At 4 every morning, S Venkatamma wakes up, eats a big plate of rice and then, to avoid the Rs 20 auto fare, walks an hour and a half to Hyderabad’s upscale Padmarao Nagar neighborhood, where she works for eight hours as a municipal sweeper.

She works until two in the afternoon, her toughened face obscured by a thin scarf, clearing the streets of the unending stream of dust and litter – water bottles, empty cigarette cartons, an unfinished tiffin, yesterday’s newspaper. Venkatamma and a team of 20 other sweepers gather the trash into a rusty cart and wheel it to a dump a few blocks away, repeating the process as temperatures rise to insufferable heights. Some days get so hot that Padmarao Nagar falls completely quiet, except for the occasional blaring horn and the sound of big brooms scraping against the asphalt.

“So many news reporters and TV people like you come and ask us how we can work in this heat, and then you leave and you write about us,” said Venkatamma, who reckoned her age was about 50. “But nothing changes! We are still here, working like we always do.”

Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are in the throes of a punishing heat wave that has driven temperatures upwards of 47 degrees and has, by official counts, claimed at least 1,127 lives – most of them elderly members of the working class. (In Hyderabad, however, the death toll is seven.) State officials have issued advisories to stay indoors during the afternoon and drink plenty of fluids, although no such concern seems to extend to Hyderabad’s sweepers who have continued to work the streets during the hottest parts of the day.

Growing old on the streets

“I saw on TV how they broke an egg on the road in Nalgonda” – a district in Telangana where the heat has been particularly severe – “and it turned into an omelet,” said Venkatamma, who seemed resigned about the alarming death toll. “Sure a lot of people are dying, but what are we supposed to think? When we come to work, we work. If we can’t stand it then we stay home, but then we lose that day’s paisa.”

Venkatamma and her co-worker, G. Yadamma, said they hadn’t drunk any water since the morning. “Who’ll bring us water?” said Yadamma. “The city doesn’t provide [for it]. We ask the watchmen and they say they don’t have anything. We ask the bank” – pointing to the State Bank of India branch steps away from where they stood – “and they say they don’t have anything either.”

The sweepers, who work under contract with the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, said they were paid Rs 7,100 each month if they showed up to work regularly. Missing a day means a loss of Rs 300. Venkatamma boasted that she hadn’t missed a day yet, but Yadamma, who is older, said she skipped three days because of the heat. It’s difficult to pin down how many sweepers have fallen ill due to the heat – the city does not maintain those figures – although Venkatamma said several of her colleagues have fainted on the job.

“I’m not saying it has happened to me, but it could. And then who’s going to help us?” She let out a rough laugh. “We’re growing old on these streets.”

Becoming too sick to work can make a precarious situation worse. Yadamma, in her sixties, said she was still recovering from an illness that put her out of work for three months. Although the city government did provide her with some compensation and healthcare, the money got tight. “The doctors said my body lost its strength,” she said. “It’s this job – all this sweeping, this dust, this being out here in the heat.”

“On top of that, I don’t have any sons,” she added. “My two daughters are married and my husband died when I was young. So it’s just me at home.”

The insensitivity of others

T. Kiran, an official with the Greater Hyderabad Metropolitan Corporation, said that the city had provided sweepers with caps and t-hirts. But these reflective vests were part of the standard uniform, and he admitted that the administration took few other measures to help the city’s 20,000 sweepers avoid the heat.

“Their shift lasts until two, but they’re free to finish all the work by morning,” he said. “They can bring their own water if they’re thirsty.”

Recently, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, the chief minister of Telangana, visited Padmarao Nagar and spoke with the municipal workers here, including the sweepers.

“He was surrounded by gunmen when we met him at his jeep,” said Venkatamma. “We made sure the streets were extra clean that day. He said, ‘Only you have received me like this.’”

Yadamma was more cynical. “They kept us here until 8 in the evening so that he wouldn’t see any trash on the roads. And did we get anything special? No.”

A passing motorist tossed a wadded-up newspaper onto the street. Yadamma glared. “I get irritated when people throw trash like that. It’s extra work for me, in this heat,” she said. “At home, I never throw garbage on the road. Because then who’ll clean it?”