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  • Writer's picturemaithilee Sagara

Sanitation Workers’ Safety Initiatives

- Authors: Meghna Malhotra, Rishika Srivastava, Prerana Somani

March 2023

Sanitation workers in India face caste-based discrimination, occupational stigma, loss of health and life, and invisibility within the system. An estimate of over 1,062 sanitation workers have died in India in the last 20 years, working in the sewer according to National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK). Septic tank cleaners, and sewer line cleaners often have to enter confined spaces with low visibility and lack of oxygen and presence of hazardous gases. The lack of access to protective gear, irregular income, and social security makes sanitation work one of the most unsafe professions in the country. Though this work should be considered admirable and these workers celebrated, the reality is starkly opposite. They lack access to basic human rights and dignity, and their efforts remain largely unacknowledged. Most of the sanitation work undertaken is intergenerational. The first step to right this generational injustice is to identify sanitation workers, and enumerate them to ensure occupational, social, and financial safety.

Map representing deaths of sanitation workers, based on data from NCSK

Over the years, India has attempted to tackle this issue by enacting punitive acts such as The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (revised from the original 1993 Act). Despite this, there is a huge gap in implementation and India as a country has made very little to no progress when it comes to ensuring safety and dignity of sanitation workers.

The Urban Management Centre (UMC) has been working with the government and the community for the welfare of sanitation workers by assessing the current liabilities of sanitation work and implementing changes to improve the work environment, and offer alternative livelihoods. Following are some of our leading technical support programs towards ensuring safety and dignity sanitation workers.

Technical Support to the Garima scheme, Odisha

The Government of Odisha has become the pioneer in the country for ensuring occupational, social, and financial safety of core sanitation workers. With UMC as their technical support unit, the Housing & Urban Development Department (H&UDD), Odisha launched the Garima scheme to enable safe and dignified livelihoods for core sanitation workers dealing with faecal matter through the 115 Urban Local Bodies (ULBs). The biggest roadblock in implementation of the scheme was a lack of databases of sanitation workers. To tackle this issue and to increase visibility of sanitation workers, UMC launched a massive peer-led survey in urban Odisha to enumerate and register all sanitation workers dealing directly with faecal matter.

UMC as Garima TSU with the support of ULBs, trained more than 750 ULB officials and Swachh Saathis to use the Beneficiary Management System called SHWAS app. SHWAS which means ‘Breath’ in Sanskrit is the backbone to ensure transparency and real-time monitoring of the database. SHWAS has built-in-tools for quality checks, validation, monitoring of the survey at city, district, and state levels. It identifies gaps in provision of social schemes such as subsidized food, insurance and healthcare. Lists of such workers who have not availed these benefits can be easily collated and provided to concerned departments.

Survey of respondent using SHWAS app in Odisha

Under the Garima Scheme, about 20,000 surveys of sanitation workers had been conducted of which about 11,000 workers were validated as Core Sanitation Workers (CSWs). This marked the end enumeration in phase I. Garima ID card distribution camps and health camps were conducted actively across 115 ULBs (6 pilot ULBs and 109 scale up ULBs) in February 2023 with the help of the state and city teams of UMC.

Event for Garima ID distribution to core sanitation workers

Even more significantly, hazardous sanitation activities such as sewer line cleaning and septic tank emptying have been recognized as highly skilled, while less hazardous activities like drain cleaning, maintenance of wastewater treatment plant and community & public toilet cleaning have been recognised as skilled by the Government of Odisha. This required to change the list of Scheduled Employments of the state and work with the Labour and Employees’ State Insurance Department of the Government of Odisha, in accordance with the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. On July 5, 2021, sanitation work was included in the list as a separate item.

We continue to support the Govt on formation of Garima Grihas (resting lounges for sanitation workers), on linking them with various social and financial entitlements.

Garima Griha

Sanitation Workers Development Scheme (SWDS), Tamil Nadu

Following the success and learnings of the Garima scheme in Odisha, the state of Tamil Nadu launched the Sanitation Workers Development Scheme (SWDS) on 9th December 2022, a focused state-wide scheme for safety and dignity of core sanitation workers (CSWs). The learnings and the digital tool used in Odisha, is now being replicated in the state of Tamil Nadu for a similar exhaustive survey across the state. The Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department (MAWS), Govt. of Tamil Nadu signed an MoU with the UMC to support in implementing the scheme as the Technical Support Unit (TSU). SWDS will be implemented by MAWS Department through the 649 Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) of Tamil Nadu.

On 1st January 2023, enumerators initiated community meetings and surveys under the supervision of the state team of UMC in coordination with state and ULB officials.

Launch of SWDS by Hon'ble CM Tamil Nadu

Support to the National Action for Mechanised Sanitation Ecosystem (NAMASTE) Scheme of Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment

In August, the MoSJE and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) launched a dedicated scheme – NAMASTE (National Action for Mechanised Sanitation Ecosystem) to be implemented across all urban local bodies of the country. It focuses on eliminating fatalities in the sanitation work by promoting mechanisation in urban India, enhancing their occupational safety through capacity building and improved access to safety gear and machines.

