Written by Shashi Shikha
Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has become a ‘jan andolan’ (people’s movement). The mission, unlike any other government scheme, has no budgetary constraints and tries to converge with a number of other programs such as Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY), SMART Cities Mission (SCM), Namami Gange and National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM). Its effectiveness has been further strengthened through ‘Swachh Survekshan’, which has encouraged cities, panchayats and states to vie for the no. 1 position in cleanlines
In the history of India, no other programme has seen such strong political will and people’s engagement. But the programme has also been heavily criticised for its focus on building toilets. The sustainability of its infrastructural outcomes post-2019 (when the programme is slated to end) is being questioned.
The levying of 2 per cent cess when the programme was launched created popular notions that tax paying citizens are responsible for cleaning our cities. But who really shoulders this responsibility of the public cleaning of India’s roads, garbage dumps and toilets? They are the sanitation workers. Their contribution and significance in keeping India’s cities clean seems to have been lost in the SBM narrative around ‘toilets’, ‘ODF’, ‘plastics’ and ‘nila-hara dustbins’.
Over 1.1 million sanitation workers keep Indian cities clean. They are primarily engaged in sewer cleaning, septic tank cleaning, railway cleaning, and community/public toilet cleaning. More than 500,000 of these urban sanitation workers are women who are mostly engaged in cleaning of toilets, drains, and streets. The newspapers and media highlight the miserable occupational and life conditions of manual scavengers. The plight of those engaged in manual scavenging surfaces in the news only in the extreme circumstance of their death, creating momentary fury among the middle classes. The working conditions of all other categories of sanitation workers such as septic tank cleaners, drain cleaners, toilet cleaners and street sweepers are no better and remain least discussed.
Imagine leaving for your workplace every day with the uncertainty of losing your job. The experience of working as contractual labour reiterates fear, threat and insufficiency. The current municipal contractual employment system does not have enabling terms and conditions. Municipalities must design enabling contracts with outsourced vendors, ensuring provisions for leaves (including maternity leave), fair wages beyond the minimum wage, and regular payment of wages on time.
Despite the formulation of laws such as PEMSA (Prevention and Elimination of Manual Scavenging Act), Prevention of Atrocities Act, commissions such as National Safai Karmchari Commission (NSKM), and schemes available through National Safai Karmchari Development and Finance Corporation (NSKFDC) and SC/ST Development Corporation (SDC) at national level and Maha Dalit Vikas Missions at state level, access to ameliorating schemes is a huge difficulty. This is because most sanitation workers are unaware of their rights under these schemes; even when they are aware, they do not know the processes to avail benefits. Further, because most sanitation workers are urban poor and reside in informal settlements, they do not have adequate documents such as residence proof, birth certificates and identity cards making it next to impossible for them to apply for these schemes.
A recent research study by PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) on women sanitation workers in Muzaffarpur, a city in Bihar, found they experience untouchability, are unable to find employment outside sanitation work, and their children, despite gaining basic level education, are unable to find any other form of employment. The vulnerabilities of caste, class and gender restrict the life choices these women can make. When a woman sanitation worker says that she doesn’t hate picking up garbage but expects that people will treat her respectfully for her work, it brings out an alternative narrative of the ways in which we perceive sanitation work. When a woman who sweeps the roads inside the colonies of the city suggests that each one us is responsible for the waste we generate and we can’t blame the municipality for a city’s unclean status, it further dents the gaze through which we have long been looking at public waste. Women sanitation workers, the research found, have limited access to first aid kits, drinking water and toilets. How uncomfortable would you be, if you could not use a clean toilet when you are menstruating?
The roads of the cities are the workplaces of these women. A formal complaint redressal mechanism, as per the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, is absent from the municipal workspace. Women sanitation workers too have their own #MeToo stories.
Trade unions, usually dominated by men and in many cases upper caste men, never allow women’s experiences to gain centre stage in state negotiations. Fair and independent workers unions should be encouraged to promote ‘substantive rights’ with respect to wages, hours of work, and working conditions. Recognition of women’s multiple burden of work will also go a long way in creating a supportive work environment for women sanitation workers.
Finally, socio-economic deprivation of sanitation workers is not just about caste and wages. There is a history of suppression and violence against them in socio-economic-cultural spheres. Hence, sanitation needs to be relooked in conjunction with sanitation workers. There is a need to change the approaches to policies which largely address only the economic aspect of deprivation to also consider the dynamics of social systems such as caste and gender. Equally, it is essential to change the perspective of how we look at waste, who we think is responsible to clean up the waste that we produce, and how we look at the workers who are entrusted to clean public and personal waste.
Swachh Bharat Mission Urban (SBM-U) promised not only to make India clean but also to improve the lives and work conditions of sanitation workers. In changing the realities of sanitation workers, can we change the sanitation outcomes of our cities?
Shashi Shikha is a Senior Programme Officer at Society at Participatory Research In Asia (PRIA), involved in the phenomenological study on women sanitation workers conducted under the Engaged Citizens, Responsive City initiative, supported by the European Union.