increased during pandemic

But managing this waste isn’t that simple, as general waste – wet or dry- can be declared hazardous if it comes in contact with Covid-19 patients and requires scientific disposal. There’s another aspect: coronavirus can stay on certain surfaces for more than three days. According to a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, even after waste is disposed of, the novel coronavirus can survive on surfaces such as cardboard for 24 hours and more than three days on plastic and metallic surfaces.

“All waste, including food, if it comes into contact with Covid waste becomes hazardous. As per Bio-Medical Waste Rules (BMW), 2016, hazardous waste must be disposed of in incinerators,” said Dr Jugal Kishore, head of the Public Health Department at Delhi’s Vardhman Mahavir Medical College and Safdarjung Hospital.

A North DMC sanitation staff picking up waste from households in yellow during Covid-19 pandemic. (Source: North DMC)

Hazardous waste generation has increased from households in containment zones and quarantine centres during the pandemic, said Varsha Joshi, Commissioner, North Delhi Municipal Corporation. “In the last 41 days of lockdown, an additional 11.4 tonnes of hazardous waste was generated from households. To minimise chances of infection, all waste, including food, from hospitals, quarantine centres, isolation wards, home care of suspected Covid-19 patients is being treated as hazardous waste,” she said.

Dr Kishore agreed that biomedical waste generation has increased sharply since the start of the pandemic. He said bigger hospitals are taking all precautions but the ones outside cities and in periphery areas have poor waste compliance.

Wuhan generated six times medical waste during pandemic

Staff move bio-waste containers past the entrance of the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, where some infected with a new virus are being treated, in Wuhan, China, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Dake Kang)

As India conducts more tests to contain coronavirus, and for good measure, it’s own cases (96,169) surpassed China’s three days back. Evidently, the demand for Personal Protective kits (PPE), masks and gloves to protect doctors, nurses and other frontline workers against Covid-19 transmission will be much more. For instance, Wuhan, Hubei’s capital city and origin of the coronavirus, generated nearly six times the medical waste against the usual. The waste generation increased from 40 metric tonnes per day to 240 metric tonnes per day. To manage this waste, the province had to construct a new waste treatment plant and add numerous mobile waste treatment facilities, as per China’s CGTN, a mouthpiece of the government.

Also Read | India coronavirus numbers explained: Surge is around the corner

When CPCB issued the guidelines, they marked CBWTFs as a key factor in their efforts to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. For some perspective, in 2018, India produced 608 tonnes of biomedical waste every day in its health care facilities, out of which 87 per cent was treated. However, around 27,427 cases of violations were reported under BMW Rules, 2016 against CBWTFs in the same year.

There have been reports of illegal dumping of masks and medical waste used for treatment and containment of coronavirus from across the country. In Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad, face masks – especially single-use ones – were dumped by users along with their household garbage and were being picked up by waste pickers unknowingly. The concerned authorities said households were not aware what to do with them.

Medical wastes left for segregation, at a camp Sharan Camp, near Shaheen Bagh, on Monday, March 29, 2020. Express photo by Abhinav Saha.

Then, a campsite for migrant workers in Delhi’s Sharan Vihar area, that the Indian Express visited, had rows of medical waste such as surgical masks, gloves, syringes, tunics, gowns and empty tablet packets, among other items, stuffed inside blue bags.

A heap of medical waste in blue bags . Express Photo by Anand Mohan J

Many at the camp work as medical waste collectors, collecting garbage from hospitals and bringing them back to the campsite to segregate it further increasing risk for not only themselves but also residents who live around the area.

Waste generated from households a cause of worry

chandigarh city news, chandigarh waste segregation, sehaj safai kendras chandigarh, chandigarh waste collectors, indian express Household waste is another cause for worry for waste collectors. (File photo)

Another problem area for garbage collectors is managing household waste from residential colonies, given that most across India don’t segregate their waste into wet and dry, increasing chances of medical waste being mixed with general waste. Some Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) that spoke with in Delhi, Gurugram and Bengaluru pointed to negligence in segregating waste among residents, especially used masks, napkins, and other items.

“We are seeing a lot of masks carelessly thrown away on the roads, footpaths, and even into water bodies and stormwater drains in the locality. This issue can be resolved by stopping it right at the source – with the government banning the use of non-cotton masks in households,” said Brigadier R S Murthy (retd), president of HSR Layout Sector-2 Residents’ Welfare Association, Bengaluru.

Dr Jaijeet Bhattacharya, who is in the management committee of H-Block RWA in Southeast Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park, rued that nothing has been communicated at all to residents on managing medical waste. “I am very disappointed. Some people in our colony have resisted imposition of new rules, so we are highly discouraged from bringing in new guidelines. Nothing has been discussed on the key issue of waste itself being a vector for coronavirus,” he said.

