Chennai’s sanitation workers live the horrors of a broken waste disposal system

·10-min read

The moon rose over Chennai on May 1, 2020 to find 41-year-old Nilan pushing a Chennai Corporation tricycle through a road in Royapuram. Put on night duty, his job was to pick up door-to-door waste and put them into the green bin fixed to his cycle for disposal. But twenty four hours after his May 1 shift, Nilan was rushed to a private hospital's ICU ward.

“I was wheezing. I had taken tablets for fever a few times and it had gone away. But on May 2,  my machan (brother in law) took me to the hospital as my breathing was not normal,” Nilan tells TNM. A permanent civic worker of the Greater Chennai Corporation for the last 23 years, Nilan lives in a ‘barely one room house’ as he describes it, in Korukkupet, Anna Nagar. He has a wife and two children. “When I got a fever, I sent the three of them to three different relatives’ houses, as I cannot do isolation [sic] with them in the house. No space,” he says. 

One year later, Nilan, who spent 17 days in hospital including a week in the ICU, and had to pay a bill of Rs 1.9 lakh for the treatment, is now back to picking up waste in the same division of Royapuram, as the city sees record cases and many deaths in the second wave of COVID-19. And this time around, things are worse. Nilan says that he at least used to get use-and-throw surgical masks and gloves daily to pick up waste from COVID-19 houses last year. In the second wave, the practice of distributing safety gear to sanitation workers has reduced, he says. A PPE kit might be a distant dream as TNM spoke to several conservancy workers across the 15 zones of Chennai Corporation, who are not even getting proper masks and gloves to pick up waste.

“Right now, cases are too high. The GCC is so busy that waste collection, understandably, takes a backseat,” he says. According to Nilan, the zonal unit under which he works has been giving 1 pair of gloves a week for conservancy workers in his division. “I have not received a mask for more than a week as they do not have stock. So I wash my cloth mask and wear it,” he says. 

A photograph from May 2020, when Nilan was hospitalised for COVID-19 

The 41-year-old is unvaccinated, as he developed allergies after being bitten by a scorpion while collecting garbage. He has to repay the loan he took for his COVID-19 hospitalisation. And while the Tamil Nadu government announced last year that COVID-19 treatment costs for frontline workers would now be covered under the TN Government Employees New Health Insurance Scheme, Nilan says he hasn’t received any money yet. 

Nilan’s story is similar to that of hundreds of sanitation workers in Chennai, who are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 battle. And while they deal with logistical nightmares and systemic issues, improper waste disposal from our homes — from the homes which have COVID-19 patients — is an added risk. 

Representative image of medical waste including PPE kits, masks etc in a garbage dumpyard 

Demand for safety gear

The Madras Corporation Red Flag Union, a labour union for the Chennai’s Corporation’s permanent staff, has been demanding regular distribution of masks and gloves for sanitation workers since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. “Our members have been collecting waste from COVID-19 houses, sometimes without gloves. We had asked for the GCC to form separate teams of civic workers for COVID-19 waste collection from houses in every division, and to provide these sanitation workers with PPE kits. It hasn’t happened yet,” says Srinivasulu, General Secretary of the Red Flag Union. 

Arasu*, a civic worker picking up COVID-19 household waste in Vepery (Royapuram zone), shows off his woolen gloves. “He says this is (woolen gloves) what he got from the zonal unit. When he came to pick up the waste from my house, he was not even wearing a mask,” says Alamu, a resident of Vepery who is staying with her elderly aunt who tested positive. 

Waste collected from a street in Royapuram (Zone 5) 

COVID-19 home waste management

With a COVID-19 patient in the house, Alamu was unsure about how to dispose of the waste that was being generated at home. This includes PPE kits, used masks, gloves, sanitiser bottles, tissues and food waste after feeding her aunt. Afraid that mixing the waste with other garbage might end up spreading the infection further, she called the Chennai Corporation helpline multiple times to seek advice on how to dispose of the waste. 

“After many calls, Arasu* and a woman were sent to pick up our waste last week for the first time. Both of them didn’t have gloves. The woman carried a bin in her hand into which she dumped the white bags that I sealed and gave. She then put it in the corporation bin outside our apartment — which I could have done myself, several days earlier,” she tells TNM. A few days later, she was provided with yellow garbage bags from the corporation to segregate COVID-19 waste. 

Arasu* showing his woollen gloves 

G Veerappan, Superintending Engineer (Solid Waste Management), GCC tells TNM that there is a specific process to dispose COVID-19 household waste. Waste from COVID-19  houses is not mixed with the general waste which is hand segregated by conservancy workers and sent to landfills. “COVID-19 waste is collected in yellow bags from positive houses and directly sent to incinerators,” he says. As cases rose In 2021, the State government got Tamil Nadu Waste Management Private Ltd and GJ Multiclave pvt ltd — private agencies which handle industrial waste — to burn all the COVID waste in the city. COVID Waste from houses in the 15 zones are now split into North and South and given to each agency

“We collect and incinerate about five tonnes of waste daily from Zone 1 (Thiruvottiyur) to Zone 8 (Anna Nagar). This is North Chennai,” says P Sivakumar of GJ Multiclave. COVID-19 waste from Zone 9 to 15 (Teynampet to Sholinganallur) is handled by the Tamil Nadu Waste Management pvt ltd. 

