The Prime Minister’s home state of Gujarat witnessed the death of four sanitation workers and three hotel employees (Mahesh Patanwadiya, Ashok Harijan, Brijesh Harijan, Mahesh Harijan, Vijay Chaudhary, Sahdev Vasava, and Ajay Vasava) in June. They choked to death in the process of cleaning a septic tank at Darshan hotel in Dabhoi Tehsil. A similar fate awaited five sanitation workers (Sandip, Shiv Kumar, Horil, Damodar, and Vijay Kumar) in Ghaziabad, barely 30 km away from the national capital. The workers who hailed from Samastipur in Bihar entered a sewer line and choked to death. A labourer who worked with the deceased told NewsClick that, “they had neither masks nor any safety equipment to avoid gas…the contractor’s firm owned all the equipment, but did not give it to the workers.”
Isn’t it shocking to find out that sanitation workers are dying in this day and age because they are forced to inhale noxious gases? Isn’t it appalling to realise that our fellow Indians have to resort to cleaning human excreta as a means of employment? The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 clearly stipulates that sanitation workers need to be provided with safety equipment and mechanised means wherever feasible, to prevent injuries and death. However, it is a common sight, even in metropolitan cities, to see people (predominantly from Dalit communities) enter drains, sans protection, and use their hands, shovels, or pans to scoop toxic sewage.
It is also equally common to see women and children picking waste, armed with a rod and a gunny sack. Waste pickers are people “who salvage reusable or recyclable materials thrown away by others to sell or for personal consumption.” They engage in solid waste management. By doing so, they become instrumental in improving environmental sustainability, public health, and safety. Despite being important members of the local economy, most of them have a low socio-economic status and face poor living, as well as working, conditions. There is a need for local governments to offer them support as they fight vested corporate interests in the profitable business of waste.
The dignity of labour is important for an individual because one derives a lot of self-worth and identity from one’s profession. Organisations like Safai Karamchari Andolan and Stree Mukti Sanghatana are working towards a better future for people from marginalised communities. The idea is to improve the quality of life of sanitation workers and waste pickers so the cyclical nature of caste and gender-based poverty ends. The internalisation of caste hierarchy into society over generations has made it such that people from Dalit communities are forced to perform such dehumanising tasks. Dalit women also face double discrimination because they have to bear the burden of their caste and their gender.
Bezwada Wilson, the national convenor of Safai Karamchari Andolan and Magsaysay award winner, spoke about how one-time cash assistance of ₹40,000 is inadequate to eradicate deep-rooted caste discrimination which coerces people to take up this occupation. He advocates for the active provision of an alternate vocational education so that people from historically-marginalised communities can truly liberate themselves from having to perform such exploitative tasks to earn a livelihood.
Even when people from Dalit communities educate themselves so as to rise above their immediate circumstances, their misery doesn’t end, as social mores dictate that they are restricted to taking up menial jobs. Wilson was offered only scavenging and cleaning jobs based on his caste and his address when he went to the employment exchange with a higher secondary school certificate. The children of sanitation workers are unofficially classified as sanitation workers. These water-tight compartments allow for very little mobility between vocations, as history continues to repeat itself.
The Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, Thaawarchand Gehlot has owned up to the fact that breaches occur in spite of strict legislation being in place. He put the onus on the states to ensure that the law is implemented on the ground. Public health and sanitation is an item on the State List, whereas welfare and regulation of labour is an item on the Concurrent List. I am of the opinion that as long as the question of direct accountability is not settled, the Centre and the states will use it as an excuse to shift the blame from themselves onto each other.
In its judgment on March 27, 2014, the Supreme Court of India asked the government to identify all individuals who died because they were cleaning sewers and septic tanks (from 1993 onwards), so that their families could be offered a compensation of ₹10 lakh each. Four years after the judgment, the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) is still collating data from the states about the same. It doesn’t have complete information regarding the deaths of sanitation workers from all states. The union government said that it had identified 614 cases of deaths of sanitation workers. But this data is incomplete as only 17 states and 2 union territories have supplied NCSK with the required information. The Safai Karamchari Andolan estimates that the number is much higher. Wilson told The Wire that since 2000, “1,760 sanitation workers have lost their lives…” The Wire also found that the states which ended up identifying sanitation workers, who died, did so from the year 2003 onwards, in contravention of Supreme Court directions.