NAMASTE intends to strengthen convergence among the various stakeholders at national, state and city level for ensuring better governance and implementation of the components of the action plan. The National Safai Karamcharis Finance & Development Corporation (NSKFDC) will provide subsidised loans to procure sanitation related equipment and vehicles under Swachhata Udyami Yojana (SUY) for mechanisation of cleaning operations. NAMASTE will also support strengthening of Sanitation Response Units and occupational safety training of sewer and septic tanks sanitation workers for eliminating deaths in santation work and enhancing occupational health and safety of workers. NAMASTE will be implemented in all ULBs across India over a period of 4 years and UMC will provide the required technical support.

Sanitation Workers’ Safety and Security in Rural India

UMC has partnered with UNICEF to advocate for and implement sanitation workers safety in the rural ecosystem as well. The Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DDWS), Ministry of Jal Shakti, GoI, formulated a 10-Year Rural Sanitation Strategy (2019-2029), which focuses on sustaining the sanitation behaviour change that has been achieved under the Swachh Bharat Mission Grameen (SBM-G), ensuring that no one is left behind, and increasing access to solid and liquid waste management. As per the strategy, Gram Panchayats will play a key role in ensuring the operation and maintenance of sanitation infrastructure and involving communities in the same.

As a part of the initiative, UNICEF in partnership with UMC has developed a 4-day training program module for master trainers on the safety, security, and dignity of sanitation workers in rural India. The first kickoff training was delivered in Bodhgaya, Bihar. A practical demonstration of safety equipment and technical approaches was also adapted during the training for an effective and interactive learning process. Participants were implementing partners of UNICEF field office, Bihar and district nodal officers of Lohiya Swachh Bihar Abhiyan (LSBA). This training was also conducted in Gujarat where the participants have been working in SBM Grameen Gujarat and undertake ground implementation.

Supporting Continued Learning for Children of Sanitation Workers, DRISHYA Program

To break the vicious cycle of intergenerationality of sanitation work, besides the support extended to adults, there is a need to empower children of sanitation workers through continued learning and alternate livelihoods. The DRISHYA (Delivering Reimagined and Intellectual learnings for Holistic development of Young children and Adolescents) program brings high quality education and innovative pedagogies to the doorsteps of vulnerable groups. DRISHYA is a self-sustained program as it is owned and adopted by the community.

Our approach has four pillars. The first pillar is engaging peer-learning facilitators, called DRISHYA Fellows from within the vulnerable community. These fellows each identify groups of 15-20 children and start supporting them daily in continuing their learning through innovative and engaging pedagogies. The second pillar is providing the learning groups with an internet connection, and access to Raspberry Pi – an open-source and low-cost computer kit. Third is developing an adaptive curriculum for language, mathematics, science, English and social awareness. The curriculum encompasses audio-visual aids, comic books, stories, practical experiments and activities for better conceptual understanding. The fourth pillar is providing counselling support to children and parents. This includes career counselling to adolescents between the age of 15 – 19 years, coupled with counselling for the parents, to anchor their interest in education and enable them to choose their livelihoods and break out of the intergenerational cycle of sanitation work.

As of March 2023 we have 520 students participating in the regular learning batches across six cities. The baseline assessment highlighted the fact that 107 children did not go to schools; the program has enabled 59 of these children to rejoin schools. The Drishya fellows are continuing to work with the 48 children and their parents who are yet not able to join a formal school.

The overall impact of these Drishya fellows has been very heartwarming. There has been 80% attendance rates across all learning hubs with girls being more regular than boys. Within an year, the performance of our kids in school has enhanced by 39%. Children have emerged as ambassadors of change in their families.

Along with subject specific learning enhancements among the children, we have witnessed enhanced confidence levels among the Drishya Fellows as well. They have improved persuasion skills with the govt. counterparts (schools, anganwadis), with parents and they are now using digital tools for their own growth.


About the Authors

Meghna Malhotra

Meghna Malhotra is the Deputy Director of Urban Management Centre. She is an expert on the design and operation of human centric infrastructure. She is currently leading UMC’s partnership with Government of Odisha to implement the Garima Scheme program and ensure safety and dignity of sanitation workers.

Rishika Srivastava

Rishika Srivastava is a lawyer exploring ways to make our cities more equitable and sustainable. She manages UMC’s education projects and capacity building and training vertical. Her key skills include communication for diverse audiences, bridging the gap between policy design and implementation.

Prerana Somani

Prerana Somani is a Senior Program Manager at the Urban Management Centre. She has more than a decade worth of experience of working in the development sector. Her key areas of expertise include WASH, sanitation workers' safety and security, Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), maternal child health and nutrition.

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