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The street sweeper and her missing gloves

[By Usha Raman]

The two women walk down my street at around 7 a.m. every morning, noticeable in the navy-blue knee-length coats they wear over their sarees, and the colourful bandannas that cover their heads. Bhagya (name changed to maintain anonymity) has large kaajal-rimmed eyes and she flashes a bright smile if she happens to see me on the terrace. There’s a man with them, and the three form the team that sweeps and gathers the street rubbish every day in my part of Hyderabad city. Their blue coveralls are printed with the letters signifying the municipal authority that employs them.

Well…if the relationship they have with that authority can be termed “employment.” Bhagya and her companions are contracted by the municipality through a third party. They are perhaps somewhat more fortunate than many others who are hired on and off on daily wages, but less so than the 37 % or so that are estimated to be on the permanent rolls of any urban municipal corporation in India. They are part of the crew that is responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of the city—an activity that was elevated to mission mode under the Central Government’s highly publicized “Swacch Bharath” (Clean India) scheme launched in 2014. While the building of toilets and eliminating open defecation were seen as top priorities under the scheme, the cleanliness of public spaces and ensuring safe and efficient waste disposal were also important goals. The scheme was dismissed by many as populist, and failing to tackle the real issues of caste-based inequity and deep-rooted social stigma faced by sanitation workers, but it did open up the discursive space around these issues.

Image credit: Pikist

The mission also succeeded in bringing more attention to the condition of workers like Bhagya—women and men working under precarious conditions of employment, subject to often unfair and nebulous contractual terms, and no safety net in case of health or other emergencies. An in-depth qualitative study by Dahlberg Advisors in 2017 categorized sanitation work into nine different types, ranging from cleaning latrines and drains to sweeping streets, each with its own challenges and vulnerabilities. More recently, a study by the NGO PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) Network points to four “predispositions” that are the reasons for the persistent marginalization of sanitation workers—gender, caste, geography and education.

One does not need to look deep into the fine print of such studies to perceive the challenges that women in sanitation work face, being doubly marginalized by caste and gender. The PRIA study also pointed to the lack of empathetic supervision and little consideration given to the specific issues of safety and protection that women workers might require. These issues have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, with all categories of sanitation workers becoming part of an invisible frontline in the fight against the pandemic. A phone-based survey of 214 sanitation workers in three north Indian cities during this pandemic, of whom 30 % were women, revealed that they had received no instructions or training related to safety during the pandemic, nor had any special arrangements been made for them at work. Bhagya, for instance, told me that she was issued one set of gloves when she started working for the municipality three years ago, which have since torn and have not been replaced. When I asked her about face masks and hand sanitizer, she shook her head: “We have to get them ourselves if we want.” A simple cloth scarf was wound around her face in lieu of a mask.

The lack of information and the failure to provide basic protections results in a high level of anxiety, often leading to desperate measures. A 60-year-old sweeper in Telangana was reported to have taken her own life by consuming pesticides, fearing that she had been infected by the SARS-CoV 2 virus after having swept the streets in what was later declared a containment zone. In this and other reports, women sanitation workers are often referred to as “Covid warriors” but this terminology belies the very real vulnerabilities they embody. A majority do not have any form of health insurance despite the fact that much lip-service is paid to the fact that they are on the front lines of the pandemic.

Worker protections exist—in theory, and to varying extent—across all sectors; however, there are gaps at the level of making these protections, and knowledge about them, available to workers. When I ask Bhagya whether her contractor is supposed to give her protective gear, she shrugs, and says “Who knows?” While one might see this as apathy or complacence, it’s more likely to be a simple lack of awareness of what one is due and how to demand it. Of course, there is also the possibility that the exercise of voice might just put her job at risk.

When we talk of communication rights, it is often limited to access to means of communication and the freedom of expression. But within a human rights framework, communication becomes the means by which we access a whole range of other rights—including the right to fair work.

Some days, as I look down from the terrace, I see Bhagya walking a few feet behind her companions, talking on her phone. What if this phone became a means—not only of domestic communication, but also, to access a checklist of protections, a means to report on lapses, and a way to connect with others in her cohort? What if it were not an instrument of surveillance (as has been used to monitor activity under Swacch Bharat in some regions) but an instrument of security, care and supportive connection?

I guess that’s a question for another day.

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Building on empathy: can we broaden the conversation?

