- Around 40-year-old Vimlesh used to empty toilets manually until 2013
- By law, manual scavenging is banned in India but still, it is practised
- Vimlesh gets Rs. 50 a month from a household for cleaning toilets
New Delhi: 26-year-old Vishal Jeenwal, a UPSC aspirant and a resident of Loni, in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad works as a street sweeper in the local market along with his parents and a younger brother. Around 40 years ago, when Vishal’s grandmother moved from Hapur to Loni, she got involved in manual scavenging to make ends meet. The practice was passed on to his father and mother as a hereditary practice; however, the couple was kicked out of the house when they decided to take hold of the reins of their own life and not work as manual scavengers. The family was reunited after Vishal’s birth.
When I was a kid, my grandmother would pull me out of the school and take with her to markets for cleaning and sweeping. However, she never asked me to accompany her for cleaning toilets and picking human waste. Back then, people used to pay in the form of food. Probably, that’s the reason my grandmother kept working there, recalls Vishal, the eldest of the three brothers.
Vishal, a 2018 graduate in Social Sciences from the University of Delhi, shares that a local market is held thrice a week. Vishal and his brother go out in the evening and collect money from vendors for cleaning after them. He says,
Some people give Rs. 5-10 whereas some don’t shell out even a single penny saying, ‘we don’t have money’ or ‘we don’t litter’. At night, after the market is wrapped up, the four of us sweep it. Together we earn Rs. 100 a day.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been very hard for Vishal and his family because the market was shut during the two nationwide lockdowns, leaving them jobless. Vishal’s father who works as a sweeper in a private school was also out of job. Vishal has tried to use his degree to find office work, but was denied due to either lack of skills or his caste. Recalling one of his job interviews, Vishal says,
Employers often hire me in the field of sanitation because of my caste. Once I was not hired as a room attendant – the job was just to change bedsheets and ensure the availability of clean sheets and towels in the room. I could easily do that.
While Vishal’s family shunned the practice of manual scavenging years ago, many got out of the inhumane job only after ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013’ came into force. One such story is of Vimlesh, a mother of five children who used to empty toilets manually ‘to feed her children’. Today, Vimlesh, a resident of Geetanjali Vihar in Loni, Ghaziabad district is employed in cleaning of toilets in eight nearby houses for a living.
Until 2013, most of the houses in the area had dry toilets which required manual cleaning. After the enactment of the Act on September 18, 2013, Vimlesh and her colleagues were asked to stop picking human waste. Parallely, the residents upgraded their toilets but they still need someone to clean it.
The only difference is that now the household provides me a toilet cleaner, cleaning brush and water. I clean toilets every third day for Rs. 50 a month, per household. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these Rs. 50 were also taken away from me as most of the households asked me to stop coming, says Vimlesh.
Before the pandemic, Vimlesh also used to sweep in a school for Rs. 1,000 a month. As the COVID-19 situation in the country has improved, Vimlesh has resumed her job at school and will be restarting to clean household toilets from the next month, as directed by her employers.
Back in 2013, when we were directed to shun the inhumane job, there was also a provision of rehabilitation. I have submitted A number of documents and forms but there has been no response from the municipalities. Of course, I want to leave this job but the only work I know is this. I want my children to study and carve their own path rather than following our footsteps, says Vimlesh.
Whatever little work Vishal and Vimlesh did during the pandemic was done without any safety gear. Despite the risk involved and facing ostracism, many like Vishal and Vimlesh continued to provide an essential service. Talking about the state of sanitation workers during the pandemic, Bezwada Wilson, National Convener, Safai Karmachari Andolan, said,
Even today, 60,000 people are involved in cleaning dry latrines. The number will be huge if we count in people involved in cleaning sewers, septic tanks and other things. Pandemic was a big blow to them because while their work didn’t stop, they didn’t have means of transport and money to put food on the table. They were asked to live in Valmiki temples while hotels were arranged for other frontline workers. There was no drinking water then how could they wash hands every half an hour? Masks were given only once; no other safety gear was provided later. The food packets distributed were inadequate. To encourage sanitation workers to continue working even during the pandemic, no special bonus or allowance was given except in Telangana. Many municipalities haven’t even paid salaries.
