Predicament of sanitation workers in Swachh Bharat

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Even as it has been two years since the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched, many instances of deaths of on-duty sewerage workers have come to light off late. Many such cases were reported in the national capital alone — On August 12, two brothers died of suffocation while cleaning a septic pit at a mall in Shahdara. A week ago, three persons died after inhaling toxic gases while cleaning a sewer in the city. In another shocking incident, four sanitation workers lost their lives while cleaning a harvesting tank. Inhalation of poisonous gases caused their deaths within a few minutes.

These horrifying incidents reflect the true picture of India, moving ahead in the twenty-first century with modernisation, digitization and with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Swachh Bharat’ or Clean India mission.

Manhole cleaning in banglore. photo by S Radhakrishna/Tehelka

Highlighting the pathetic and miserable working condition of sanitation workers, these incidents are an eye opener for everyone. The inhospitable working conditions and the lack of proper equipment make them vulnerable to death. Even though there are rules and regulations of sanitation, they are being flouted blatantly under the nose of authorities.

While the deaths of sanitation workers in Delhi have grabbed the attention of media, politicians, and administration to a certain extent, there are many such poor people across the nation who go down into the manholes and sewage lines but never come back. Despite that, there has been no empathy from the media or political circles.

According to government records, almost 22,327 sanitation workers lose their lives every year while on duty. The toll could be higher as there are many unreported incidents. In Mumbai alone, on an average, almost 20 sewer workers die per month due to suffocation, exposure to toxic gases and other accidents, according to the Intercontinental Journal of Human Resources Research Review, 2014.

The living and working conditions of the sanitation workers are miserable and they are denied basic rights. An organisation blew the lid off some of the appalling conditions of workers through a detailed report that reveals horrible conditions of sanitation workers across the country.

The Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), which is involved in doing surveys on the working conditions of sanitation workers, has some startling information to share. One is that the sanitation workers are compelled to wear 18 kgs of weight in the name of safety gears like jackets, boots, gloves, masks, etc. “The provision of protective gears is almost a myth and the local bodies are far from creating a safe working space for such people,” said Dr Rajesh Tandon, president of PRIA.

The organisation, after interviewing many sanitation workers across India, found that almost two-thirds of sanitation workers do not even wear the safety gear provided because of the pounding weight and poor quality. The weight is also a big obstacle while performing their duties. Many workers have expressed that these safety gears hinder their efficiency while working in deep manholes.

Rakesh, a sanitation worker from Gurugram, told Tehelka, ”There are certain safety measures which are mandatory while going to clean a septic tank or manhole, but I have been working without any mask, apron, safety jacket and no one pinpoints or questions.”

Turning a blind eye, some agencies in certain places do not even provide safety gear to workers. A report suggests that almost one-third of the sanitation workers are not aware of the fact that they need to use safety gear as a precautionary measure. “Once I asked my contractor for safety gear before going down a manhole but that made him only furious and I was thrown out of my job,” narrated Dinesh, a sanitation worker in Jhansi. There are multiple reports that blatantly pinpoint the apathy of concerned agencies towards sanitation workers in the country. In most cases, sanitation workers get inside septic tanks and manholes wearing nothing but their briefs.

According to directives issued by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in October 2002 for Delhi workers, every sanitation worker under Delhi Jal Board must wear safety belts. Shockingly, during a survey PRIA found this safety belt to be more of an act of murder. The safety belts connect the sanitation workers in the manholes with men standing outside holding the thick ropes — offering no protection against poisonous gases, liquids, sharp or infected objects. These ropes help only to pull out a worker in case he loses consciousness or dies inside a manhole.

India’s noted icon of sanitation reform, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, speaks his mind

Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, who is the founder of Sulabh International organisation, is known for his dedicated work for sanitation and sanitation workers. He was awarded of the third highest civilian award Padma Bhushan in 1991 in recognition of his social work.

Acknowledging the poor working condition of sanitation workers across the country, Pathak said, “In many parts of India, the condition of sanitation workers is very poor. Most of the time they are working without any protective gear and if something happens to them, the family gets only a few thousands of rupees as a compensation plus the culprits get away without any fear and punishments”.

He further added that until and unless physical punishment and prison terms are not given to the culprits, atrocities against sanitation workers won’t stop. If there is a fear of law and punishment, every agency would take care of safety measures before sending any worker to work in dangerous circumstances.

