In a unique address to the nation on 2 October — Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary — Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his commitment to devote 100 hours every year to sweeping the floor, picking up the waste and dusting his windows. He also urged everybody to do the same so that Indian cities can compete with those in the West. Union Minister for Water Resources Uma Bharti went to the extent of pledging to devote 300 hours annually to the ‘Swachh Bharat’ (Clean India) mission.
When the politicians were celebrating voluntarism, those who spend long hours every day cleaning our cities were conveniently forgotten. No one spoke about how they contribute to keeping the country clean despite facing untouchability and discrimination.
To meet global standards of cleanliness, India needs more than voluntary action. It needs to get rid of the ageold stigma associated with the work of cleaning. And it needs to ensure competitive wages, adequate safety gear and decent healthcare facilities for those who do that for a living.
Very few households in the metros segregate waste into recyclable, biodegradable and non-biodegradable bins. That is mostly done by grossly underpaid, low-caste migrant workers who collect the waste from every house, or by ragpickers. The contribution of ragpickers and sanitary workers to waste management is immense, but the municipal bodies employ only a few of them on a permanent basis. For instance, in New Delhi, most sanitary workers work on a daily wage without any job security. Many have worked every day for up to 15 years, earning only a third of the wages they would have got as permanent employees.
Moreover, the municipal bodies are increasingly outsourcing the job of cleaning to contractors who are likely to employ children at half the minimum wages. Ragpickers comprise the fourth largest section of child labourers in New Delhi, says a study by the National Labour Institute.
According to the World Bank, only the poorest of the poor work with waste, which is considered to be “3-D work” (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) — an American expression for work that combines high difficulty and risk with low status.
Rohit Prajapati of the NGO Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti says that more than 60 percent of the safai karmacharis in Gujarat are employed on a daily-wage basis. “For nearly a decade, the municipalities in Gujarat have not hired new sanitary workers for permanent posts. They are mostly hired through labour contractors, who pay as little as Rs 1,000 per month to women and children who work 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.
Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karmachari Andolan points out that “caste hierarchy is deeply entrenched in this occupation; the lower the caste, the dirtier the work”. For instance, manual scavenging is done only by Dalits.
For more than a decade, sanitary workers, who constitute a large segment of unorganised labour in India, have been demanding safety gear like gloves and boots, job security and minimum wages. In 2008, sanitary workers in Karimnagar, Telangana, protested by resorting to begging on the streets after the municipality did not pay them for five months. Last year, following a nine-day strike by safai karmacharis, the East Delhi Municipal Corporation agreed to give permanent positions to those who had been slogging for 15 years as temporary workers.
According to Beer Singh, an east Delhi-based labour activist, sanitary workers have never been provided with adequate safety gear even when they are exposed to dangerous and disease-causing waste. “The municipal corporation always comes up with some excuse or the other when we demand protective gear,” he says.
Worse is the plight of domestic workers who clean houses as they get the lowest wages among all unskilled labourers.
So, while it is commendable for the prime minister to enthuse the population by cleaning the streets with a broom, the State should not ignore those who do that for a living. For Indian cities to compete in cleanliness with the cities of developed countries, the wages provided to the sanitary workers will have to be competitive too.