Sanitation workers deserve an inclusive ecosystem — here are 5 best practices for their safety and dignity

Urban India has an estimated 2 million sanitation workers 

By Meghna Malhotra
Published: Thursday 30 March 2023
A majority of the sanitation workforce comes from the most marginalised socio-political communities and are engaged in the workforce informally. Photo: iStock
A majority of the sanitation workforce comes from the most marginalised socio-political communities and are engaged in the workforce informally. Photo: iStock A majority of the sanitation workforce comes from the most marginalised socio-political communities and are engaged in the workforce informally. Photo: iStock

A functional toilet is a necessity for a good quality of life. Sanitation workers, who improve the quality of our lives, need to be recognised and given financial stability and dignity for their invisible labour. 

The Swachh Bharat Mission generated immense momentum towards strengthening sanitation infrastructure in India, particularly for the construction of individual, shared and community toilets. Bridging the gap between sanitation infrastructure and sanitation services are Safai Mitras.

These workers not only maintain toilets but also facilitate the proper functioning of the entire sanitation value chain.  

Urban India has an estimated 2 million sanitation workers engaged in nine different categories of work across the sanitation value chain, including cleaning toilets, cleaning and emptying sewers, septic tanks, drains and operating sewage treatment plants. 

Read more: World Toilet Day: So far, we have overlooked sanitation in the climate resilience discourse

It is imperative to focus on improving their working conditions, preserving their dignity and providing them with avenues for financial improvement. Here are five best practices that can help in building an inclusive ecosystem for sanitation workers:

1. Enumerating the sanitation workforce

The first step towards ensuring safety and dignity of sanitation workers is to make the sanitation workforce be seen through an exhaustive enumeration process.

Both formal and informal workers need to be covered, ensuring no one falls through the cracks. Odisha and Tamil Nadu are some of the states leading the enumeration effort. 

Non-profit Urban Management Centre is collaborating with the central and state governments to conduct extensive surveys to identify and map every sanitation worker using a digital enumeration tool against all the safety and social welfare schemes. 

The non-profit has worked to map sanitation workers for the Sanitation Workers Development Scheme in Tamil Nadu, GARIMA scheme in Odisha and NAMASTE scheme across the country.  

A majority of the sanitation workforce comes from the most marginalised socio-political communities and are engaged in the workforce informally. This makes it difficult for them to access financial and social security measures, along with the heightened threat of discrimination. 

Enumerating and enrolling help them access the welfare measures they are entitled to, like life and health insurance, pensions, etc. Additionally, this will ensure their families’ security through educational and marriage-related assistance for children, aged dependants, etc.

Read more: What a waste: Reviving India’s sanitation systems

2. Integrating mechanised solutions and protective equipment

Manual intervention and contact with faecal sludge must be minimised for the health and safety of Safai Mitras. Thus, mechanised solutions for cleaning sewers and septic tanks become essential. They are pivotal to reducing fatal incidents and improving working conditions.

Providing sanitation workers with good quality and durable Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) comes down to no more than the cost of providing workers with a Rs 10 cup of tea every day over time. Employers and contractors must be sensitised to ensure they are providing PPE and safety devices as per the required procedure and frequency. 

The Odisha government has provided uniforms to all sanitation workers and designated areas to rest and practice hygiene under the GARIMA scheme. It has resulted in a shift in how citizens approach sanitation workers; from an informal Safai Karamchari, they’ve transitioned into GARIMA professionals in service delivery.

3. Upskilling Safai Mitras to use machinery, safety devices and PPE

There should be an emphasis on building the capacities of sanitation workers, so that they can effectively use the machines. Illustration-based training handbooks in local languages, live demonstrations, workshops, etc help workers better understand how to use machines and follow safety protocols. 

Read more: Savda Ghevra vs Delhi: How effective septage management differs even with the same city

Further, sanitation workers must be sensitised towards the use of standardised, job-specific PPE such as wader suits, helmets, goggles, gloves etc. Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) can engage existing state training institutes to conduct sessions to improve technical skills and ensure the occupational health and safety of sanitation workers. 

Odisha Water Academy, for instance, is engaged in developing and delivering trainings and certification for sanitation workers (among other stakeholders) in the sanitation sector.

Post-training, proper assessment should be conducted to provide certification and recognition to Safai Mitras. Recognition as certified sanitation professionals through government interventions shall provide sanitation workers with a dignified identity in the communities they serve, ensure their safety at work and reduce discriminatory situations. 

4. Self-Help Groups and community platforms as vehicles for sanitation service delivery

Leveraging Self-Help Groups (SHGs) and similar community-based platforms can be instrumental in bringing together people from marginalised groups. Women, or members of the transgender community can be provided with opportunities for a dignified livelihood in the field of sanitation. 

By including vulnerable groups in sanitation service delivery, the SHG model provides these groups with the safety of a community. This can then take collective strides towards empowerment by accessing opportunities to improve their skills and socio-economic well-being.

Federating women and transgender sanitation workers into SHGs will make it easier to link them with existing national and state government social and financial entitlements. Additionally, it is also easier for ULBs to contract SHGs and Area Level Federations as sanitation service providers.

Odisha government’s women-centric Mission Shakti Group, Swagat, has been a trailblazer. It has paved the way for women to get engaged in desludging operations for cleaning of septic tanks across the state.

Being recognised in their role as desludgers by the Cuttack Municipal Corporation has provided them with financial stability, dignified livelihood and recognition.

5. Setting up Emergency Response Sanitation Units

While mechanised solutions for cleaning sewers and septic tanks are being deployed, in a few cases human intervention becomes critical for preventing the overflow of sewage into public spaces and safeguarding citizens from exposure to serious health hazards. 

Read more: NFHS-5: Why figures on improved sanitation shouldn’t be taken on face value

In these cases, an Emergency Response Sanitation Unit (ERSU), which is equipped with all required safety devices and protocols and responsible for meeting sanitation emergency requests, becomes important. 

It can ensure that only trained sewer-entry professionals (SEP) enter confined spaces with all required safety gear and protocols. This will minimise hazards due to manual entry into sewers and septic tanks without proper adherence to security protocols. 

Odisha, under the GARIMA scheme, has pioneered the way in setting up ERSUs and making them effective by establishing systems for hazard assessment, providing medical check-ups and seeking consent from SEPs.

Meghna Malhotra is the deputy director for Urban Management Centre. Urban Management Centre is a member of the National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (NFSSM) Alliance, a collaborative body driving the discourse of Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) in India.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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