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Sanitation workers are at multiple risks in India

Developed countries provide bunny suits to their sanitation workers, our sanitation workers go into the septic tank and manholes wearing nothing but briefs.

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sanitation workers, sanitation, labours, employment, sanitation work, workers
Photo for Representative Purpose | Image: AFP

In India, sanitation workers are considered to be the lowest stages of a casteist society. They are socially always dominated and disowned, but they are expected to clean your piles of dirt. Government is also not kind to them; crores of rupees were spent on Swachh Bharat like flopped government programs but sanitation workers are deprived of basic facilities and grants.

The life of a sanitation worker is pathetic in our country. There are about five million people employed in sanitation work in our country with nearly two million of them working in ‘high risk’ conditions. They act as warriors to keep our cities clean and drains unclogged. Since the past month, we have heard the news from various parts of the country such as Mumbai, Vadodara, Delhi stating loss of human life due to unavailability of the safety measures such as face masks, hand gloves, etc.

In the absence of this safety gear, they inhale toxic gases and die. They have to do it for their daily wages. This exposure leads to the spread of various skin diseases which passes onto their family members as well. As every single human life is precious to the country, these sanitation workers should be provided with necessary safety measures. In most places, sanitation workers are seen working without any safety measures.

They get less remuneration than many others who are educated and employed. The reason being the demand and supply. India is a nation where most of the people are poor, uneducated and unemployed. So, the supply of manual labour exceeds much more than its demand. Labourers are available on low wages. If education and other employment opportunities increase, such discrepancies may be corrected. Moreover, we lack the infrastructure to improvise the efficiency of these workers. Average thousands of deaths per year transpire over a cross-section of sanitation workers in India.

Due to lack of education and poverty, 90-95% of the government sanitation workers as well as self-employed/private workers had no idea about laws like The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (the 2013 Act) which was meant to protect them. They aren’t aware of any schemes or employment benefits like maternity leaves under government employment and even if they are, most are scared to avail them in fear of losing their jobs.

The urban local bodies have made no effort in enlightening these workers on their rights and privileges and seem to play an institutionally exploitative role instead of empowering them. Basic rights like medical cover or receiving a payslip with their salaries are missing even under permanent employment under MCDs as sanitation workers.

Government has no awareness programmes for them to understand their basic rights. Rather they are kept in the dark and in fear of losing their jobs. The provision of protective gear is almost a fable and no effort to create a safe working space for these people has been made by local bodies. Even if provided with safety gears, sanitation workers don’t wear them because they weigh too much and the gumboots gnaw at their toes. They lose grip and control when diving into a septic tank.

Developed countries provide bunny suits to their sanitation workers, our sanitation workers go into the septic tank and manholes wearing nothing but briefs. Most of the time they depend on alcohol consumption to bear with the foul smell around. According to the National Human Rights Commission in October 2002, most permanent workers in Delhi wear safety belts. While this is seen as protection, actually this is a threat to life. These safety belts connect workers in manholes with men standing outside through thick ropes – offering no protection against poisonous gases/ liquids/ sharp or infected objects.

These ropes only help to pull them out when they die in the process or lose consciousness inside the hole. Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) reported that 80% of the manual scavengers die before the age of 60 due to vocation induced health problems. In Mumbai alone, a (conservative) average of 20 sewer workers dies per month due to suffocation, exposure to toxic gases and other accidents. While the government is concentrating so sternly on toilet provision with Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, the focus on behavioural change towards sanitation and a moral change towards sanitation workers is what is lagging behind.

Presently, in India, a very vague outline of laws on work-related safety and health rules and regulations are available. Policy influencing institutions like Central Public Health and Environment Organisations and MoEF need to bring out manuals on operation, management and handling of sewerage, its treatment and municipal wastewater. There is a crucial need for periodic health surveillance of sanitary workers to detect early signs of diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, TB, etc. among them and inform them regarding balanced diets and the risk of drug and alcohol abuse – since these are habits, they fester to be able to work in the inhumane conditions of septic tanks and sewers.

There is an urgent need of identifying the figure of sanitation workers across India as no public document states the exact figure yet and no attempt has been made to get realistic statistics on the same. Until we know the space of sanitation workers, it is impossible for policies to be effective without knowing the type and numbers of its direct beneficiaries.

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Vaidehi Taman
Vaidehi Taman
Vaidehi Taman an Accredited Journalist from Maharashtra is bestowed with three Honourary Doctorate in Journalism. Vaidehi has been an active journalist for the past 21 years, and is also the founding editor of an English daily tabloid – Afternoon Voice, a Marathi web portal – Mumbai Manoos, and The Democracy digital video news portal is her brain child. Vaidehi has three books in her name, "Sikhism vs Sickism", "Life Beyond Complications" and "Vedanti". She is an EC Council Certified Ethical Hacker, OSCP offensive securities, Certified Security Analyst and Licensed Penetration Tester that caters to her freelance jobs.
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