Featured in Citizen Matters

Every day at 7 am sharp, 55-year-old Meenakshiammal arrives at the Sathyamoorthy Nagar community toilet in Tiruchirapalli, from her home in a slum close by. She has been cleaning two community toilets for the past 15 years, one on Uppiliar Street and the other at Sathyamoorthy Nagar, spending at least an hour cleaning each one of them.

A cleaning agent and a broom were just enough for her until now, but things have changed drastically since the spread of COVID-19 in India and the consequent lockdown. She now wears a mask, gloves and ensures that she washes her hands and legs thoroughly after cleaning one community toilet and before moving to the next. She is well aware of the challenges she has to face while on duty.

The virus spreads through the air (cough and sneeze droplets of affected persons may be inhaled) and through surfaces (it can survive on surfaces and be transmitted when a person handles materials contaminated with the sputum or respiratory droplet of an infected person). Hence, the risk of infection is much higher among caretakers and sanitation workers; especially those like her, who work in shared spaces like community and public toilets and frequently clean surfaces like ceramic or glass where the virus can linger. Studies suggesting the possible presence of viral RNA in faeces flags another potential risk.

Meenakshiammal, therefore, goes about her daily routine to earn her livelihood with utmost precaution these days. But her challenges were compounded since she was not covered under government benefits for sanitation workers.

“I earn my daily wages of Rs 210 by cleaning toilets,” said Meenakshmiammal. “I have not received any hike or other benefits that the government announced for sanitation workers since I am not on the payrolls of the city corporation.”

Keeping workers safe

The Tamil Nadu government announced early disbursement of two months’ wages for sanitation worker employees, as a special pay package and provision of personal protective equipment including masks and gloves. Yet, of the 3,000-odd sanitation workers in the district, only 1,000 to 1,200 work as either contract labourers or permanent staff for the city corporation and were able to avail the benefits. “The rest are daily wage labourers working independently or for a private employer,” said Sugantha Priscilla, Senior Specialist in Social Development, with the Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Programme (TNUSSP) in Tiruchirapalli.

This programme, part of a larger programme run by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bengaluru, is now supporting the Sanitation and Health Education (SHE) teams, which run and manage paid-for community and public toilets (CT/PT). These teams were carved out of self-help groups in the region to manage the financial sustainability of these toilets. Currently, they maintain at least 130 out of the 400-odd community and public toilets in Tiruchirapalli. 48 of these are cleaned by sanitation workers employed by the Trichy City Corporation. The rest are cleaned and maintained by 61 sanitation workers employed by the SHE teams, who pay their salaries. The number of SHE team members who maintain a toilet varies from 5 to 20, including cleaners and caretakers.

The TNUSSP has so far provided safety gear, including masks and gloves, to all sanitation workers and caretakers in these 130 SHE team-run toilets, besides providing 700 masks for sanitation workers working directly under the city corporation. Since a large number of workers were unaware about the proper use of disposable masks, the Tiruchirapalli TNUSSP unit provided reusable cloth masks as well. They also ensure that workers continue to get their wages irrespective of the falling numbers of users. Additionally, cleaning agents, soaps, hand sanitisers were made available for workers and liquid soap bottles, for users. The sanitation workers, however, still have to wear slippers to work since gumboots are yet to be made available to them by the city corporation.

Thanks to the programme, Meenakshiammal now has basic safety equipment – a pair of hand gloves, a mask, a cleaning brush along with cleaning agents – to do her job. “When the lockdown was announced, all the shops were shut,” she recalled “Through TNUSSP, we received all essential items and safety gear to keep our work going. I thank God that I have this work. If I was doing any other work, then I would have lost that job by now because of this lockdown. With this money I earn every day, I am able to feed my widowed daughter and my grandchild.”

Caretakers with the SHE teams also trained to check that users maintain adequate social distancing at the community and public toilets.

Priscilla points out that a large majority of sanitation workers work independently for daily wages or are linked to a departmental store or complex. Even among those who are on the payroll of the city corporation, only about 30 to 40% have received protective equipment from the corporation.

Several sanitation workers still lack the awareness on basic precautionary measures that need to be taken. There are workers who travel from afar to clean community and public toilets and awareness about personal protective equipment was found to be very low among them. There is also no information about workers employed by private organisations and whether they have been provided any protection.

Financial worries

The pay-and-use model of the community and public toilets also raises concerns, in the dire current economic context of the lockdown. The SHE teams worry that if users, who mostly belong to marginalised communities, do not have money in their hands, then it would impact workers under the community toilet network they manage.

“We pay sanitation workers’ wages from the money collected from users,” said Selvi Mary of the SHE team and caretaker of the community toilet in Sathyamoorthy Nagar. “In community toilets run by SHE teams, users are charged only Re 1 to Rs 2. We used to collect at least Rs 650 to Rs 700 a day. It has reduced now by Rs 70 to Rs 100.”

Selvi says they pay Rs 210 each for a sanitation worker and the two caretakers get Rs 100 each. Apart from this, depending on the money collected, SHE pays Rs 600 to Rs 1000 every month to the SHE worker who maintains the account. Even though the Tiruchirapalli City Corporation takes care of electricity and water charges of these public toilets, the caretakers still require additional financial support. On a case-by-case basis, TNUSSP is now identifying volunteers who can help caretakers tide over the lockdown. To help caretakers on a longer-term, they are exploring options such as setting up petty shops that would be a source of additional revenue, apart from the community toilets.