Unsung Heroes

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While everybody is crediting the medicos and the cops for doing what they are doing in the ongoing pandemic, nobody is even talking about the trash collectors and sweepers, every one of whom doubles up in keeping Srinagar clean. They collect 328 MTs of trash on a daily basis without any visible protective gear, Syed Samreen

An SMC worker without a formal protective gear on work. Though the Covid-19 scare has entered the SMC, it has come from the elected lot and not the basic workers. KL image

“My kids pray for my safety whole day and breathe a sigh of relief when I return home,” said Parvez, an employee of Srinagar Municipal Corporation. Parvez enters the red zones with minimal safety gear and sprays disinfectant solution.

A resident of Karfali Mohalla, Parvez is one among the thousands of employees who work day in and day out in the field. Besides, spraying disinfectant solutions they collect trash in and around the declared red zones.

It would be the routine work for them but what is different in the current scenario is the threat of contracting the deadly Coronavirus.

All the SMC employees working at the front line are not provided with adequate protective gear, said Parvez.

”Last year, I remember, I  purchased a uniform for myself,”  he said adding sometimes he is forced to enter a red zone without proper gear. ”Sometimes I  go without a mask because I don’t have plenty of them.  Mask doesn’t have a long life and I use it again and again”.

Parvez said that had it not been for feeding his family, he would not do this dangerous job.

“We are under tremendous pressure and if we step back and not serve people now we will be terminated. I can’t afford to lose the job”’ he said.

SMC workers fumigate disinfectants in the area housing the Chest Disease Hospital that was recently converted into a special Covid-19 Hospital. The picture was taken minutes after one patient died on March 26, 2020. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, countries have been saluting their key workers providing essential services to people, be it medicos, the police, the social workers or any other front line worker. The battle against Coronavirus can only be won with their cooperation. Among the front line workers, ones with the highest susceptibility to the virus are ironically the least equipped. The sweepers, fee collectors and other employees working on groundwork tirelessly throughout the day risking their lives.

What is tragic in Kashmir is that the field workers of the SMC are not even counted to be frontline workers. Unlike doctors and cops for whom lights are lit and drums are beaten, sweepers are barely mentioned. “We go to work early morning and then the officials pull us out of our homes for additional work as well,” a sweeper, who wishes not to be named, said. “I might have swept a quarantine centre thrice day. But never ever did anybody offer us a cup of tea. Is not that inhuman?”

Admitted the crisis, a senior official of the SMC said their staff is getting an unfair deal. “At least five of our frontline workers were ruthlessly beaten and in fact, one of them is still in plaster,” the officer said. “Why the police beat them? Do they want to add to the crisis? Are they aware that if sweepers stop working for a week, there will be another epidemic?” These workers are apparently lacking protective gloves and face masks.

The interesting part of the story is that they are doing more than what they used to do. “In March 2018, we collected 8600 metric tonnes of waste, in 2019 it was 9500 metric tonnes and believe me, in March 2020, we collected 11443 metric tonnes,” the officer said. “And do you know how many people are working – 3200 and you know the actual requirement, it is 7200. So every single person is taking the load of two and still, they are being beaten.” The officer said that April is creating more waste than march. “By average, we are collecting 328 metric tonnes on a daily basis.”

After the 2014 Lok Sabha elections were over, this was the load of an SMC sweeper in Srinagar. Photo: Facebook

Despite all this, they have a realisation that is unmatched. Zahoor, 32, believes that death is inevitable and choosing to be selfish at uncertain times like these is not the option.  “Working without safety gear makes us vulnerable. I swear upon God, every time we spray the sanitizing solution in the red zones, it feels like our lungs are choked,” Zahoor said. He said that the sight of his co-workers who go door to door collecting trash scares him. 

Hameeda, a trash collector at Batamaloo, has stopped going to work. She was stopped her son. Interestingly, it is the son going to work for his mother – collecting the trash in the areas assigned to her, who now does the work for her.

Earlier Hameeda would dutifully do her job. She would leave at 7 am, but after covering her face with a proper mask every day that she purchased by her own money.

“Some of my co-workers have been provided with masks and gloves but when we collectively asked for them, they told us to wait,” alleged Hameeda adding she can’t risk not going to work or not sending her son because of the fear of losing the job.

For a petty amount of money, these sanitation workers go through hell. “We don’t have proper protective gear, so we place trust in God,” Hameeda said. “And God will protect my son too”.

When Hameeda’s son returns home, he makes sure that he takes a shower and sanitizes himself.

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Another employee from the SMC said that all the workers were provided with disposable masks and gloves and have been using the same for a month now.

 He urged the authorities to provide them with quality protective equipment, warning not doing so will be dangerous for them .as well to the community. “There can be a rapid community transmission if God forbid one of us gets infected,” the employee said. “That time, the situation can get out of everybody’s hands”.

 (Saifullah Bashir contributed to this report)

The copy appeared in Kashmir Life 12.5

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