[By Usha Raman]

As India imposed a near-complete lockdown in March, accompanied by social distancing recommendations, things began to fall apart for the millions engaged in daily wage labour across multiple sectors. To them, the sudden absence of work meant the inability to pay for shelter and food, the barest needs to sustain oneself in a monetized economy. The central government and many state governments began announcing relief measures but alongside, civil society began to step up with small community led efforts. The emerging discourse of shared responsibility among the privileged classes holds promise for a wider appreciation of the rights of those in the unorganized sector, and a greater appreciation of the precarious nature of such work.

Writing in the Peoples Archive of Rural India the day after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown on March 24, journalist P Sainath remarked: “Somehow, the better off and middle classes seem convinced that if we stay at home and practice social distancing, all will be well. That, at least, we will be insulated from the virus. There is no recognition of how the economic distress will work its way back to us.”

Sketch by Usha Raman

The economic distress he was referring to was, of course, the distress of the millions of daily wage earners, a majority of them migrants from the poorest states in the country—Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand. Soon the mainstream media purveyed hundreds of images of migrants stranded without shelter and food in cities that had turned hostile to them. Even as many began to exit cities in the thousands, in the hope of finding some succor in their native villages, many others, who had made a more permanent home in the city, were left with nowhere to go and no way to earn a living. Photographs in newspapers and videos circulating on social media told heart-rending stories of fear, confusion and hunger, whole families walking with their few belongings and being harangued by the police, whose job ironically was to ensure that citizens were protected from the disease. While the government’s hastily cobbled together relief measures—reactive rather than proactive and strategic—began to be implemented, many other groups swung into action. Moved by the stories of sudden displacement and deprivation, civil society groups, both organized and spontaneously formed, stepped into the vacuum caused by the loss of jobs and the absence of social security of any kind.

An analysis by IT4Change team members Sohel Sarkar and Deepthi Bharthur put it, the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus has given us “a universal teachable moment”. While the cynical may point out that not all teachable moments lead to learning, one can discern in this moment the potential to refashion our imagination and understanding of what an equitable and just society should look like.

While precarity has been a recurrent theme in conversations about the future of work, the pandemic has brought into sharp relief what this could mean, not only for those in the shadow of automation and the network economy, but also for those engaged in, quite literally, the “brick and mortar” sectors of construction, sanitation, and the numerous other jobs that turn the wheels of the city’s machinery. Journalist Rukmini S writes that close to 12 percent of urban households rely on casual labour for their income, while many more may be classified as “self-employed” such as petty vendors, providers of low-skill services such as cobblers, dhobis (clothes washers) and workers contracted through platforms.

The Covid-19 conversation has brought new eyes and ears to attention. Middle class India is forced to see what life looks like for those who do not have the privileges that come with assured salaries, stable living arrangements, and for a few, the continuity provided by the means to work from home. This is not a new realization, but never before has the story been so consistently in the headlines and presented in such detail over and over again to the Indian middle-class media consumer. It is in this context that the “teachable moment” holds potential. From being a concern for a few do-gooders who advocate for workers’ rights, precarity has acquired the sharp contours of materiality—it leads to loss of shelter and food, and the inaccessibility to [what should be] the most ordinary of services like health and education and ultimately, dignity. Even for those who have been in the thick of the battle for workers’ rights, this moment pushes even further the need to demand not only fairness in wages and working conditions in the present, but also a security net that envisions precarity in the broadest way possible.

Sketch by Usha Raman

Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of MKSS, refer to the need for us to recognize the deep inequities that have persisted and made newly visible due to the Covid-19 lockdown: “Those who benefited most from this growth see this workforce in utilitarian, rather than human terms. The privileged must understand that if they do not want to be affected by impoverishment and insecurity that has afflicted these workers, a minimal level of livelihood security will have to be guaranteed to labour, farmers and workers in the informal sector.” This also calls for responses that go beyond charity and lead to structural and policy reforms that can build a more caring society, not just a more efficient one driven by narrow notions of economic productivity.

Our work in FemLab.Co attempts to understand what livelihood security could look like from the bottom up, for women workers in the selected sectors of the informal economy, and fill out the notion of precarity in real, experiential ways. These months under lock down will have, hopefully, engendered greater empathy among those who provide employment and those who have taken the city’s labour for granted, while possibly giving advocates a keener sense of how demands must be articulated.

Those whose lives are lived on the edge have always had a sense of precarity. The rest of us have now, second hand, had a glimpse of it.