Kudumbasree workers, bothered by failing health and huge expenses, are planning to go on strike.

Perhaps the single biggest reason for the city not turning into a garbage dump in the past decade, which saw an exponential jump in the amount of waste produced, is the untiring but thankless job done by 700 odd Kudumbasree sanitation workers. But that story could change for the worse soon with the disgruntled workers planning to stop waste collection until all their issues are resolved.

The issues range from maintenance cost of the waste collection vehicles to the myriad health problems faced by the daily handling of garbage. Workers say that complications of the uterus, caused by lifting weight, are common among them.

“We have to lift these large waste bins to load it to the collection vehicles. It takes a toll on the uterus over a period of time. Many of us have to go in for uterus removal surgery. Even after that it is hard to work normally,” says Malar, a worker.

Dislocated disk, itching of the skin and eyes, rashes and shoulder pain are common among them. The distribution of protective gear such as gloves, raincoats, masks, and the basic medicines is erratic. The fall in number of Kudumbasree sanitation workers over these nine years of their operation is partly attributed to health issues.

“There were more than 700 workers when we started out. Now it has fallen to 325. The reason is, there is no protection if we fall ill. The Corporation has not paid for our insurance scheme for the past two years. The scheme itself does not cover all our needs. None of us got any benefit for surgical procedures,” says joint secretary of the Waste Collection Workers Union (CITU) P.T. Girija, who had to stop working after her uterus was removed.

When contacted by The Hindu, project officer of the CDS in Kozhikode M.V. Ramsy Ismail said the existing insurance scheme lapsed two months back. “Insurance should be maintained properly. There are certainly problems in the area, especially the late payment of the policy premium. The funds for this were allocated in the Corporation’s fund,” said Mr. Ismail.

Another bone of contention has been the autorickshaws used for waste collection. When Kudumbasree started, the vehicles were bought with loans taken by the neighbourhood groups. But in 2010, the Corporation distributed new vehicles to the groups as replacement. The workers are demanding that the Corporation pay for the maintenance as it owns the vehicles.

“We spend around Rs.40,000 on each vehicle annually. We even take loans for vehicle maintenance. This is another reason for some of the workers leaving Kudumbasree,” says K. Mini, secretary of the union.

Babitha, a worker from Mankavu, says that there is no facility to park the vehicle or to clean it. Her group has, therefore, opted for the pushcarts as it saves on the maintenance cost.

Janamma Kunjunni, chairperson, standing committee on health, says the Kudumbasree workers had in 2012 entered into an agreement with the Corporation that they will pay for the maintenance themselves.

“They should not blame the Corporation since they agreed to pay for it last year. We had interacted with all of them to make the issue clear. We can do something about the health insurance. The Corporation council will have to take a collective decision,” said Ms. Kunjunni.

The Kudumbasree is all set to go on strike if their demands are not met. “The neglect these people face from the authorities, the public, and even from their own families is unfortunate. Their value will be appreciated only when they stop working,” says P.A. Chandrasekharan, district committee member of the CITU.

There are of course voices of disagreement from community organisers of the Kudumbasree against the strike plans. “The Kudumbashree should not be seen as a job to make money. It was not started with such an objective. Some of the issues such as health insurance are valid. But this is not the way to tackle it,” says Shaila Chacko, a community organiser.

Amidst this, there are rumours that the Corporation is planning to dismantle the neighbourhood groups and divest them of the responsibility of waste collection. But Mr. Ismail dismissed those rumours. “There are plans to promote pipe composting in a big way. That might affect the units’ revenue. But there are no plans to take away from them the responsibilities of waste collection,” he said.

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