However, Trinity Towers condominium in Gurugram’s DLF City Phase 5 was quick to advise its residents to tag their medical waste as ‘X’ for waste collectors to easily identify. “Proper segregation and disposal of safety gear is essential during Covid-19. Save our waste pickers and staff from getting infected by any virus,” read the notice

India’s waste management system not prepared to handle the pandemic

waste segregation, waste management, mumbai waste management, BMC, mumbai slums, BMC tricycles, indian express news, india news, mumbai news Waste collectors in Mumbai. (File photo)

India’s waste management system is not prepared to handle the pandemic, leaving the vulnerable most exposed as they will frequently encounter contaminated waste, said Dr Kishore. Non-segregation of waste has been one of the inadvertent consequence of the pandemic.

India’s waste segregation plans have gone for a toss and people have gone back to mixing waste to avoid contact with waste collectors, said Jaya Dindhaw, Director of Integrated Urban Planning at the World Resources Institute.

“There has been an increased usage of masks, gloves and most people don’t know how to dispose of them. This waste is mostly ending up in waste segregation centres and there are chances of secondary infection from that,” she added.

For Golu, this is a cause of worry: the potentially contaminated trash discarded by asymptomatic people not knowing it is infected. Before the outbreak, the 30-year-old sanitation worker was accompanied by another colleague in a green and white municipal corporation truck in Delhi’s Naraina Vihar. After his partner left for his hometown in UP a few days before lockdown was announced, he comes alone and announces from the loudspeaker that people put their trash in the truck themselves. “I am scared to touch the garbage so I have stopped collecting it manually to avoid any contact,” he said, with trepidation.

Covid-induced lockdown curtailed social mobility

migrant labourers, migrant labourers coronavirus lockdown, India lockdown migrant labourers, migrant labourers lockdown, India news, Indian Express

Golu’s apprehensions are well placed. The lockdown has severely curtailed social mobility and threatened the livelihoods of many sanitation workers and waste collectors, who are also migrants. Over the last few months, no food and work forced thousands of migrants to walk back to their villages or hometowns in the absence of bus and train services. On national highways, a sea of humanity walked, with blisters on their feet, defying lockdown norms. Some died mid-way, in some cases, hit by speeding buses. At least 134 migrant workers have been killed on roads in the last 54 days (as on May 17).

“It’s clear that coronavirus is not only a health crisis, but also a sustainability challenge. When Covid was spreading, we were expecting safai sathis to work, but didn’t think about their survival during lockdown. If they are starving, how can they carry on with their work?” said Shoko Noda, resident representative, UNDP India. She said the UNDP is focusing on 100 most-affected districts to improve Bio-Medical Waste (BMW) management and it has reached out to the municipal corporations in Mumbai and Bhubaneswar to issue public notifications to segregate waste, used masks and gloves in separate disposal bags.

READ | To streamline movement of migrants, Centre launches portal

Lockdown has dismantled livelihoods

Integrated waste management project postponed, Integrated waste management, Dumping ground in panchkula, chandigarh news, city news, indian express Dumping ground in Sector 23, panchkula.(Photo Credit: Jaipal Singh)

The lockdowns globally have dismantled the informal workforce and strained the plastic recycling markets, making joblessness a stark reality for waste pickers who survive on a daily basis by selling discarded plastic.

According to a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed due to the pandemic.

“There has been a complete breakdown of the waste management value chain. Waste pickers couldn’t step out in lockdown. Even those who had collected the trash, couldn’t sell it as the waste value chain was shut,” said Shekhar Prabhakar, founder of Hasiru Dala, a Bengaluru-based not-for-profit organisation that works with waste pickers.

Lot of sanitation workers also have underlying health conditions and occupational stresses such as musculoskeletal issues and respiratory problems that make them even more vulnerable to the current pandemic situation, he said.

‘Hopefully society will view sanitation workers with dignity after lockdown’

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a whole range of uncertainties in its wake, but for some sanitation workers it has slightly changed people’s perception of them. A study conducted by Praxis, a civil society organisation, on sanitation workers in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore and Tiruchirappalli last month, found that among the 45 interviewed, at least 82 per cent of them said that society will view sanitation workers with dignity after lockdown. One of the respondents they spoke with said before coronavirus their recognition was very less, but things have changed a little. “People have started to respect us solely for the work we do, the same work for which we were looked down for years,” said Bhaskar K, a sanitation worker from the Arunthathiyar community in Tiruchirapalli.

While coronavirus may have led to a slight tweak in public perceptions on sanitation workers, it remains to be seen if it will sustain, after the pandemic is over.

(With inputs from Ralph Alex Arakal)

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