Tarawati: Unsung hero who risked her life daily

A new sanitation worker has been assigned to the streets of ward number 257 in north-east Delhi’s Vijay Park locality. Tarawati (who only used her first name), the previous worker who cleaned the lanes there for eight years, died of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in June.

Tarawati’s source of infection remains unknown more than three months after her death, said eldest son Joginder, highlighting the precarious conditions under which thousands of sanitation workers do their daily work during the pandemic.

Tarawati, a permanent employee of the East Delhi Municipal Corporation for the past 30 years, is among 23 sanitation workers who have died of Covid-19 in the past six months in Delhi.

On June 10, the 56-year-old felt a fever come on, so after work, she went to a doctor for medicine. But over the following week her condition only became worse.

She got herself tested for Covid-19 on June 16, but three days later, she was admitted to the Baba Sahib Ambedkar Hospital — the same day, her test results came back positive. She died the next day.

“Mother was given charge of sweeping the roads and clearing pavements of seven particular lanes in her ward. She was regularly in contact with the families who lived there, other sanitation workers deployed in the ward and random people on the street. When she tested positive for Covid-19, district health officials could not trace the source of infection. So, it remains unknown till today how she contracted it,” said Joginder, also a sanitation worker deployed in a neighbouring locality.

Joginder said that the municipal corporation had given sanitation workers masks, gloves and sanitisers. However, this was not enough for workers like his mother and him, he said.

“Rich people have more resources for healthcare and isolation. These are basic things that the poor cannot afford. But people like us still have to risk our lives and do our jobs. Many sanitation workers do not know much about protecting themselves. We need to be told about this in a systematic, methodical way,” he said.

Tarawati is survived by her three sons, Joginder, Arjun and Rajesh. All are married and have children of their own. Arjun, a driver and Rajesh, who worked as a clerk at a physician’s private clinic in east Delhi, lost their jobs during the lockdown.

Tarawati’s death set alarm bells ringing for the family. Their house is a maze of small rooms constructed over a 70 square-yard plot in north-east Delhi’s Ghonda Khas village — home to at least 40 other families belonging to the Balmiki community who form part of the Dalit caste.

In Ghonda Khas, most families claim to have lived here for five to six generations — a period over which frail tenements turned into concrete houses (some of them three-storey high) built over 50-100 square-yard plots, much like the one in which Tarawati’s family lives.

“My mother was a victim of somebody’s carelessness. Somebody may not have worn a mask, or thrown garbage around. At times it makes me angry. But then there is no point thinking about it. A lot of people have died. We are not alone,” Joginder said.

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