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World Toilet Day 2022: Will new schemes usher in safe cities for India's sanitation workers?

By Sameer Unhale, Dr Simi Mehta, Dr Arjun Kumar, Kushagra Khatri* 

World Toilet Day is held every year on November 19. It has been an annual United Nations observance since 2013, which celebrates toilets and raises awareness of the 3.6 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation.
It is about taking action to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Water and Sanitation for All. The SDG 6.2 is the world’s promise to ensure safe toilets for all by 2030. This year, the theme is "Let’s make the invisible visible."
India, in its endeavour to achieve health, hygiene, and cleanliness along with universal sanitation coverage, launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) (SBM-U) or Clean India Mission in 2014 on the birth anniversary of the Father of the Nation – Mahatma Gandhi (October 2), as a national movement. To ameliorate urban sanitation infrastructure, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and Smart City Mission were also set in motion.

Sanitation workers in India

According to a study conducted by Dalberg Associates in 2018, there are an estimated 5 million full-time sanitation workers, with 2 million working in high-risk conditions in India. Now, this high-risk or hazardous cleaning is often associated with the work performed by sewer and septic tank cleaners. 
For example, work includes emptying toilets, pits, and septic tanks; entering manholes and sewers to repair or unclog them; transporting faecal waste; working treatment plants; and cleaning public toilets or defecation around homes and businesses.
One of the pioneering government initiatives for manual scavengers is the 'Self-Employment Scheme of Liberation & Rehabilitation of Scavengers' (SRMS). It was put into place more than fifteen years ago by the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), but it has not yet achieved its objectives. When SRMS was launched in 2007, its goal was to place manual scavengers and the people who depended on them in alternative occupations by 2009.

Sanitation workers safe city

On World Toilet Day 2020, the SafariMitra Suraksha Challenge was launched. This major initiative under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) is a leap forward towards achieving zero fatalities and putting a mechanised design and practise in place to deal with human waste.
The various urban local bodies were challenged to eradicate hazardous cleaning, promoting mechanised cleaning of sewers and septic tanks. Capacity building and empowerment of SafaiMitra have featured as top priorities; thus, this initiative holds immense value.
In August this year, Urban India recommitted itself to ensuring all sanitation workers' safety, dignity, and security. For the first time, 500 cities across India have declared themselves "SafaiMitra Surakshit Shehar’. In doing so, they have established that the cities can achieve adequacy in terms of institutional capacity, manpower, and equipment norms as stipulated by MoHUA and are providing safe working conditions for SafaiMitras.
The ‘SafaiMitra Surakshit Shehar’ declaration by 500 cities aligns with SBM-U’s long standing goal of promoting sustainable sanitation practices and acting as a catalyst for turning every ‘manhole’ into a ‘machine hole’.
It has taken 75 years for us to come to this juncture, but any task started well is bound to achieve its goal. MoHUA is committed to ensuring that all Indian cities declare themselves as ‘SafaiMitra Surkashit Shehar’ by March 2024, along with ensuring ‘Zero Fatalities in Sanitation Work’.

Namaste scheme

Augmenting the ongoing efforts towards mechanisation and the safety of workers, MoHUA and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment (MoSJE) jointly launched the ‘NAMASTE’ (National Action for Mechanised Sanitation Ecosystem) Scheme, this year, to enhance occupational safety, improve access to safety gears and machines, provide skilled-wage opportunities, and focus on continuous capacity building while breaking the intergenerationality of sanitation work.
In order to ensure enforcement and monitoring of safe sanitation work, strengthened supervisory and monitoring systems at national, state, and ULB levels are envisaged.
Furthermore, the creation of a training ecosystem of present and prospective workers for core sanitation work that involves training on occupational safety by incorporating interactive pedagogy, both theory and practise, pre- and post-training assessment, and certification.

Towards zero fatalities

The intended outcomes of the NAMASTE scheme are to achieve zero fatalities in sanitation work in India. All sanitation work must be done by skilled workers who will have no direct contact with human faeces. Increased awareness among the citizenry to seek services from registered and skilled sanitation workers.
The scheme involves institutionalising the workers into Self Help Groups, which are empowered to run enterprises and increase their social benefit coverage. All workers are entitled to pursue alternative livelihoods. The scheme seeks to increase the visibility of sanitation workers, empower them, and inject dignity into the profession. While working on specialised training, capacity building, and ensuring occupational safety.
In addition, for safe and sustainable sanitation, MoHUA has issued the Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (FSSM) Policy, 2017, which emphasises implementation of the legal prohibition of manual scavenging under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and the Rehabilitation Act, 2013, and has also prescribed the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for safe cleaning of sewer and septic tanks in November 2018.

Manual scavengers

According to the MoSJE, of the 43,797 identified manual scavengers, over 42,500 of them belong to the Scheduled Castes (2021). The sanitation workforce is largely informal and stuck in a generational cycle; an estimated 75% of the women involved were born into or married into this profession. Regardless of the work being a hazard, the blanket of social security amongst the workers is absent, almost 90% of the workforce is without insurance.
Significantly lower than the national average of 70 years, the average life expectancy of sanitation workers is 40–45 years. Furthermore, they experience high rates of prolonged illness and mortality because of the work they do. Work-related mortality is high: 375–475 people who work in manual scavenging died on the job over the past five years, primarily due to asphyxiation while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. Several workers turn to alcohol and drugs to placate their suffering.
Every now and then, deaths and plight of working conditions of city sanitation workers, shakes the morale of the nation and warrants immediate actionable solutions. The impact of Climate Change visible in the cities further demand the need for holistic sanitation ecosystem.
The workers without safety gear like PPE kits (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic times), hard hats, and other supplies engage in life-threatening conditions. Sanitation infrastructure in most Indian cities is also outdated and difficult to operate with machines, thereby requiring human intervention.
Replacing this infrastructure with modern options requires significant budgets and political will. The new sanitation infrastructure being planned across cities should be based on ‘zero human touch‘ design principles.

Embracing technology

In the past decade, India has made significant strides in cleanliness and sanitation through the success of the SBM-U. But since SBM largely led to the construction of toilets and behavioural change, the next natural step would be to do away with dry latrines and have a robust sewage infrastructure that requires no human touch, which is the focus of the SBM-U 2.0
Well-founded implementation and concerted effort are required to bring about significant changes in sanitation.
To address the systemic problem of manual cleaning, a coordinated, united push is needed from the multifarious stakeholders, i.e., ministries, urban local bodies, public works departments, and layers of contractors and subcontractors, civil society and citizens.
In the Amrit Kaal of New India, decisive steps in the right direction that target augmenting sanitation infrastructure, dignifying safai mitras, and educating the commons are needed. India must align itself to tackle the global sanitation crisis and achieve sanitation and water for all with dignity at the earliest, for which embracing technology and effective implementation is the need of the hour.
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*Sameer Unhale is Mission Director at Maharashtra Urban Development Mission Directorate for Swachh Maharashtra Mission (Urban) and Visiting Senior Fellow at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi; Dr Simi Mehta, Dr Arjun Kumar and Kushagra Khatri are with IMPRI

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