Settling into a cosy corner at home with a mug of hot tea during the rains is the idea of a picture-perfect monsoon for many. However, when we relax indoors enjoying the drizzle, there is often someone out and about ensuring the roads are not inundated, that power lines stay intact, the drains are not clogged, and garbage is not strewn on the streets after a heavy downpour. Chennai’s many frontline workers deal with these unenviable tasks even as they are unable to attend to their own needs or that of their families during these situations.
With the impact of climate change across countries leading to more extreme climatic events, the lives of frontline workers and their kin in Chennai is only set to get more challenging if the status quo remains.
Hardships faced by Chennai’s frontline workers
Venkatesh*, who joined the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) as a temporary worker 21 years ago, starts his day as early as 5.30 am. He lives in Urapakkam and has to travel over 30 km to Royapettah for work. Back then his salary was Rs 2,800 per month. In 2021, his pay was Rs 6,000 per month. Following the enforcement of minimum wages, he has been getting a sum of Rs 11,000 per month.
Venkatesh says that after the 2015 Chennai floods, his family was evicted from Thousand Lights, where they were residing for decades, and relocated to Urapakkam. His wife, who was working in a call centre earning Rs 20,000 a month, had to quit the job as travelling to and fro every day was time-consuming, and financially not feasible. The issue of the lack of child-care facilities after school also played a part in her decision to leave the job.
“I became the sole breadwinner of my family. Ever since the CMWSSB converted the temporary workers to contract workers, we have been lacking job security. At least till then, we had a hope that someday our job positions would be made permanent. If I fail to report to duty even for one day, there are people to replace me. I have been in this job for the past 21 years, and this is all the work I know to make a livelihood. So no matter what the day’s weather is, I have to report to duty,” he says.
While the usual working hours are from 8.30 am to 5.30 am, Mahesh*, a temporary worker with CMWSSB, says that they usually work round-the-clock during rains in Chennai.
“We do not have provisions to charge our mobile phones to keep in touch with our families. We also do not have time to travel all the way back to Kannagi Nagar or Perumbakkam, as we may be deployed to attend to public complaints immediately. Only when we get back home do we know how much our families have been suffering,” he says, adding that no special training or equipment is given ahead of the monsoon. “It is more like our regular work but with a lot more workload and no extra pay for the overtime,” he says.
Arpudham, a conservancy worker of the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) in Kodambakkam, says that she takes a long journey from Semmancherry to clean the streets in Kodambakkam despite the heavy downpour. “The residents ill-treat us, refuse to provide water and also stand a few feet away while handing over the garbage,” she notes.
She adds that the work has become even harder during rainy days as the garbage dumped in the bins spreads all over the road after a downpour. It also clogs the drains.
“As most residents do not segregate the waste before dumping them into the bins, it becomes impossible to segregate them when it is drenched in rain,” she says, adding that handling such mixed wet wastes often leaves many conservancy workers ill.
“Though we have been given raincoats, we inevitably get wet almost every day. As a result, many people get a fever, or one or the other form of infection. We cannot afford to take leave as it would lead to loss of pay, and so many of us end up coming to work even when we are sick. Besides, since many residents cannot come out of their houses during rains, they are also unable to dispose of the garbage if we do not go for door-to-door collection,” she adds.
Ramanathan*, a temporary worker who has been working with the Electricity Board in Chennai for almost two decades, points out that the EB workers are the ones involved in high-risk jobs, particularly during rains.
“We have to be on the ground to attend to issues like snapped overhead cables, short circuits, fires in transformers etc. This work involves a lot of risk and the rains only increase the chances of fatal accidents,” he says, adding that residents raise a complaint if the power is shut down even for a short while during the rains.
“But if we do not suspend power, it increases the chances of electrocution,” he notes.
Even as workers battle the elements to keep the city running normally, there has hardly been any recognition of their efforts.
Many frontline workers point out that many workers have not received the incentive announced by the governments, be it for their exemplary work during the Chennai floods, the Vardah cyclone or the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our workers have been risking their lives to ensure the public is safe and all we expect is for the government to make our jobs permanent so that we have job security. Even if a worker dies during work now, his family ends up losing the sole breadwinner and is not qualified for any sort of government benefits. Many workers are also brought to Chennai from other districts to work during disasters. They too are not paid properly. The working conditions are very poor and it remains the same for workers from different departments across the state,” said Bala Krishnan, a member of the CMWSSB Workers’ Welfare Association.
