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Come rain or shine, they are out there cleaning the dirt of Chennai city. While the city sleeps, they work along the roads and drains of Chennai picking up rags and dirt. The next morning the city roads are tidy as usual. During the recent rains, a conservancy woman worker was seen cleaning the road unfazed by the falling raindrops and pushing a small cart with garbage. She is merely a sample of hundreds of women workers involved in cleaning Singara Chennai.

The job is not easy. Their workplace is garbage. Their ambience is stink. Rains add their woes. They have to clear out the garbage clogging drains.

Fallen trees due to gale winds are a challenge. But that’s nothing compared to clearing human excreta on roads.

Tamil Nadu produces as much as 14,600 metric tonnes of garbage in a day. The 12 city corporations, 124 municipalities and 561 town panchayats collectively produce this garbage. Chennai alone produces more than 5,000 metric tonnes of garbage per day. The conservancy workers collect the garbage from the homes within Chennai city limits.

Tamil Nadu produces as much as 14,600 metric tonnes of garbage in a day. The 12 city corporations, 124 municipalities and 561 town panchayats collectively produce this garbage. Chennai alone produces more than 5,000 metric tonnes of garbage per day.

As many as 19,109 conservancy workers are there in Chennai city limits. Out of them, 6,990 are permanent staffers, 545 are employed by panchayats, 8,171 are deployed under contract and another 3,403 are employed by private contractors.7

How do they find their jobs and what are the other challenges they face in their work? Sumathi (name changed) from Vysarpadi says that her house was flooded during the recent rains in Chennai. Her husband is differently-abled. “I am working to feed my family. I can’t afford to take leave because they would cut my salary. So, I dropped my husband and children in a relief camp to continue my work,” she said.

They can’t cook at home during the floods and therefore depend on the food pockets provided by relief workers. But they have no other option, Sumathi said.

Another workplace hazard the women workers face is lack of toilets. Not all places have public toilets. Their work clothes consists of a shirt and pant which makes it even more difficult. In case of emergency, they have to seek a place behind parked vehicles. “We bear all these for the sake of our families. A hearse van passed a few moments ago and the flowers were strewn all along. We have to clear it within one hour,” Sumathi laments even as she sweeps the road.

Getting a day’s leave even to attend to emergencies is another problem, say the women workers. The supervisors don’t usually tolerate such day-offs. They would be asked to quit if they need off days, they say. When the food is served, they consume it where they work which means they eat amidst garbage. At the end of the day, they are desperate for a good shower. “We can’t bear our own stink. We have children at home, so personal hygiene is important,” says another woman worker.

“Why don’t you people dump trash in the bins?” rues a conservancy worker cleaning the road. She pointed out that people carelessly discard plastic bags and food wrappers on roads. “We request that people should discard trash in bins which would make our lives easier,” she said.

On Deepavali, the entire city celebrated by bursting crackers. The next day, the conservancy workers had to remove all the paper and cracker boxes from the roads. Incessant rains following Deepavali made the cleaning tough for these workers. Even amidst pouring rain, the women were on their job. “The city would appear clean the next day. If it rains heavily, we would seek shelter under shops and resume our work once the rain stops. If we shy away from our job, the city would sink in its own garbage,” one of them quipped.

As residents, we would be doing the conservancy workers a great favour if we do source segregation of garbage. Due to our indifference, they have to spend hours segregating waste. The glass and rusted things we discard in the garbage hurt them

As residents, we would be doing them a great favour if we do source segregation of garbage. Due to our indifference, they have to spend hours segregating waste. The glass and rusted things we discard in the garbage hurt them. Collecting the trash with bare hands and exposure to toxic cleaning agents like bleaching powder cause long-term health hazards.

In a heartwarming gesture of recognizing their service during the pandemic as well as natural calamities, the state government has announced that conservancy workers are frontline workers. However, mere recognition wouldn’t help them in their development. They need livelihoods, good education for their children and better working conditions. The state government should come out with more measures to improve their living standards.


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