Sanitation workers- The invisible warriors keeping our cities clean!


Mahatma Gandhi, the father of our nation and flagbearer of cleanliness once said, “Sanitation is more important than political independence.” India’s sanitation journey through the Swachh Bharat Mission has been astounding yet compelling taking India closer to achieving the SDGs. The World Health Organisation even lauded India’s accelerated sanitation coverage and reduction of open defecation by 26 percentage points. However, the real champions behind this success are the community of sanitation workers, who painstakingly ensure that our waste is being treated safely and our cities stay clean. Every-day, over 5 million sanitation workers across the country risk their lives to ensure we have access to fully functioning sanitation services even during a global pandemic. This community risks their safety and health at the cost of their own dignity and life. However, they are far too often unquantified and ostracized, and many of the challenges they face stem merely from the fundamental lack of acknowledgement.

The government has undertaken various successful initiatives by means of policies, schemes, laws and programs to ensure safety and dignity to our sanitation workforce. The Swachh Bharat Mission launched on the 2nd of October 2014, in particular, focused on ensuring a dignified and safer source of livelihood for sanitation workers and other vulnerable communities by integrating them into the formal workforce through a convergence scheme with the National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM). The prime objective of the mission is to improve the socio-economic status of the urban poor and vulnerable sanitation workers by providing access to employment opportunities in sanitation based livelihoods like operations and maintenance of community/public toilets, faecal sludge treatment plans and desludging/cesspool vehicle operations. The National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (NFSSM) Alliance member Urban Management Centre (UMC) has been instrumental in mobilizing sanitation workers to form community platforms like Self Help Groups, area level federations and slum level federations in various states for dignified and safe sanitation livelihoods through this programme. Health and safety of the sanitation workers is also ensured in these livelihoods through the provision of PPEs, awareness building and usage of mechanized technologies for carrying out their work with their dignity and safety uncompromised.

We are now witnessing for the very first time women and transgender sanitation workers in Odisha and Tamil Nadu leading the way and taking on roles that have been predominantly led by men such as cesspool vehicle operations and septage treatment plant management. Despite countless odds, many engaged in sanitation-based livelihoods have carved their own niche. In Andhra Pradesh women like Venkatalakshmi, are leveraging these opportunities to create successful sanitation business enterprises for desludging septic tanks. Such mechanisms have enabled women who form more than 50% of the sanitation workers, to overcome abject poverty, question gender stereotypes and challenge traditional sanitation roles to rise up the rungs to managerial roles in the sanitation space.

According to the 4th edition of Swachh Sarvekshan, the annual cleanliness survey for urban India conducted by Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, in 2019 over 84,000 informal sanitation workers including desludging operators were integrated into the formal workforce with several urban local bodies providing medical insurance and facilities for regular health check-ups for sanitation workers. In 2018, standard operating procedure (SOP) were introduced by the Government of India for cleaning of sewers and septic tanks detailing the plan of action for the job. It also gave out clear directives for the urban local bodies for engaging sanitation workers. In 2019, this was complemented by emergency response sanitation units (ERSU) which mandates systems for immediate responses for related emergencies. It is commendable to see initiatives emerge in a bid to reverse the effects of this generational discrimination and social stigma that sanitation workers have faced and have become accustomed to. Bringing us closer to fulfilling Mahatma Gandhiji’s dream of cleanliness for equality that was envisaged during the freedom struggle.

Although, the progress we have made has been commendable, its implementation success is yet to be seen. States have found it difficult to implement these models for a variety of reasons such as challenges with mobilising workers into groups, lack of confidence and skills of workers to shoulder entrepreneurial responsibilities etc. The COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide lockdown unearthed the abysmal conditions sanitation workers have to endure in the absence of safety equipment and social protection schemes. A 2019 report by the Accountability Initiative and Centre for Policy Research observed a progressive decline in allocations to the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS) since 2013. The report also notes that the mandatory compensation of INR 10 lakh for death of a manual scavenger, was paid only in 63% of cases as of 2017. According to National Commission for Safai Karamcharis, there is one manual scavenging death every five days and countless others suffer from varieties of health hazards, cutting their lives short. These deaths are largely attributed to the lack of personal protective equipment and access to mechanized solutions like desludging pipes and cesspool vehicles for carrying out these jobs.

At present, the government continues to create several livelihood opportunities across the sanitation sector for the empowerment of the vulnerable groups, however public consciousness still remains a very important yet unattended aspect to uplift our sanitation workers. Building public consciousness and awareness around the issues and rights of sanitation workers can certainly take the success of all these interventions even further. Additionally, keeping the safety and dignity of sanitation workers at the centre, it is important to invest in mechanized and safe sanitation solutions like faecal sludge and septage management to truly empower and uplift our sanitation workers. Successful models like the NULM-SBM convergence mission should be replicated in states along with the prioritization of the mechanical cleaning of drains thereby eliminating the risks that arise from manual contact with human waste. Ultimately we need to strive to keep our sanitation worker’s best interests at heart as we work towards their empowerment.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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