Chennai floods

Other side of the city

Print edition : January 08, 2016

Sanitary workers in West Mambalam in Chennai on December 14. Photo: M. Moorthy

Members of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, a Muslim organisation, cleaning a temple in Kotturpuram. Photo: Shaju John

Even as Chennai recovers from the devastation wrought by the floods, sanitary workers cleaning up the city get a raw deal, exposing society’s bias towards Dalits and conservancy work.

WHEN Chennai was struck by a mega disaster in the form of floods recently, what stood out was its extraordinary resilience and an unprecedented show of humanism and volunteerism. The citizens rose as one man as the floods inflicted heavy damage on its vital infrastructure, including its drainage and drinking water network, power cables and roads and, above all, the livelihood of nearly half of its population.

However, amid all the heroic relief and rescue efforts, one vital social issue that got buried in the mountains of garbage and widespread slush was the deep-rooted caste-based discrimination against sanitary workers. The State government had brought large numbers of them from across the State to clean the city but did not seem to care about the needs of the workers. These workers toiled in the city’s dirty roads and streets for 12 hours at a stretch every day with little or no amenities, putting their health and lives at risk to make the city liveable again.

Even as stories of the romanticised “Chennai spirit” and the much-written-about “spontaneous volunteerism” were finding a prominent place in the media, the largely untold story is the one relating to the colossal work of sanitising the metropolis. There has been no flow of humanism here. The sanitary workers, from Chennai and elsewhere, removed tonnes of stinking filth in the most inhuman conditions without potable water or good food.

There was little or no support whatsoever to the 8,000-strong sanitary force, sourced from nine corporations and 23 town panchayats and panchayat unions. (They joined the city’s 11,700-odd conservancy workers. A contingent of 700 sanitary workers from nearby Andhra Pradesh was also pressed into service.) These “outsiders” worked in a hostile environment without their needs being met. A few groups and political parties provided them with water and food in some places, but this was grossly inadequate.

Urban environmentalists pointed out that the emerging possibility of a health and sanitation emergency could not be inferior to the devastation the floods caused. According to an estimate, the floods littered the battered city with a staggering one lakh tonnes of degradable and non-degradable waste, including debris such as beds, mattresses, electronic and electric gadgets and wooden furniture from flood-hit households. But activists said the volume of garbage was between three lakh and five lakh tonnes. The State government decided not to take any chances this time. Another disaster, this time in the realm of health and sanitation, was the worst that could happen to a government that was struggling to find its moorings after its haphazard handling of the flood situation. It could not afford a fiasco at this juncture as Assembly elections are slated to be held in April-May 2016.

To deal with health and sanitation concerns, the administration mobilised a massive health and conservancy workforce. A Chennai Corporation official claimed that between December 6 and December 13, around 84,500 tonnes of garbage were cleared from the streets. The civic body also claimed to have removed 15,000 tonnes on December 13 alone.

There are no details available on how the Corporation disposed of such an astounding quantity of garbage, and ecologists accuse it of dumping it in all available open spaces and outside the city limits, including on the margins of highways, besides the open dump yards at Perungudi and Kodungaiyur, each spread over 200 acres. (In normal times, around 2,400 tonnes are dumped in each of these yards every day. Nearly 70 per cent of the waste generated in the city is residential.)

The city’s 4.8 million population generates 700 grams of garbage per capita per day. Each sanitary worker handles 800-900 kilograms of garbage a day during normal times. Chennai produces 4,500 tonnes of waste besides 700 tonnes of building debris a day. A local body source said that while those on the rolls were paid Rs.12,000 a month, those on contract got Rs.200 to Rs.250 as daily wages.

Murkier side

Notwithstanding these logistical issues relating to garbage collection and disposal, the emergency also exposed the State’s murkier side—caste discrimination. Activists claimed that the government forcefully employed Dalits, especially Arunthathiyars, Kuravas and Adi Telugus, for the work. A study points out that 98 per cent of sanitary workers in Tamil Nadu belong to the Arunthathiyar caste, the most marginalised social group among Dalits in Tamil Nadu.

“We are not against our people working for a cause in this hour of great crisis. But we detest being stigmatised to do such menial work. We demand humane treatment to them from the people of Chennai. These poor workers have come to assist you, but they are forced to work in the most squalid conditions. They work for painfully long hours without even water. They are sleeping by spreading newspapers on the floor. Many have already fallen sick and two have died,” said P. Adhiyaman, founder president of the Aathi Thamizhar Peravai.

His accusations were not without basis. A visit to different parts of the city where mass garbage clearance was under way showed that a majority of them were working without gloves, gumboots, masks or proper implements. In Teynampet and West Mambalam neighbourhoods, they were seen removing putrid silt with their bare hands, while at Saidapet and Kotturpuram they were working without protective gear.

