OPINION: COVID-19 poses new risks to India’s enslaved waste pickers

Monday, 27 April 2020 13:51 GMT

Rag pickers collect recyclable material at a garbage dump in New Delhi November 19, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood/File photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Indian waste pickers are struggling to obtain information or equipment to inform and protect them during the coronavirus pandemic

Aidan McQuade is an expert on slavery and forced labour and former director of Anti-Slavery International.

Ritwajit Das is the Membership Coordinator of the International Dalit Solidarity Network.

Dilip is 56 and works in Kolkota as a “waste picker”, someone fated by his caste status to survive by collection of household waste from the homes of his more privileged neighbours.

The waste is not segregated and he has no protection from unsanitary material amongst the rubbish he collects on his three wheeled cart. Even in the best of times he gets sick, often with diarrhea and other intestinal infections. But he has no idea of the sorts of risks posed by Covid-19: he has seen no posters; there have been no visits by public health officials to his community; and he is unsure of where he can find trustworthy information on the pandemic. Though his work is contracted by the local municipality they have never provided him with any protective equipment.

Dilip has managed to buy himself a mask – he says the police will harass him if they find him working without one - but he has no gloves. So he continues to gather the waste with his bare hands. He has no choice. “My family mostly stays at home because of the forced lockdown [imposed by the Indian government],” he told us. “But we have no savings, and weren’t able to stock up on food items before the lockdown. So the male members have to go out and do this work, otherwise our family will not be able to feed itself. “

Many “traditional” caste-based occupations, such as the “waste picking” that Dilip undertakes, or “manual scavenging” – the cleaning by hand of human excreta from latrines and sewers, something that is illegal in Indian law but which the 2011 census found still involved almost 1 million people - relate to community hygiene.

All societies require sanitation workers. Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis has emphasised just how essential they are. But attitudes to caste prevalent across South Asia, which establishes rigid expectations of a person’s role in society, eliminate individuals’ choices relating to such work. A report from 2014 quoted one young man’s experience: “I studied commerce and banking, but I couldn’t find work. Even though I am educated, the village council hired me to clean toilets because I am from this [untouchable] community.” Arun, a 24 year old from Kolkota had similar experiences. He wanted to work in transport, but had to follow his parents into “waste picking” because he found that his other work choices were effectively non-existent.

In the parlance of human trafficking caste renders people like Dilip and Arun into “situational vulnerability” by establishing sophisticated systems to socially isolate their caste. This exacerbates the “circumstantial vulnerability” of their destitution. The abuse of these vulnerabilities is the mechanism by which they are enslaved. Gulnara Shahinian, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Slavery, recognised “manual scavenging” as a particularly degrading from of exploitation and that caste is at its root.

Like Dilip, Arun lives in a slum “ghetto” where only other “untouchables” dwell. There are few essential services such as electricity, water, sanitation, or information on the health risks posed by Covid-19. In other words, the government has provided neither the information nor the means for them to keep safe in this pandemic. “At least social distancing is nothing new for us,” Dilip joked. “The rest of society shuns us already.”

Arun said: “I know Covid-19 can be fatal and… I feel scared to work in this environment but also I think that I am helpless. I have no option but to work; otherwise my family will starve.

Like Dilip he has purchased surgical masks, and also managed to get hold of gloves, liquid soaps and sanitizers. But the gloves he bought got torn and there are no more available in the market.

The authorities’ lack of attention to the safety of sanitation workers is nothing new. The Indian campaign group Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) highlights how tens of thousands of “manual scavengers” are regularly sent without proper safety equipment into sewers to clear blockages. Many hundreds die as a result. Prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic “waste-pickers” may not have faced these sorts of risks. But the failure to provide them with proper protective equipment in the face of this crisis pitches this group into new levels of jeopardy.

The Covid-19 pandemic affects us all, but it does not affect us all equally. The poor, lacking space, health care and proper sanitation, are more vulnerable than the rich. Hence they will likely bear a higher mortality rate.

Dilip’s and Arun’s experiences show that there are few poorer and more vulnerable in this crisis than the enslaved sanitation workers of India.

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