Sanitation Workers And Their Status In India
Explaining the commonly used umbrella term, V R Raman, Policy Advisor, WaterAid India said,
Sanitation workers are the frontline workforce who protect populations and the environment from several health hazards. They help in the management of different stages of sanitary waste management. Some of them involve in quite a vulnerable kind of work, wherein they may have direct contact with human waste or hazardous waste, or toxic gases and other life-threatening situations.
On World Toilet Day 2021, WaterAid decided to shed some light on the plight of sanitation workers and persons engaged in manual scavenging and how the COVID 19 impacted their lives and livelihoods. It released a report titled, ‘Sanitation workers: The forgotten frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic’. Here are some key findings:
- As per a study done in 2020, 40 per cent of sanitation workers interviewed in India lacked any handwashing facilities at work.
- 23 per cent of sanitation workers interviewed in India had to work longer hours during the pandemic by an additional 2-6 hours per day.
- Despite handwashing being one of several key measures in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases, around 40 per cent of those interviewed in India and Bangladesh lacked somewhere to wash their hands at work.
- WaterAid’s research in India found that none of the hospital sanitation workers that were interviewed had all the protective clothing needed to perform their job safely.
Another research done by the India Development Review revealed that over 90 per cent of sanitation workers in Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, and Mumbai did not have the right cleaning tools, health insurance, access to healthcare facilities or COVID-19 tests. Another two thirds said they had not received instructions or safety training for COVID-19 including masks, gloves, soap, or sanitiser, contrary to central government guidelines.
Steps India Needs To Take To Convert Words Into Action
Talking about the reason behind the poor state of sanitation workers in India, Nitya Jacob, coordinator of SuSana (Sustainable Sanitation Alliance) India Chapter said,
It’s an issue of system. Sanitation workers are either employed on a contractual basis or are involved in the informal sector. Those involved in the cleaning of sewers or drains are hired by contractors who are hired by municipalities. It’s the contractors’ responsibility to provide protective equipment. Here, a municipality can mandate the use of PPE. The implementation is key. Secondly, why don’t municipalities hire directly? Hiring more staff means paying pension and other benefits. To reduce that, these people are on contract which means they are out of safety net. They are pretty much on their own. Therefore, the government needs to reverse its own policy and start hiring people.
For instance, in the case of Vishal, who has got the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, he needs a mask while sweeping the road but since he is employed informally and there is no market association, it’s up to him to purchase a mask or not. Many sweepers often end up using a piece of cloth as a mask.
Talking about what needs to be done to support sanitation workers – working in unsanitary conditions for long hours and meagre wages – Mr Raman said,
We need a labour reform to address the challenges faced by sanitation workers, bio-medical waste workers and others alike. Recognise them as frontline workers and categorise them as skilled workers of different skill levels and fix their wages accordingly for different types of engagements. Introduce protection and security measures against various risks and prioritise welfare measures for these workers and their next generations, for the fact that this has an intergenerational nature. The Garima Scheme by the Odisha Government has initiated some of these reforms and more administrators and governments have to undertake such reforms, both in urban and rural settings. Similarly, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) has initiated some protocols and initiatives like Safai Mitra to mechanise all sewer and septic tank cleaning operations, and the National Human Rights Commission had initiated a guideline recently to ensure the safety of sanitation workers. However, we need local administrators to see these initiatives both in their letter and spirit.
Vishal also hopes for improved wages using which he can enhance his skills and apply for better jobs. Stressing on the need for money and rehabilitation, Vishal said,
I have an exam on November 27 in Lucknow. To be able to sit for the exam in a different city, I need money. Our PM washes the feet of sanitation workers and respects them but at the same time, keeps them away from basic facilities. If the government will not develop the infrastructure to retrain us or provide alternative livelihoods and skills, how will we ever grow?, asks Vishal.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, that is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.