Manual scavenging is also done by women who clean excreta from dry latrines. Women, as opposed to men, are preferred for these jobs because latrines are often situated indoors. Reports estimate that even though 90-95% of manual scavenging is done by women, they face stark ‘invisibilisation’ and discrimination. They are paid much less than men and don’t have hard statistics to support them. There is a dearth of data regarding the number of women who are cleaning latrines (so many women aren’t registered and therefore, aren’t recognised as ‘manual scavengers’ or ‘sanitation workers’), and about the diseases which afflict them as a direct consequence of them having to clean feces. The risk of several health hazards such as cholera, hepatitis, meningitis, typhoid, cardio-vascular problems is increased multi-fold. Respiratory and skin conditions are common, as human urine, and feces may carry hepatitis A, E. coli, rotavirus, norovirus, and pinworms.
T. Lalita, a consultant at Stree Mukti Sanghatana, an organiation that works with women who are waste pickers in Mumbai, said that these women have to work for long hours every day. “On a good day, they might earn as much as 400-500 rupees but on most days, they make much lesser,” she said, adding that almost all of them belong to Dalit communities, and some of them are Muslim women. So, women from two of the most marginalised communities in our country are the ones who have to scrounge waste to eat two square meals a day. They visit landfills and roadside garbage dumps to collect dry waste, which they segregate with their hand, and sell the resulting plastic, metal components, etc. to a scrap dealer. The money earned from selling scrap is used to sustain their households on a daily basis, so their savings are meager.
Stree Mukti Sanghatana promotes a decentralised system of solid waste management. It aided the formation of self-help groups among these women so they could avail of micro-credit services provided by the central and state governments. It also provides women with training on composting. Mumbai has a waste-picker federation. This federation was awarded certain contracts by the state government and as a consequence of this, the waste-picker federation operates seven dry waste centres now. The municipal corporation has provided the women who run the centres with vehicles, which they use to collect dry waste. So, these women “are not only integrated into the process, because they are technology upholders, but they also get a regular income”, Lalita said. Apart from facilitating the process of dealing with the municipal corporation (for instance, handling licensing), the organisation also runs study centres, health camps for the welfare of women who are waste-pickers, and for their children.
Four young people (Vimal Govind MK, Arun George, Nikhil NP, and Rashid Bin Abdulla Khan) from the state of Kerala came up with an innovative solution to clean manholes and prevent the death of sanitation workers. They built ‘Bandicoot’, a remote-controlled robot that can clean manholes. The sweeper robot weighs 50 kgs. It has a robotic arm that can collect solid waste, a water jet that clears sewage blockages, and a camera that can be used to look at manholes from the inside.
Questions are being raised about how Bandicoot will mean a loss of jobs and it will affect the livelihood of those who are already marginalised. The innovators who came up with the technology have said that rehabilitation of sanitation workers can be done by training them to use the robot so they don’t end up losing their jobs. While this is a valid solution in the short-term, efforts must be put in to ensure that such robots are not being exclusively operated by individuals from the Dalit community in the long-term. If that ends up happening then it would mean that one kind of discrimination is being replaced by another kind of discrimination. It would defeat the purpose as the eventual goal is for historically-marginalised communities to not have to rely on such professions solely, to get by.
We should be mindful of the waste we generate because our fellow human beings are having to interact with it. Some strategies include segregating one’s waste, making sure that one’s dry waste is dry and clean, lobbying for one’s society to form a compost pit, reducing and reusing plastic. These are simple ways to contribute to the movement, while others push for systemic changes.
Individual action is often dismissed as being not enough. But I strongly disagree. I feel that individual action is a part of collective, systemic action. They don’t need to be looked at as strictly separate categories. The entire onus shouldn’t fall on individuals alone, and legislations should also specifically target big corporates who are major pollutants. Individual action by itself might not amount to a lot. But individual priorities often end up determining collective priorities. If enough people care about an issue, the social echo will compel our political representatives to start treating our demands more seriously.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.