Minimum protection, maximum work: Kochi's waste collectors do their best during COVID days

Kochi: Mohanan, a native of Edakochy on the suburbs of Kochi, starts his work at 5:30am in the morning everyday. He travels over 10 km on his bike to reach Kaloor, in the heart of the city, to collect garbage from houses, flats and shops. Once the waste is collected on a three-wheeler rickshaw, he hands it over to the Kochi corporation's staff who in turn take it to the Brahmapuram waste treatment plant. After he is done with the day's job around 10 am, he returns home, often with an empty stomach.

For the past 23 years, this has been more or less Mohanan's routine. He is among the 300-odd waste collectors who deal with the city's never-ending garbage menace. For years, they have been doing their work silently despite a handful of grievances. However, they don't remember working under extreme fear like they do nowadays when the whole world is worried about the spread of novel coronavirus.

“We are all scared these days because we are highly vulnerable to the virus attack. We can't refuse to work even during the lockdown because ours is an essential service,” Mohanan, the Ernakulam district convener of Malinya Nirmarjana Thozhilali Union, said. The union is attached to the CITU.

He said the Kochi corporation has provided him with only a bath towel (thorthu) and a pair of gloves for their protection following the outbreak of the virus.

Manoj B, another waste collector who works at Elamakkara, added two more items to the list – a cloth mask and a soap.

Mohanan and Manoj are not even contract staff of the corporation. There are more than 300 workers like them in the city who collect waste from houses. They are paid by the house owners monthly – Rs 150-200 per house.

“We have not been given any guidelines to work during these days. Each one of us goes to nearly 200 houses. We don't even know if there are any people quarantined in these houses. The waste we collect include used masks and gloves also,” Manoj said.

Manoj said he also sent an email to the chief minister and the health minister, with the help of his daughter, seeking their attention to their plight. There was no reply until Friday night.

“We don't want to do any protest. We are doing our job. From the news, we hear that the government is doing a lot for even migrant labourers, but why are we ignored. We have been given a cloth piece with strings attached to it. It can't even be called a mask. There is also a towel, don't know what it is for,” he asked. Manoj has been in the field for the past 20 years.

Mayor rubbishes charges

Kochi Mayor Soumini Jain told Onmanorama that the authorities have done everything to protect the waste collectors. “We have provided them with the necessary materials as per the request of health inspectors. We have also released funds for buying the material,” she said.

“There is a proper working pattern for them. They only have to follow it,”she said.

'Mask and gloves good enough'

Doctor Rajeev Jayadevan of IMA, Cochin, said a surgical mask and gloves are adequate for the waste collectors. Stressing the importance of washing hands frequently, he said it was good that the workers have been given a soap too.

“It's also important to teach them how to use the masks properly,” he said.