While I realize the importance of sanitation workers during these crucial moments of Indian history, a memory made me think about their life with a different perspective. I decided to examine their life much closer. This story is the story of the much underappreciated yet the most important people of our country.
I used to live with my cousin in SR Nagar during my graduation days. Once, I took a different route to home from my bus stop. Everything was fine with the detour except for an area where waste was temporarily stored before going to landfills. First, it looked creepy with waste pickers staring at me, wondering why did I take that path, few stray dogs barking… I still walked down the lane to find a house built with plastic in the middle of garbage where few children were eating some bread. I had to halt my breathing till the time I crossed the area and I began to wonder how one can even live in such areas.
Who exactly are waste pickers?
Solid waste management Rules, 2016 defines waste pickers as: ” A person or group of persons informally engaged in collection and recovery of reusable and recyclable solid waste from the source of waste generation for sale to recyclers directly or through intermediaries to earn their livelihood.” They are not a part of official statistics and are not recognized by the Indian laws. Hence, they face all sorts of discrimination both by the government and the public.
Importance of Waste pickers
- They help in recycling the country’s waste. According to the UN publication Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities, waste pickers perform 50-100 per cent of ongoing waste collection in most cities in developing countries.
- Help in reducing carbon and other harmful gas emissions which occur by burning plastic. Thus, they help in improving Air quality index in many cities.
- They provide reusable materials: In Pune, waste pickers collect organic waste for bio gas production.
- They help reduce the dependence on Virgin materials and natural resources. Eg: Waste pickers sell plastic to a company that makes furniture through recycled plastic.
While speaking to Dattu & Arun, I realized
- No recognition – Sanitation workers are not recognized for the work they do for the government. Hence, no schemes or policies for the welfare of waste pickers in place are making their lives miserable during hard times.
- Health problems – The nature of their work exposes them to various insects, microorganisms, etc.,. This makes them vulnerable to many diseases. They suffer from respiratory, skin, and gastro-intestinal ailments. Health facilities are still inaccessible for them.
- Lack of education – Most of them being illiterate, they don’t know much about the spread of the virus and the preventive measures to be taken
- Harassment – They are often badmouthed and harassed by the public, are being called by discriminatory names, accused and inhumanely treated.
- Shelter – Most of them live in tiny spaces, mostly built by recyclable items like plastic, metal, etc. They live in very unhygienic conditions which makes them more susceptible to viral infections.
- Lockdown effect – With movement restrictions in place, its difficult for them to collect waste, sell recyclables and earn. Without income, they are much likely to die of hunger.
- Emotional side – With inhumane treatment, they feel excluded or alienated from the society which might force them to take extreme measures like suicide, involvement in the robbery, crime, and other anti-social activities.
I believe what I heard from the people I spoke to is the story every sanitation worker in India has to say.
#WASHSpotlight (2/10) In spite of an active MS Act 2013 and efforts by CSOs and the judiciary, #unsafe #sanitation work continues to claim lives with over 15 lives lost between February and March 2018. @san_workersproj @indsancoalition @LabourMinistry @HRDMinistry @swachhbharat pic.twitter.com/99gMgEcZKp
— Dalberg on WASH (@Dalberg_WASH) February 25, 2019
I have tried to document any publicly available official statistics to quantify this problem. To much of my disappointment, I could not find one single source that documented the problems the sanitation workers face.
” I am an agricultural worker. I have never picked waste before. Since I can’t go back home I took up this job for survival. First few days it was horrible to see bugs everywhere and I couldn’t eat food because my hands smelled like a waste. Now, am habituated to it” – Dattu
” I was a waste picker for the past 15 years, and I was never treated humanely by anyone. Once I dared to ask some money in the neighborhood where I collect waste for medical expenses of my sick daughter and was abused badly and was accused of telling lies” – Arun
How governments can help sanitation workers?
- Creating a framework for managing solid waste management for segregating waste at the source so that it reduces the burden of waste pickers
- Institutionalizing waste picking job
- Providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like shoes, masks, gloves, etc.
- Including waste pickers in the laws of solid waste management as economic service providers and legalizing their work and to provide social and labor security.
- Creating various schemes under health, education, employment sectors for the welfare of the waste pickers.
- Creating awareness among people that waste collection isn’t an odd job and waste pickers deserve respect like any other human being.
- Establishing Co-operative societies of waste pickers in all states and districts. Such societies in cities like Delhi, Pune, and Ahmedabad brought a huge change in their lives.
My #CitizenHeroes today is a young sarpanch from Gopathanda in Narsimhulupet Mandal of Mahbubabad district
Her name is Azmeera Lakshmi and she leads from the front in the battle against Covid19 by spraying of disinfectants in her entire village along with sanitation workers 👏 pic.twitter.com/Ecz6hWf9q0
— KTR (@KTRTRS) April 7, 2020
How public can help sanitation workers?
- Donating sanitizes, hand washes, masks, clean clothes, etc.
- Offering them essentials like rice, cereals, oil or with whatever one can to help them.
- Separating plastic and paper waste from kitchen waste at our homes makes their work easier.
- Most importantly, we can help them by changing the way we behave with them: Treating them as fellow human beings.
- Support innovative efforts that help ease the lives of sanitation workers. Projects like The ‘SEPoy’ of IIT Madras give some hope of end to manual scavenging.
“When Safai karamcharis actually showed us how manual scavengers carve the hardened sludge in the septic tank and hammer it with their hands, we realized how difficult the environment is for them. That’s why this matters.” #MustReadhttps://t.co/25iueonTo5
— The Better India (@thebetterindia) April 22, 2019
During this pandemic, it’s high time that we realize everyone in society is equally important and we should treat everyone with due respect. Humanity, Compassion, Unity, and Equality can help us face hard situations and survive through hard storms.