It’s 11 am, and he is stinking. Walking through the muck left in the wake of Chennai’s floods for two weeks now, Lakshman, one among the over 20,000 sanitary workers of Chennai Corporation, can smell the city on himself.
For some reason, he chuckles, he keeps thinking of the archaeologists who would visit his village to work on a vacant plot. He is digging deep like them, Lakshman says, but while they left with “broken pots”, “we get much better things here, though we cannot even touch them as they are that dirty.”
The four days of rain and flooding are estimated to have left Chennai under one lakh tonnes of garbage and sludge, settled as a dark fluid over the city.
Apart from Chennai Corporation’s own staff, around 7,000 workers have been brought in from nine corporations and 24 muncipalities across the state to help with the clean-up since the waters receded, and are staying in marriage halls.
Lakshman, who is in his 60s, along with around a hundred others, has been assigned the Kotturpuram Housing Board Colony, an area of 5,000 residents known as a ‘vertical slum’ even on good days. It was vacated following the flood, but almost everybody is back now, including in ground-floor homes still covered in sludge.
As he clears garbage blocking the entry to a backyard, Lakshman keeps shrugging his shoulders, trying to suppress the urge to itch all over his body.
“I wash my hands for 20 minutes even if I have to light a beedi. The flood has brought to the surface all that lay underneath and buried all that was outside,” says Lakshman, as he steps into the fourth lane of the colony, next to the Adyar river, whose waters were the main cause of Chennai flooding.
Veluchamy, who belongs to Dindigul, keeps his mind on the special meals they have been getting from Chennai Corporation, starting with breakfast at 9 am. They mostly have dosa or pongal, and pongal, the 40-year-old says, is his “favourite food”.
“We get packed breakfast and dinner where we stay. I am so happy to have them hot. By noon, they bring us rice and fish curry packets.” In the last one week, he adds, he has also had chicken biryani once.
For 8- to 10-hour days, their regular salary is Rs 2,040 a month. However, again, perks up Veluchamy, “Amma has announced a gift”. “We will get Rs 2,000 for this work we are doing in Chennai.”
Most of the sanitary workers, including Lakshman, Veluchamy and P Thangavel, belong to the Dalit Adi Dravidar community, like thousands before them. “My forefathers too did this job,” says Thangavel. However, he adds, he has never had to do what he is doing in Chennai. Also from outside the city, Thangavel, 55, remains a bachelor.
He is thankful for the gloves, masks, gum boots, soap, uniform, painkillers and anti-infection medicines they have been allocated. “The government had to provide them after some fell sick on being exposed to the waste,” Thangavel says.
He talks about running up against 3 ft of thick sludge at the northern end of the Kotturpuram colony. “When we cleared it, we found TVs, refrigerators.”
A government employee who didn’t want to be named had a more surreal encounter, when the object he heaved up turned out to be a laptop with Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s sticker on it. The laptop was among those distributed by the state government to students. “We sweep what we find into bags and take it to the main streets, where JCBs and municipality trucks ferry the objects away,” he says.
While the workers have been given anti-infection medicines, Veluchamy worries about the swarm of mosquitoes that follows them around.
When they return to the halls they stay in, one of their first tasks is to get the muck off the single set of allocated khaki uniform. They spend nearly half an hour scrubbing.
“With the sludge in my nails, I was unable to eat for the first two days. A Lifebuoy soap bar would last three days,” says Thangavel.
The clean-up is expected to get over in a week. Till then, there is little time for breaks. Seeing some of them standing around, a sanitary inspector who won’t tell his name hastens over. “Pasanga (boys), I want you to finish the sixth lane soon. Start working.”