How Guwahati can protect its waste collectors in COVID-19 times

It is extremely important that the Guwahati Municipal Corporation emphasise on the importance of waste pickers’ social inclusion and the formalisation of their job

By Sajib M Mahanta
Published: Thursday 15 July 2021

Waste worker in Ward 29, Hatigaon area of Guwahati working without gloves or mask. Photo: Sajib Mahanta Waste worker in Ward 29, Hatigaon area of Guwahati working without gloves or mask. Photo: Sajib Mahanta 

Waste management is a critical public health function, especially in light of the current novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. During these unprecedented times, waste pickers are in a precarious position, as their health and livelihoods are both at risk.

Waste collectors are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, second only to healthcare personnel. Household waste poses significant health concerns to waste collectors, particularly those in the informal sector, who lack protective equipment and knowledge of how to manage waste.

“We are provided with masks but haven’t received any formal training or capacity building programs on the health hazards of dealing with waste. We don’t feel like using gloves or masks as it is inconvenient,” a waste collector in the Sewali Path, Hatigaon area of Ward 29 in Guwahati, said.

This situation is further aggravated as the pattern of waste generation has changed considerably, with secondary impacts and longer-term implications. There are several concerns regarding the disposal of infected face masks and other solid waste materials from Covid-infected households, that are thrown away as household waste. Aside from that, waste collectors are also at a danger of developing various ailments, particularly those who incur severe injuries such as metal cuts.

In response to the current scenario, many non-profits such as FINISH Society and SWaCH, who are working with waste picker groups in cities like Udaipur and Pune, are encouraging the use of gloves and masks to avoid direct contact with waste.

Many urban local bodies (ULBs) are also looking for alternatives and making efforts to encourage source segregation. Nonetheless, it’s critical to undertake frequent risk assessments in order to analyse each working activity and put in place control mechanisms to maintain worker safety.

Guwahati situation

According to the 12th Schedule of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act of 1992, waste management service in Guwahati is supervised by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC). With a population of nearly a million people, the city is split into 31 wards, each of which is assigned to a non-profit that is in charge of providing these services.

It’s not an unusual case that most ULBs lack appropriate infrastructure and suffer from a variety of strategic and institutional flaws including a lack of political will to carry out the operations in a sustainable manner. Infrastructure and service decisions are political and policymaking can entail varying degrees of democratic and participatory practice, with varying results.

Likewise, the services provided in Guwahati can only be regarded as sporadic and inefficient in terms of both collection and worker safety. The issue is even more magnified in specific wards, including Ward 29, which includes neighbourhoods such as Hatigaon. The region is clearly identifiable with exposed garbage-laden pushcarts strewn across roadways in various locations. During the monsoon season, the situation becomes even worse.

Citizens’ concerns

Waste collection vehicle in Ward 29 of Guwahati. Photo: Sajib M Mahanta

Waste collection vehicle in Ward 29 of Guwahati. Photo: Sajib M Mahanta 

A resident of Sewali Path in Hatigaon claims that the household waste collectors have never used personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks or gloves, even during the pandemic. Individual risk factors found in the area, such as poor hygiene habits and a lack of access to or proper use of PPE, are linked to high social vulnerability, which can worsen their health vulnerabilities.

Many studies have emphasised that these vulnerabilities are further characterised by their ignorance, low educational levels, lower incomes and limited support from the agencies. According to the Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules 2016, the municipal corporation is required to develop a system to recognise organisations of informal waste pickers in order to promote their involvement in the SWM service chain.

The way forward

The International Labour Organization (ILO) recommends that the waste pickers receive health and safety training, as well as regular health checks and monitoring. Thus, it is extremely important that the corporation emphasise on the importance of waste pickers’ social inclusion and formalisation of their job; they must operate safely and lawfully, using equipment that complies with technical, environmental and public health standards.

The quality of waste segregation at the household level is also critical not only for sustainably managing waste but also from the perspective of workers’ safety.

“We usually separate the dry waste including paper so that we could sell it, but it’s a difficult task as no one segregates their waste before handing it to us. We also do not have any option to store it separately in our pushcart. It would help if we are provided with an electronic vehicle,” the same waste collector said.

SWM Rules 2016, further state that it is the corporation’s responsibility to facilitate “segregated” door-to-door waste collection. However, according to GMC data, only 50 per cent of the households segregate their waste in the city. Even if they do, the collection vehicles are not compartmentalised and it ultimately jeopardises the benefits of it.

In consequence, the municipality should publish stricter guidelines and also prioritise proper incentives / subsidies to encourage safe door-to-door collection of municipal solid waste. The implementation of a safe collection praxis, minimising the contact of workers with waste is the need of the hour.

In order to plan and implement risk avoidance programmes, it is also important to gather trustworthy data and baseline information on the socio-economic situations and health status of the waste workers. It is critical for authorities to map the changing waste generating sources, as well as to detect changes, requirements and possibilities.

Authorities should also try to figure out where COVID-19 hazardous waste is generated locally, such as hospitals and re-allocate resources to meet these new demands. COVID-19 vaccination of waste workers should also be prioritised.

Finally, local governments should commit to a collaborative relationship in the waste management service and value chain in order for these responsibilities to become successful and the service to be dependable.

Sajib M Mahanta is presently working as a Researcher in FINISH Society, serving in the areas of water, sanitation and waste management

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

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.