How families of frontline workers in Chennai cope
As the heavy downpour starts lashing the city, Selvi R, a resident of Semmencherry, keeps an eye on the door while doing all the household chores. It has been three days since her husband, who works with the CMWSSB, left for work. His mobile remains switched off.
“As it is hard for him to travel to and fro every day during rain, he usually stays at his workplace. We do not know when he would be back and that is scary as there is an occupational risk to his life,” she said, citing various instances when the workers have been injured severely during work or sometimes even met with fatal accidents. Selvi’s fear is common among families of the frontline workers who work across various departments.
Kanchana M, a resident of Kannagi Nagar, says that even as her husband, who works as a temporary manual worker involved in declogging the manholes and drains with CMWSSB, is out there to ensure that the inundated roads are drained and the public is free to travel, their own residential area sees frequent flooding.
“We used to live in huts along the banks of the Cooum river and were evicted from there as we will be affected by floods but the tenement that has been given to us is no better than the huts. At least when the huts collapse, there are chances to escape death. If these vertical apartments collapse, it would only be fatal,” she says.
While her husband is away at work, Kanchana, along with other women in the locality, raises their issues to the local officials. “We have to make 10 or 20 calls for them to respond to our complaints,” she says.
The same is the case in Perumbakkam, says Jency, whose mother works as a contract conservancy worker with the GCC in Teynampet.
“When my mother was working in Teynampet during the 2021 monsoon, our residential areas were flooded with knee-deep water. For eight days we were locked inside our houses. There were also snakes all around. While there was water all around us, we did not have water in our houses as the power supply was suspended and there was no means to use the motor to pump water,” she says.
No mitigation measures were carried out in Perumbakkam before the onset of the Northeast monsoon this year and the water seeps through the walls even following a short spell of rain. “We do not know how we will manage heavy rains this year,” she says.
The story is no different in areas like Vyasarpadi and Pulianthope from where a lot of metro water lorry drivers, electricity board workers and conservancy workers hail.
Preparing workers for extreme climatic events
M Vetri Selvan, an environmental advocate practising at Madras High Court, who is associated with the organisation Poovulagin Nanbargal, points out that Chennai has been witnessing extreme conditions of heat waves and rainfall, along with sea level rise, as a direct consequence of climate change. Apart from the existing age-old National Disaster Management Guidelines that have specifications on handling crisis situations and the existing labour laws that mandate safety measures for frontline workers, there are no new regulations that have been introduced, to meet the realities in the wake of changing climatic scenarios. Even the existing guidelines have not been updated.
“The National Disaster Relief Force stationed in Arakonam is the only specialised body we have for handling crisis situations. Most often, all other frontline workers are roped in only when there is a crisis, without any psychological preparation. This is where the need for capacity-building programmes in accordance with climatic events for frontline workers arises,” he says.
Further pointing out that the different bodies involved in handling disasters operate independently, he says, “For instance, when a fire accident is reported in countries like America, a paramedical team also accompanies them. Similarly, only when different departments coordinate and work together will there be mutual knowledge sharing. For this to happen, clarity on common command is needed,” he adds.
Prasanth J, Co-founder of Chennai Climate Action Group, says that most of the frontline workers in Chennai, be it the workers of Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, conservancy workers of GCC or Metro Water workers, reside in low-lying areas and will likely be as affected by the rains as the parts of the city where they are deployed.
“They are the ones who would be affected by floods or any natural calamity but they are also the ones who work on the ground during such times. Unlike most of our jobs, they have round-the-clock work which also involves risking their lives. Job permanency has been their long-term demand and it is only a fair demand,” he says.
While rains and floods are only part of climate change impacts in Chennai, the silent changes like prolonged summer that have a huge impact on the day-to-day lives of these workers should also be approached with scientific understanding and necessary training should be given to them in addition to framing new guidelines and updating the existing ones, says Vetri.
Tamil Nadu is one of the forerunners in setting up a Special Purpose Vehicle for handling climate change. “However, we are still at a very early stage. It is a long process and Tamil Nadu as a State has a long way to go in terms of building the necessary infrastructure for the climatic events,” he adds.
No matter what the impact is, be it extreme heat or rain, the frontline workers are the ones who hold the city together through their hard work. While recognising this is only a first step in the process, equipping them with scientific knowledge, ensuring safety in the workplace, framing necessary policy in accordance with the changing climatic conditions, ensuring job permanency and providing safe housing for their families are important steps to acknowledge and improve the lives of Chennai’s essential workers.
*names changed on request