“If someone can support our livelihood, we would be indebted”, says Chinna, a 43-year-old sanitation worker from Tamil Nadu. Chinna’s neighbourhood in Trichy was contained at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, pushing him out of work, and out of money.
In order to carry out the work mandated by the city’s municipal corporation, Chinna finds himself at a loss, renting out a disinfectant spraying tank at Rs 100 per day, enabling income at the cost of savings for his children’s education, all the while putting himself at risk of infection every time he goes outside. He is one of more than
five million sanitation workers in India who are struggling with these issues. Public health and sanitation are inextricably linked
These sanitation workers are critical to the state of public health in India, and the COVID-19 crisis has thrown this into even sharper relief. Not a single Indian city ranked in the top 140 in
Mercer Consulting’s 2019 Quality of Living City Rankings, wherein health (and sanitation) are core factors. The pandemic has made the situation even more dire, and sanitation workers, designated as ‘essential’ labour during the various lockdown phases in the country, are more burdened than ever. They must now continue the hazardous work of cleaning human faecal waste, disinfecting COVID-19 hotspots and containment zones, while taking on immense risk to their personal and family health, without any formal support for basic equipment or entitlements.
We as a society have recognised that improved public health systems are the need of the hour in light of the pandemic and the harsh impacts it has had on our physical and mental wellbeing, economy, and day-to-day lives. We know that hygiene and health go hand-in-hand for everyone. Therefore, we should recognise the work of sanitation workers as just as essential as that of the brave doctors, nurses, and hospital staff who are on the frontlines of our national response to the crisis.
In a world without sanitation workers, business and daily life would grind to a halt. Supply chains and for both products and services would become too risky to engage in. Revenues would fall as fear of the very real health threats prevent customers from venturing out of their homes or inviting people in. Factory employees’ inability to come to work safely would hinder production and manufacturing. A lack of efficient business activity due to unpredictable demand and supply cycles would put a big question mark on future investment, growth, and sustainability. Without these essential workers, entire businesses, stakeholder groups, and industries could fall apart.
Myriad occupational hazards
Sanitation workers’ life expectancies are ten years below the national average as a result of spending hours on end in sanitation infrastructure, which handles up to
2.6 million litres of sewage a day in metropolitan cities such as Mumbai. One manual scavenger has died on the job every five days since 2017. On top of hazardous manual scavenging duties, sanitation workers are now called upon to sanitise hotspots, containment zones, state institutions and hospitals, handling biohazardous waste where COVID-19 infections are prevalent. Most do not have any alternative livelihoods, with 90 percent of the workers belonging to the lowest Dalit sub-castes.
Sanitation workers face increased risks of contracting COVID-19 above their pre-existing risks of contracting diseases from prolonged exposure to faecal sludge, such as diarrhoea. Bound to carry out such essential work
without any provisions for protective equipment, training or social security, sanitation workers are left uninformed of the transmission risks of COVID-19 and have had to make out-of-pocket expenditures from their already insufficient daily wages to manage their workloads and the risks they are taking on a daily basis. How can we support sanitation workers?
As lockdowns ease into the monsoon months, and with COVID-19 cases in India only on the rise, there will be an increased and urgent need to safeguard vulnerable sanitation workers and their contributions to our COVID-19 response. Citizens and business leaders should prioritise these workers’ wellbeing and ability to go about their work safely and with dignity. Businesses in industries such as textiles and plastics have already
adapted to producing PPE kits and 3D-printed face masks to make up for the shortfall in our national supply.
On an individual level, we can champion sanitation workers by supporting credible organisations that effectively provide PPE kits and machinery, donating directly to workers for their sustenance through cash transfers, or supporting local Resident Welfare Associations to ensure workers are provided with PPE kits, health insurance and regular check-ups.
The Ministry of Corporate Affairs has declared that
CSR funds may be utilised for activities related to COVID-19, which includes sanitation management, preventative healthcare, and disaster relief. The potential impact of CSR and corporate philanthropy can be maximised through collective corporate action programs designed to holistically safeguard these frontline workers. Some of the most pressing needs of sanitation workers can be met swiftly and at optimised costs. Providing PPE kits and training to sensitise workers on the risks of COVID-19 will safeguard and reduce any infection risks for workers and their families. Providing social security through cash transfers and enabling access to Government schemes will provide workers with necessary resources for sustenance and entitlements such as health insurance cover, to tide them over this crisis period and beyond.
This crisis has revealed more than ever how individual wellbeing is tied to that of the collectives we exist within—our families, communities, companies, cities, and country at large. Supporting the wellbeing of sanitation workers will go a long way in addressing the humanitarian crisis we have found ourselves in, as well as catering to our own personal and business interests.
—Priya Naik is the Founder & CEO of Samhita , a CSR consulting firm. Tushaar Carvalho is a Senior Associate on the Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WASH) and Strategic Initiatives teams at Samhita. Ragini Menon is the Assistant Manager of Samhita’s Knowledge and Strategy teams. The views expressed are personal