The Covid-19 pandemic has tested our patience and our resilience. Frontline workers have worked tirelessly in the face of obvious health risks. Many of them, especially sanitation workers, have faced greater risks, in addition to the challenges they regularly face. The pandemic should make it urgent to resolve issues related to their safety and well-being.
Sanitation work in the country is inextricably linked with caste-based professional roles. Most of this work is done by people from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes communities in some areas. Sanitation workers have long faced discrimination, stigma and even untouchability for years. The most stigmatized among them are those who deal with the manual cleaning of sewers, septic tanks, pits and drains. Despite the 2013 law prohibiting the use of manual scavengers, the practice continues unabated. Although local government agencies do not directly hire manual garbage collectors, the practice continues because sanitation works are contracted out to private companies and informal workers. The Sixth Economic Census of 2013 indicated that “of the approximately 1.7 lakh of companies registered as part of the general activity of water supply, sanitation, waste management and sanitation, 82% of companies belong to the private sector ”.
The demand for sanitation works, which had already increased due to urbanization, saw a sharp increase following the successful construction of toilets in the first phase of the Swachh Bharat mission. The flagship program led to the construction of toilets with on-site sanitation systems such as septic tanks and pits in urban, peri-urban and rural areas. Emphasis has been placed on large sanitation infrastructure such as sewage networks, sewage treatment plants and faecal sludge treatment plants through the Atal Mission for Urban Rejuvenation and Transformation. However, with the focus largely on 500 cities out of the 4,041 statutory cities in India and due to insufficient sewerage and treatment plants, safe treatment and disposal of waste are behind in the construction of toilets. Much of the demand for emptying and other sanitation services is met by private vacuum truck operators who are known to flout the ban on manual cleaning and violate safety standards. The survey on manual scavengers, conducted by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, counted 66,692 scavengers until October 2020. However, given the extent of informality in the sector, it is difficult arrive at an accurate estimate of the number of manual scavengers and sanitation. workers.
The latest data from the National Sample Survey, 2019, shows that more than 65% of households in the country have toilets with septic tanks and septic tanks. The corresponding estimated figures for villages and towns of less than one million inhabitants were nearly 73 and 68 percent, respectively. These figures highlight the need to increase the sanitation value chain, especially in terms of mechanized cleaning and waste treatment. The extension of the Swachh Bharat mission (Gramin and Urban) and the Atal mission for urban rejuvenation and transformation in their second phases, involving the prioritization of the treatment and safe disposal of waste, as well as the construction sanitary toilets, is therefore essential. These efforts should be complemented by welfare measures for sanitation workers.
The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment has taken steps for the rehabilitation of sanitation workers as part of its revised self-employment program for the rehabilitation of manual garbage collectors. The program provides one-time cash assistance, loans at preferential rates, grants and skills development training.
The National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation builds capacity at the local government level, equipping these government agencies with mechanized garbage trucks and providing financial assistance to sanitation workers, manual garbage collectors and their dependents.
The National Mechanized Sanitation Ecosystem Action Project plans to establish units at district and local government levels to monitor sanitation services, including the activities of private sanitation service organizations. Mechanization of sanitation will be synchronized with decentralized monitoring of violations of sanitation protocols and informal education campaigns. These programs could pave the way for eradicating manual cleaning and ensuring the well-being of all sanitation workers.
This column first appeared in the paper edition on November 23, 2021 under the title “A question of dignity”. The author is responsible for monitoring and evaluation at the Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office (DMEO), NITI Aayog. Views are personal