SRINAGAR: At 6 in the morning in July last year, sanitation worker Arshid Ahmad Sheikh, 25 years old, was hit by a speeding vehicle that dragged him for several feet and then left him dead on the spot. Sheikh was cleaning the streets at the time.
Abdul Rashid, also a sanitation worker, is not dead, but may be soon. He has been diagnosed with a severe case of active contagious tuberculosis. He is in his mid 40s and lying in hospital. Expenses of his medical treatment are being borne by the workers’ union.
Collecting garbage may not seem hazardous work but municipal officials say that a lot of sanitation workers die in accidents or due to toxic effects of the refuse. There have been deaths when a worker slipped or fell from a refuse collection truck or, in cases like Arshid, was struck by a passing vehicle while on duty.
Official records of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation show that 61 sanitation workers have died on-duty in the past five years. This means that since 2010, on average, one sanitation worker dies every month while doing his duty. Apart from the dead, hundreds of sanitation workers have faced serious injury and suffered illnesses of which the department has no record. The SMC currently has 2,108 safai karamcharis, of whom 1,765 are on regular contract and 343 on consolidated pay.
The sanitation workers themselves believe that the mortality rate of their fellows could be unusually high because of prevalent heart problems, asthma, and tuberculosis. “We clean the filth of this city, inhale the stench, and digest the hazardous chemicals. We are not given any protective gear like masks, gloves or uniform, which we deserve,” said the Chairman of the Sanitation Workers Union, Ghulam Mohammad Solina.
“Sometimes workers have to collect really hazardous garbage in lanes and interiors of colonies. They have to inhale hazardous smoke and gases emanating from rotting garbage,” Solina said.
The demand for protective gear recently led to protests by the Safai Karamchari Union. The workers demanded uniforms, tools, masks and shoes.
A health official at the SMC said that workers get injured by broken glass and sharp objects like needles while collecting garbage. He said that some injuries happen because of repeated awkward movements such as jumping in and out of garbage trucks and lifting heavy items. Many workers suffer from back pain and spinal injuries.
The official said that inadequate machinery and lack of proper monitoring adds to the growing number of injuries and deaths among the workers.“Most of the safaiwalas are illiterate and come from a poor socio-economic background. They do not even know how to use things like masks and gloves properly,” the official claimed.
He said there needs to be regular counselling sessions between workers and health officials to make them aware of safety measures.