The last decade has seen a massive push for improved sanitation in urban and rural India, and progress has been substantial with several hundred million Indians now having access to toilets. However, while the public eye has been on big campaigns like the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission, the inner workings of sanitation systems and the state of sanitation workers in these systems have often been ignored.
Sanitation systems in urban India were designed with one unfortunate assumption, which is that human labour would always be available to service them. This is a fundamental issue, and brings up challenges on many fronts.
At various steps across our sanitation value chain—from the toilets to the treatment plants—workers must interact with faecal matter in extremely unsafe ways. They are often offered inadequate safety equipment and training, and are socially and culturally ostracised. An overwhelming majority of them are from the lowest Dalit sub-castes—representational of India’s traditional caste hierarchies and the manner in which these function.
Usually engaged through informal contracts, they work for local governments and private operators, or are contracted by households directly. As a result, most have poor financial and health outcomes.
While the issues faced by sanitation workers have attracted some attention, the subject at large has been treated as a matter for civil society organisations to tackle. Government efforts tend to take on a singular, narrow point of view, which focuses typically on rehabilitating rural latrine cleaners through self-employment schemes that have had mixed success.
But there has been very little strategic focus on the full range of issues that arise from unsafe sanitation work in urban areas.
Motivated to fill this gap in understanding, Dalberg, a strategy and policy advisory firm focused on global development, conducted a 12-week study of sanitation workers in India, based on over 100 interviews with sanitation workers, government officials, and experts. The intent behind the study was to create a set of clear, cognisable, and actionable insights, with which stakeholders can act towards improving the working conditions and livelihoods of sanitation workers across the country.
Some key takeaways from the report are: