Safety of sanitation workers during covid pandemic should not be overlooked (India)

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  • paresh
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Safety of sanitation workers during covid pandemic should not be overlooked (India)

As we all understand, besides health care workers, though not in as much limelight and discussion, sanitation workers are at the forefront of fighting this pandemic. This recent piece by Abhinav Akhilesh, Meera Mehta and Zara Juneja suggests  ways of supporting sanitation workers through this difficult time 
1. Provide PPE 
2. Provide financial support 
3. Local support - reducing workload, monitoring, etc.
4. Provide access to food and boarding facilities. 

Some of these, especially provision of PPE should be given at any time, but in developing countries it may take a pandemic to make it a reality.  While 4 is Pandemic specific as going back to families would risk them as well. This also needs to be seen in light of stories of health care workers being asked to vacate rental apartments. 

After Meera Mehta shared this piece on twitter, there was an interesting conversation that followed. 

In light of this piece and the conversation on twitter, some questions of interest are:  
 - Are there other ways of supporting sanitation workers?
 - How are sanitation workers in your city/province/country  being supported?
 - If services are provided by private players, do contractual arrangements obligate contractors to continue to provide service and support  workers or can they refuse?

The third is particularly important in my opinion as this risk had not been considered earlier. The Disaster Management Act in India for example doesn't deal with such a scenario.

Please feel free to add questions if you feel the need

Regards
paresh
Paresh Chhajed-Picha
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  • paresh
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Re: Safety of sanitation workers during covid pandemic should not be overlooked (India)

Dear all, 
Sharing an open letter (see here ) written by a group of concerned citizens in India to ministers and the public to improve status of sanitation workers. The demands are:
  1. Sanitary workers should be classified as health workers, along with doctors and nurses. This will, first and foremost, protect their dignity.
  2. (a) All sanitary work should be mechanised.
    (b) No sanitary work will be contract labour.
    (c) A minimum wage, of at least Rs 20,000, should be implemented. (In a metropolitan centre like Chennai, Rs. 20,000 for a household of 4 would be just about stringently adequate to secure some minimum necessities of life.)
    (d) There must be comprehensive health insurance for sanitary workers and their families.
    (e) They will be eligible for all allowances that are covered under the description of ‘hazardous work’.
    (f) All sanitary workers will be eligible for pension benefits.
  3. Sanitary workers must be provided accommodation, just as the police are, for they both work at keeping citizens safe. Many work at night, so they should be provided safe transport to the site 1 of work.
  4. In time, sanitary workers shall come to play a supervisory role. All citizens will participate in keeping public spaces clean, they will separate their garbage, they will compost their bio-degradable waste locally. Sanitary workers will help citizens establish gardens, and help them grow fruits and vegetables with their compost.
  5. Children of sanitary workers must get preferential admission to Kendriya Vidyalaya, Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, and Sainik Schools.
The letter explains the reasons for these demands and stresses that this is an opportune time improve conditions of sanitation workers.

Regards
paresh
Paresh Chhajed-Picha
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  • ElaineMercer
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Re: Safety of sanitation workers during covid pandemic should not be overlooked (India)

Before COVID 19 - Sanitation Workers faced the choice of working under extremely dangerous conditions or earning nothing.

Now they are even more vulnerable.

Today on World Day for Safety and Health at Work, we can’t overlook them.

Read the blog by Ruhil Iyer from the Sanitation Learning Hub (via Institute of Development Studies)

With powerful photos from CS Sharada Prasad
Elaine Mercer
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sanitationlearninghub.org/
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  • Elisabeth
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Re: Safety of sanitation workers during covid pandemic should not be overlooked (India)

Hi Paresh,

I read that open letter by a group of concerned citizens in India to ministers and the public that you posted on 22 April. I would like to know what you think of the demands/suggestions in their letter. Are they really realistic? 

A statement like this "All sanitary work should be mechanised." to me is potentially unrealistic or even harmful. Firstly, "sanitary work" can be a range of things - from "private sanitation" to "public sanitation". 

See here on Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanitation#Definitions

Sanitation can include personal sanitation and public hygiene. Personal sanitation work can include handling  menstrual waste , cleaning household  toilets , and managing household  garbage . Public sanitation work can involve garbage collection, transfer and treatment ( municipal solid waste management ), cleaning drains, streets, schools, trains,  public spaces , community toilets and  public toilets sewers , operating  sewage treatment plants , etc. [11] :4 Workers who provide these services for other people are called  sanitation workers .

How could cleaning of toilets ever be fully mechanised and would we really want/need this?
Also the emptying of the faecal vaults of UDDTs (urine diversion dehydration toilets) is best done manually (with protective equipment) not with fancy machinery just for the sake of mechanising everything.