But what was galling, Adhiyaman said, was the indifferent response of the residents, a majority of whom exhibited an exemplary spirit during the floods, to these workers. “We could not get even a glass of water,” said Kamatchi, a woman sanitary worker from Coimbatore district. The upwardly mobile urban middle class of this metropolis, Adhiyaman claimed, was consciously insensitive to their misery.

The State, which should have banned manual scavenging by now, tacitly encourages Arunthathiyars to remain as conservancy workers in all its local bodies. This “fetid mindset”, Adhiyaman insisted, must go. “Scavenging should be fully mechanised. Today, nearly six lakh Arunthathiyars are working as scavengers to keep the entire State clean and thus ensuring its people a neat and tidy environment for hygienic living,” he said.

Conservancy, of course, has emerged as the profession of birth-based inevitability in Tamil Nadu, closely linked to the concept of purity. “It is very sad to see the residents remaining completely non-empathetic. The stink emanating from the caste-class prejudice and divide in a metropolis such as Chennai is more unbearable than the garbage itself,” said A. Narayanan, a social activist.

Palanisamy (45), conservancy worker from Avadiammanparai village panchayat in Erode district, died in Chennai while on duty in the Adyar division, while another worker, Kantha Rao, from Triplicane in Chennai, died of a heart attack while working in Puliyanthope on December 11. “While the family of Palanisamy did not get compensation since he was not a permanent worker, Kantha Rao’s family could get Rs.4 lakh as he was on the rolls of the Chennai Corporation,” Adhiyaman said. Meanwhile, protest demonstrations were organised in Salem, Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Tuticorin, Tirunelveli, Madurai, Tiruchi and Erode against the forceful deployment of Arunthathiyars in the cleaning work in Chennai. “It is nothing but manual scavenging and against the ruling of the Supreme Court. We will be filing a contempt petition against the State government,” Adhiyaman said.

The Corporation’s website claims that manual scavengers are those “who are removing human waste”. It has published a list of names of 252 manual scavengers in Chennai and parts of Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts, though it does not clarify whether they are still active or not. A Rural Development Department spokesperson said that besides sanitary workers, an army of 2,000 employees including sanitary inspectors, health officers and village health nurses from various local bodies came to Chennai to take part in flood-related works such as enumeration, sanitation and vaccination. “We have not been provided with adequate facilities. But the sanitary workers are the worst hit,” he admitted.

To avoid embarrassment, the State government, after engaging the workers in arduous work for more than six days, sent them back, only to bring in fresh batches from other local bodies. But there has been a discernible change in the bureaucracy’s attitude of late. Some workers have been vaccinated and given good shelter and decent food. Protective gear has been supplied to many.

Lukewarm response

“In fact, we openly welcomed volunteerism for this vital issue of cleanliness, which unfortunately received a lukewarm response. The gigantic proportion of the task is daunting. We have to drain out stagnant water, remove slush and garbage and disinfect areas, for which we need a massive workforce,” a senior Corporation officer said. But a volunteer who participated in rescue operations in Velachery for two days, on December 1 and 2, said that many had fallen ill since then.

To be fair to civil society, a few activists and citizens’ groups have joined the workers in the streets. Around 3,000 members of the Tawheed Jamaath, a Muslim organisation, besides a few voluntary organisations, have actively taken to cleaning the streets. The jamaat members were given necessary safety kits for the work. The residents of Choolaimedu and Kotturpuram cleaned their houses and their localities. Some political leaders were seen removing slush and garbage.

But all these “micro” endeavours have not been able to grow into a mass movement of cleanliness in the city. “Chennai remains apathetic to a serious social issue. Who will clean the gutters and declog manholes? Any exercise that rejects social justice can never be inclusive,” said Narayanan, who also runs Change India, an organisation that fights against manual scavenging. He said the post-flood Chennai’s garbage quantum did not include the waste generated in the expanded areas of the city.

The cleaning work, Narayanan said, was an exhaustive exercise since trash is mixed with slush. “The workers easily get fatigued, which leads to high absenteeism forcing the remaining ones to share the extra burden. It is a vicious circle that needs to be handled with care,” he said. Despite such a massive exercise, he added: “There will be very little reward for the sanitary workers who are risking their lives and health for the city.”

Babasaheb Ambedkar once said: “The Hindu social order is based upon a division of labour, which reserves for the Hindus clean and respectable jobs and assigns to the untouchables dirty and mean jobs and thereby clothes the Hindus with dignity and heaps ignominy upon the untouchables.” The manner of the clean-up and the restoration work after the floods in Chennai seemed to attest to the truth of his statement.

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