They are those tasked with cleaning and disinfecting public spaces in villages – an essential service during a raging COVID-19 pandemic that has not spared even rural areas this time around. Yet, this has not translated into a life without struggle for the 11,000-odd rural sanitation workers in Haryana.
The contribution made by the rural sanitation workforce in assisting the state government to combat the viral infection remains unseen, allege Haryana Rural Sanitation Workers Union (RSWU). They say that the Manohar Lal Khattar–led government in the state has failed to pay heed to their long-pending demands.
Earlier this week, on Tuesday, a state-wide protest was staged on a call by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)–affiliated union to press for the demand charter that included, among others, safety gear, insurance coverage, and risk allowance for the workforce.
On Thursday, union members, after meeting state panchayat department officials, claimed that they will intensify the agitation if their demands were not met immediately.
“Today our union's delegation met Ramesh Chander Bidhan (Director General, Development & Panchayats, Haryana) who assured us that the demands raised by it will be met immediately,” said Vinod Kumar, general secretary, RSWU, adding that the union has been highlighting the same “for over two months now.”
The meeting was “satisfactory,” Kumar said over the phone on Thursday. An official at the Haryana Panchayat Bhawan was not available for a comment at the time.
With the resurgence in COVID-19 cases since late March this year and the infection spreading in rural areas as well, the work done by sanitation workers – the majority from the Valmiki community in Haryana – was more essential than ever before. This however, was accompanied with the risk of these workers contracting the coronavirus themselves and then spreading it to their family members as well.
Forty-five-year-old Dinesh is one among those grappling with his fears. A sanitation worker in Faridabad district’s Pali village, Dinesh lives with his wife, four children, and mother. “What if I get infected or if I spread it to my family? In any case, it will be difficult for us to manage. It is this risk that I have been taking on since the past year,” he told Newsclick.
There is also no option of sitting at home, saving oneself from going out. “How will my children eat then?” Dinesh asked.
Manoj Kumar, treasurer, RSWU, said that the union has been demanding adequate safety gear for the rural sanitation workforce in Haryana since April last year. “We have written to the state panchayat department five times in the last two months. However, only five blocks out of the total 140 saw distribution of any protective equipment till now,” he said.
Kumar also mentioned that the rural sanitation workers in the state are bereft of the insurance coverage announced by the Centre last year. The Narendra Modi government had brought “frontline workers” under the fold of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Package Insurance scheme since last year. It provides life insurance cover of Rs. 50 lakh in case of death due to COVID-19.
Additionally, the union is also demanding a risk allowance of Rs 2,000 for the sanitation workers who have in recent times also provided their services at COVID-19 isolation centres and in cremating COVID-19 dead bodies in villages.
Meanwhile, Haryana CM Khattar, at a 'Safai Mitra Utthan Sammelan' held in Karnal earlier in April, had announced an increase in salaries of sanitation workers across the state, along with an additional compensation in case of a salary delay. The increment amounted to Rs. 1,500 for the rural workforce and Rs. 1,000 for the urban workforce.
However, all this is yet to be implemented, lamented Kumar. “If, even after today’s meeting, the rightful demands of the unions are not met, then we will stage a protest next month at the office of Dushyant Singh Chautala,” he said on Thursday. Chautala, currently the deputy CM in Haryana, also holds charge of the department of Development & Panchayats in the state.
The union will organise an online sabha (meeting) on Saturday, June 5, Kumar added.