He also pointed out that even though in some parts of India there is an improvement in the wage system of the sanitation workers, however, the working conditions still remain in a pathetic state of affairs.

A study conducted on 200 manholes under Delhi Jal Board revealed that 92.5 per cent of sanitation workers indeed wear safety belts; however, it doesn’t protect them from any other injuries. Life expectancy among sanitation workers, especially manual scavengers, is very low as many develop skin diseases, asthma and tuberculosis.

It has been four years since the law for safeguarding the rights of manual scavengers called The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, come into existence. Almost 90-95 per cent of manual scavengers (government/private as well as self-employed) do not have any idea about the law. Also, till date, there is no sign of the guidelines or rules being followed by the workers.

“The law explains that a principal employer is responsible for any tragedy, death of the sanitation workers during performing the duty. It has been observed that the sanitation work is given on contracts and these contractors further pass on this to sub-contractors. Now, the question arises, who is responsible when such tragedies take place?” explained Dr Tandon.

According to Intercontinental Journal of Human Resources Research, 2014, there are 1.2 million sanitation workers in India. Another study by PRIA reveals that more than 50 per cent of sanitation workers are still not aware of employment benefits like maternity leave (for female sanitation worker), medical cover, etc. under the government schemes. And those who know are reluctant to avail them fearing to lose their jobs. The condition of sanitation workers is worse in small cities, towns as compared to those living in big cities and metro cities. Further, the finding says that urban local bodies haven’t made any move to sensitise the sanitation workers about their basic rights. It seems they play an exploitative role rather than empowering the workers. In fact, the right to receive medical cover, pay slips along with their salaries is missing for the permanent sanitation workers in MCDs.

Kamlesh, who lives in Valmiki colony of Delhi and has four children, has been doing this job for more than a decade now. “We are not on regular pay-roll, hardly get six to seven thousand a month without any assurance of life and job safety. I always work with the fear of death but don’t have any other option for survival,” he said.

The above findings are part of one of the largest sanitation projects called Engaged Citizens, Responsive City (ECRC) currently being executed by PRIA. A 45-month-long project supported by the European Union (EU), it has been carried out in three Indian cities — Ajmer in Rajasthan, Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh and Muzaffarpur in Bihar.

One shocking fact about the cities is that the government sanitation agencies do not have any information or records about 20 per cent of the informal settlements which include slum clusters and unauthorised colonies.

“On one side, the Government is focusing on building toilets at each and every corner of India for making open-defecation free country, but on the other hand, concerned agencies do not have exact figure or data about percentage of people living in the informal settlements. How will they plan, seek finances and build toilets,” asked Dr Tondon.

The sanitation workers who play a vital role in materialising the Swachh Bharat mission, have been since independence living miserable lives devoid of rights and safety. Yet no voices in support have arisen.

If the Modi government is serious about Swachh Bharat Abhiyan then the sanitation workers and their working rights can’t be compromised at any cost. The success of the Mission lies completely on their shoulders. It is also the time that we engage the urban poor — youth, women, and men — in the planning and monitoring of sanitation services through various participatory methods.

“We have started a pilot project with the help of Urban Development Ministry with the objective to lay down many effective policies for the sanitation workers and success of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan,” said Dr Tandon.

It is essential for the central government to make stern rules to improve the existing conditions than leaving the responsibility on the local civic agencies. At the moment, India has a sleek outline of laws on occupational safety, health rules and regulations for sanitation workers. Policies influencing institutions like Central Public Health and Environment Organisations and Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) need to bring out manuals on the operation, management, and handling of sewerage and wastewater.

Besides, there is a crucial need for periodic health surveillance on sanitary workers to detect early signs of diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, TB, etc. and awareness on the risk of drugs, alcohol abuse, and better dietary guidance.
It is very pertinent to identify the real number of sanitation workers across India as no public document states the exact figure and no attempt has been made so far to identify the real statistics. Until we know the number of sanitation workers, it would be impossible to frame and implement the policies effectively.

The success story of the Clean India Mission cannot be weaved at the cost of the sanitation workers’ lives. They are the real heroes of the cleaning mission helping the country to clear off its garbage, maintain sewage systems, toilets, roads etc.
India can take examples from countries that provides safer and healthier working environment for sanitation workers. Such countries have sewers with proper lighting, aeration fans for ventilation; provide safety training and communication gadgets like walkie-talkies to call out in emergency. The safety and rights of the sanitation workers cannot be overlooked, else, the mission of a Clean Nation will never be successful.

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