Whilst pushing her garbage cart, N. Maheshwari (46) thoughtfully reflects, “people assume we do our jobs because of poverty. It might come as a surprise to them that we actually like what we do. I can go home after work feeling satisfied knowing I have made a difference. Now, during this crisis, I have taken more risks to keep people safe and the environment pleasant and my work has been recognised as an essential service.”
With public transport systems coming to a halt, Maheshwari residing in Thotalanga had to walk two hours to reach Colombo, at least by 6 a.m., for work. And her day starts with picking up garbage and sweeping the streets in the early hours of the morning. With many of her colleagues not turning up for work, she had more streets to cover which she did without complaining.
“People would throw their trash on the streets and it is never segregated”, she says. This means she has to sort it out, separating plastics, glassware, wet waste and others. This proved to be even more dangerous as she had to sort through Covid waste, often coming across masks, gloves, tissues and sanitary napkins. “We can’t let the fear of Covid-19 get to us. We have to get the work done and keep our country safe”. When questioned about PPE, she adds with a smile “it tears after sorting through a few garbage bags”. Nonetheless, all her hard work during the lockdown has not been wasted, she adds cheerfully, “people can now walk in my streets safely without worrying. If we had stopped working because of Covid-19, people would not be able to come out and walk amongst the trash we clean every day.”