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THE UNSEEN PATH AND PLIGHT OF WASTE PICKERS AMIDST THE PANDEMIC: THE ENDLESS LOOP OF UNAPPRECIATION

This article has been written by Ankit Tewari of Amity Law School Delhi, IP University

Introduction

The sudden dominion of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has sent the entire world for a turn. The foregone historical calamities are being replayed in front of our very eyes. The economic aspect of the country is looking bleak and consequently, the future is shrouded in uncertainty. It has been a strenuous time for us homo sapiens to say the least.  The efflux of the media portrayals of the frontline workers has led to public awareness of their heroic works. However, there remains a certain stratum of the frontline, who despite being working en masse, are shied away from the spotlight of recognition. This article thus is for those heroes, the waste pickers, who require a unison of our voices to ensure that their voices are heard.

The Untold Story

The chronological saga of the lockdown commenced on the 25th Day of March, 2020. Whilst, the majority of the Indian population had the capacity to stay within the vicinity of their homes to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the same can’t be said to be the case with the garbage collectors and the sanitation workers. The recent study provides that there are about 5 million sanitation workers across all the urban locations in India[i]. With the current onset of the pandemic, the workers often unwillingly so, have to fall into close contact with human waste. It is due to their efforts that our contact with our said waste comes to a close as soon as we press the flush button in our respective washrooms.

Unlike the other frontline workers, they do not have the luxury of having the Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) with them, which often leads them to have constant exposure to the hazardous disposed medical waste amongst other things[ii]. Particularly so when the said waste is not clearly marked as such[iii]. This is happening in spite of the guidelines issued by the government which provides for the contrary[iv]. The government has provided for the rational use of PPE and the guidelines clearly elucidate the usage of the N-95 masks and gloves by the sanitary staff whilst disinfecting[v].

Citizens and the lack of Rule Adherence

A certain portion of the guilt lies with us also. Society as a whole is not fond of following the rules. The recent past instances have shown that even after strict guidelines for the segregation of solid waste[vi], we still do not abide by the same[vii]. Even societies have been fined for not following the proper segregation rules[viii]. The virus was found to have a life of 72 hours and 24 hours on plastic and cardboard respectively. Thus, the susceptibility of the workers being infected by the virus is exponentially increased due to the misgivings of trash non-separation[ix].

Combining the abhorrence of rule-following with the lack of any protective gear we find, that it paves the way for a very serious situation. It has become even direr as the research shows that human waste can be a carrier for the SARS-CoV-2 strand[x]. It has to be noted that the sample space of the research is quite small and more data analysis is needed. However, the current motto should be prevention is better than cure as it would not hurt us to be cautious even if there is one iota of a chance of the said spread being possible[xi].

The Mechanism of Waste Disposal

Keeping the current pandemic in mind, the Central Pollution Control Board had released a set of guidelines for “Handling, treatment, and disposal of waste generated during treatment, diagnosis, and quarantine of COVID-19 patients”. The guidelines provided for the procurement of separate color-coded dustbins for the clear demarcation of the waste[xii]. Concurrently, the hospitals already had to adhere to the Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules, 2016[xiii]. The home isolated/ quarantined patients on the other hand were tasked with collecting the biomedical waste separately in yellow bags, however as remarked earlier, the houses are not bothering to segregate the said waste.

This ignorance of segregating the dry and wet waste as a measure for avoiding inconvenience is proving to be disastrous for the municipalities. The lack of apathy being shown against the waste collectors is highly distressing. The individual commitment has to raise and become a group effort if we want to help the nation to move forward from the current scenario.

The Response of the Government

The response for the protection and safety of the sanitation workers has been lackluster, to say the least. In Mumbai, the waste collection by the workers was been conducted via bare hands without the presence of any safety equipment[xiv]. The Delhi CM on the other hand wholeheartedly supported the frontline doctors[xv] but was dead silent on the eminent plight of the sanitation workers. In response to the pleas filed in the Hon’ble Court[xvi], the Centre’s response was that that it had adhered to the guidelines issued by the WHO and had provided an adequate supply of the Personal Protection Equipment to the sanitation workers[xvii]. However, the ground reality paints an entirely contrasting picture from the above-portrayed list of events[xviii]. The workers thus, are being blindsided both by us as well as the state.

The Way Forward

The presence and postage of the multifarious conflicting opinions make for an arduous task of separating fact from fiction. Nevertheless, keeping that murkiness aside, for now, let us focus on certainty on the objects which have clarity.

Primarily, our entire perspective on the garbage as a whole has to shift. Unlike the western world, we are accustomed to treating waste collectors as something below our level. Similarly, we deem the garbage collected in our home also as something foul. That can be proven by our sense of uneasiness and discomfort whilst separating the dry and wet garbage. This archaic attitude has no place in the current day and age we live in and needs to go. Secondly, the sanitation workers deserve our full respect and dignity as they are willing to do the work we regard with disgust. We have to place them on the same pedestal as that of our other frontline defence soldiers. They are as valuable as them especially so in the current circumstances. These workers put their lives on the line so that we have the ability to sit in the comforts of our home and watch the war from the side-lines. Finally, there is an absence of a comprehensive safety mechanism in place for the workers. That needs a complete overhaul. It is high time that we raise our voices in unity for them as they play an indispensable role in keeping the nation healthy. They truly are the heroes that we deserve and the one we need right now.

[i] Dalberg Associates, The Sanitation Workers Project.

[ii] Chaitanya Mallapur, “Sanitation Workers at Risk from Discarded Medical Waste Related To COVID-19”, Indiaspend, April 19, 2020

[iii] Atikh Rashid, “Coronavirus: No system in place for disposal of used face masks”, The Indian Express, March 23, 2020

[iv]Ministry of Home and Family Welfare, COVID-19: Guidelines on disinfection of common public places including offices.

[v]Ministry of Home and Family Welfare; Novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Guidelines on rational use of Personal Protective Equipment.

[vi] Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016

[vii]Iffath Fathima, “From January 1, Segregate waste or bear the stink”, The New Indian Express, 30th December, 2019

[viii]Prachee Kulkarni, “PMC fines housing societies for not segregating wet and dry waste”, PuneMirror, May 06, 2019

[ix] van Doremalen N, Bushmaker T, Morris DH, et al., “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared With SARS-CoV-1”, 382 N Engl J Med; 1564-1567 (2020)

[x] Yong Zhang, Cao Chen, Shuangli Zhu, Chang Shu, Dongyan Wang, Jingdong Song, et al., “Isolation of 2019-nCoV from a Stool Specimen of a Laboratory-Confirmed Case of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)”, 2 Chi. C Weekly; 123-124 (2020)

[xi] Hindson, J. “COVID-19: faecal–oral transmission?”, 17 Nat. Rev. Gas. Hep.; 259 (2020)

[xii] Central Pollution Control Board, Guidelines for Handling, treatment and disposal of waste generated during treatment, diagnosis and quarantine of COVID-19 patients.

[xiii]Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change; Bio-Medical Waste Management Rules, 2016

[xiv] Shone Satheesh,Coronavirus: Mumbai waste collectors work with their bare hands”, Aljazeera, March 26, 2020.

[xv] Chief Minister of Delhi, Twitter

[xvi] Harnam Singh & Anr Versus Union of India & Ors, W.P.(C).2989/2020

[xvii]PTI, “COVID-19 – Provided protective kits to sanitation workers and followed WHO guidelines, Centre tells SC”, The Hindu, April 15, 2020

[xviii] Prabhjit Singh, “As India Enters Lockdown 4, Delhi’s Sanitation Workers Still Don’t Have PPE”, The Wire, May 18, 2020

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