These private agencies pick up the yellow bags from designated points where the GCC’s conservancy workers drop off the bags. “A zone is divided into 15 divisions and for every three divisions there is a drop off point,” says an Assistant Executive Engineer or AEE (Solid Waste Management) who works in Zone 8 (Anna Nagar). 

Yellow bag 

When the residents of a house test positive, the corporation’s ‘fever workers’ visit the house to spot triage. “Each house is given 15 yellow bags (and more on request) and patients and caregivers are asked to put their waste — from masks to food — only in these bags,” says the AEE. These bags then go to the incinerators operated by the private agencies mentioned above. 

Representative image of medical waste collected in yellow bags from COVID-19 houses 

The yellow bags are sacrosanct — but only in theory. Several COVID-19 patients and their caregivers confirmed to TNM that they did not receive the yellow bags. “There was no intimation from the fever workers or the tele counselling centre regarding COVID-19 waste disposal, and that we are supposed to ask for the yellow bags,” says 26-year-old Vivek, a resident of Zone 13 (Adyar) - whose parents tested positive and were under home isolation in late April 2021.

With an overstretched Corporation, it is definitely the citizens’ responsibility to safely dispose of COVID-19 waste, without harming thousands of sanitation workers who could otherwise be exposed to the infection. However, many COVID-19 houses have been disposing of their garbage bags with the general waste. “We put our waste including masks and tissues in normal garbage bags, sanitise it from the outside and place it at our doorstep. The security guards who are given gloves and masks come and pick up the waste and throw it in the corporation dustbin outside the house,” says Vimal Anand, a resident of Shanthi Colony, an upscale neighborhood in Zone 8 (Anna Nagar). 

Thirumurugan T*, a 44-year-old civic worker who does door-to-door waste collection in the same zone (Anna Nagar) says that his colleagues who segregate general waste in segregation centres see hundreds of surgical masks and gloves dumped every day with the general waste. “Who knows if these were used by COVID-19 patients? They have to hand segregate these masks,” he says. Thirumurugan and six of his family members including his nine-month-old grandchild tested positive in June 2020. The family developed intense fatigue, body aches, fever and loose motion and spent a week at the Rajiv Gandhi Government Hospital until they recovered.

Now back to work, Thirumurugan is still engaged in door-to-door collection in Zone 8, but only gets one mask a week from the Corporation. He however adds that he received the whole of Rs 2 lakh promised by the state government for frontline workers who test positive. “People come out of houses with Corporation stickers, and give their waste near the gate. They don’t use any yellow bags. Sometimes they bring their bin near to the gate and dump the waste on the street,” says Nilan.

Invisible casualties 

A total of 1,500 of the Greater Chennai Corporation’s permanent workers (Class 4)  tested positive in 2020. There are only 6,200 permanent conservancy workers under the GCC.

“80% of these 1,500 were SWM workers or waste pickers,” says Srinvasulu of the Red Flag Union, which issued a list of its members who tested positive for the novel coronavirus last year. Nineteen permanent workers died after testing positive. Twelve of them were sweepers and door-to-door waste collectors of the SWM department.

This year, the Union expects far more COVID-19 cases and deaths among its members, but are yet to compile the list. “Lack of awareness prevents many of them from getting vaccinated, Srinivasulu explains. However, the state government has not offered priority vaccination to these workers’ immediate family, who are very susceptible to the virus. In the case of workers such as Nilan, whose family had no space to quarantine and Thirumurugan, the entire family had to be hospitalised. 

A government order issued in April 2020 announced a solatium of Rs 2 lakh to all COVID-19 frontline workers belonging to various departments, including sanitary and conservancy workers, if they test positive. The order also says that these frontline workers who test positive are entitled to free COVID-19 treatement, if they need hospital bed treatment, whether it is in government or private institutions. Depending on the situation then, the order was slated to be reviewed by May 31. However, there was no renewal of this order on May 31 and therefore, only employees who tested positive before this cut off date are entitled to receive any money. 

So far, 35 frontline workers who are permanent staff of the Chennai Corporation have received the solatium of Rs 2 lakh from the government. Out of these, 11 are sanitation workers according to the government's list of beneficiaries. Families of nine out of 19 deceased workers have received an ex gratia of Rs 25 lakh. Out of these, five are conservancy workers, Srinivasulu adds. 

“We do not want ex gratia to compensate for our workers' deaths. What we ask for is proper safety to pick up waste. We have been asking this for one year,” he adds. In May 2021, Red Flag Union submitted a requisition letter to the newly appointed Chennai City Police Commissioner, Shankar Jiwal IPS, demanding safety gear for conservancy workers. The union is yet to hear from the police chief but is hopeful that the issue would be resolved.

This article focuses on the permanent employees under the Greater Chennai Corporation. Every day, over 15,000 contract labourers hired by private agencies pick up waste from every street in the city. They are neither employed by the Corporation, nor do they have a Union to turn to. 

*Names changed to protect workers' identities 

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