Also this one is interesting but is it realistic?:

In time, sanitary workers shall come to play a supervisory role. All citizens will participate in keeping public spaces clean, they will separate their garbage, they will compost their bio-degradable waste locally. Sanitary workers will help citizens establish gardens, and help them grow fruits and vegetables with their compost.

I don't think it should be our aim to have all households have little composters in their houses/apartments. This only works for people who have gardens. For inner-city living it makes more sense to have a central system of collection of kitchen waste and transport to larger composting plants.

Again, perhaps they should clarify in their letter how they define "sanitary workers"? Just to be sure we are all on the same page.

What is your view and other peoples' view on this?

The other demands in the letter are probably reasonable. I guess it would help if the workers could have unions that are able to negotiate on their behalf. Do such unions exist yet?

Regards,
Elisabeth
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  • paresh
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Re: Safety of sanitation workers during covid pandemic should not be overlooked (India)

I agree that a broad spectrum of activities  can be referred to as sanitation work and not all of it can be mechanised. Probably, the point they are trying to make is that any activity that currently brings a worker in contact with human waste like emptying septic tanks, cleaning sewers be mechanised. 
I also assume that the nature of the article ( an open letter) needed it to be short and culling on the details you mentioned. I recognise a few names from the list, 'sanitation ' is not the core area of work for many of them and they would probably agree with regards to mechanisation, etc. The core issue here is the rights of sanitation workers

I don't think it should be our aim to have all households have little composters in their houses/apartments. This only works for people who have gardens. For inner-city living it makes more sense to have a central system of collection of kitchen waste and transport to larger composting plants.

I beg to differ here.  As I understand, it is best if organic waste can be managed as near to the source as possible. And if not all houses can have a composter, they could carry it to  a community level composter installed in the community garden.* Only if this is not possible should organic waste be collected to and treated at a large treatment unit. The inorganic waste can be collected periodically or the market can take care of it. Alleppey, a town in Kerala (population ~180,000) , India has initiated this system with a tag line 'my waste, my responsibility' and the initial results are encouraging. 

The reason being that local governments of small and medium towns  in developing countries have limited financial resources to sustain large facilities and centralised systems and the willingness to pay is also not very high. We've experienced them becoming dysfunctional in a few years time. I understand that such a system may not be suitable for large cities, but they are few, have resources and higher governments are also willing to pump-in money.  

(I must confess that this opinion is highly influenced by  the scale and densities of cities in India.) 

Regards
paresh

* Note by moderator (EvM): More information on this type of community level composter is available here:  https://forum.susana.org/70-composting-processes/24077-community-level-composters-organic-solid-waste-collection-from-households#29927
Paresh Chhajed-Picha
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  • paresh
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Re: Safety of sanitation workers during covid pandemic should not be overlooked (India)

Dear all,
While the safety of formal sanitation workers is finally getting due attention, let us not forget the plight of informal workers. This piece highlights how the informal workers who collect recyclable waste from dumping grounds have lost livelihoods due to lockdowns enforced to contain spread of CoVID-19. As a result of the lockdown, the entire supply chain (or should we call it collection chain) has been forced shut leaving these workers no place to sell such collected waste. Where they are able to sell, the rates have drastically reduced. 

Is engaging sanitation work-force only through the local government or public utility the only way to ensure their safety and livelihood safety? 

Regards
paresh

Paresh Chhajed-Picha
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  • paresh
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Re: Safety of sanitation workers during covid pandemic should not be overlooked (India)

Dear All,
I was able to get in touch with Dr Shiva Shankar from Chennai Mathematical Institute who drafted the letter. I copy his response below

Dear Paresh,
About the questions regarding our appeal. First, I have attached it with this mail, so that you can read it in its entirety.  As you can see, it is not a technical document, which spells out technical details. It only suggests ways to move forward. Our concern is primarily Social Justice. Thus whether a particular activity can be mechanised, or not, is something to be decided by experts as we move forward. Certainly, no human being  should come in contact with excreta, as you point out. Similarly, the question whether biodegradable garbage must be composted locally or not, is not something that should be decided by some central committee. The very term 'local' need not mean every household, but could be a locality. It will be different at different places, even in the same city. But every household must segregate, composting can either be done at the household level or at the neighbourhood level, for instance in an apartment complex.

Who knows what is practical and what is not, at the beginning of a campaign? For instance, there is a campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, perhaps it is not practical, but it still has my full support. I completely agree that every person has to assume responsibility for the waste they generate. That is the way it is in Cuba, where everybody composts, and grows fruits and vegetables locally, which is to say in every house or balcony, or collectively in common areas. Here in India, shackled by caste and the 'unparalleled social abuse of untouchability (A. J. Toynbee), perhaps the entire appeal is not practical, but that should not mean we do not try, but give up at the very start.

I hope I have addressed some of your concerns.

Best wishes,
Shiva Shankar.
Paresh Chhajed-Picha
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