Ensuring our contact with human waste ends when we leave the toilet is one of the most important jobs in society, yet sanitation workers in India are unseen and unappreciated. They face stigma around the nature of their work and discrimination based on caste, ethnicity and religion. They are responsible for cleaning out pits and septic tanks, which often means physically removing human waste with their hands, usually without any protection or proper equipment. Stigmatisation of sanitation workers is a deep-rooted issue and the work is passed on throughout generations, making the cycle difficult to break. The informal nature of sanitation work also results in a low and irregular income.
WaterAid India focused their innovation on mapping sanitation workers who were involved in manual desludging operations and Solid Waste Management (SWM), understanding their current scenario, and advocating for their safety, dignity and well-being. It aimed to raise awareness among various user groups and residents in the nearby settlements about the plight of sanitation workers and the need to treat them with dignity and respect. The innovation also aimed to support sanitation workers by building their technical capacities.
The purpose of the proposed innovation was to generate awareness among user groups and government officials about the plight of sanitation workers, and provide safe spaces for sanitation workers to build their capacities regarding formal sanitation work. The innovation included:
- Increasing awareness among the various targeted user groups and officials about the struggles of sanitation workers through continued on-ground behavior change communication efforts
- Increasing awareness among user groups on the importance of solid waste segregation at household level and the treatment of solid and liquid waste
- An assessment revealing how different target groups perceived sanitation work and their level of awareness towards the plight of sanitation workers
- The development of a key messaging document identifying the wants and needs of various target groups.
- A detailed baseline survey conducted with different target groups in the project area to map key messaging against each target group.
- Seven focused community gatherings to understand problems associated with sanitation and solid waste management, to understand users’ perceptions of the plight of sanitation workers, and to come up with sustainable solutions for their concerns
- 139 Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) and various group led interventions with young people (558); women (142); local governing body members, health-care workers, teachers, and businesses (112).
- Youth and school students from the nearby schools were engaged through organised field visits to the Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant (FSTP) in Kali Billod. Leadership training and COVID-19 appropriate occupational safety training was provided to 20 sanitation workers and solid waste workers.
- Promotion of locally adopted technologies and viable community-based models in SWM/ FSM developed the capacity of sanitation workers, and community groups.
- A health camp was organised for sanitation workers and their families where they were taught about potential occupational hazards, early-signs of various infections and diseases, and the need for regular vaccination of workers.
The goal of the innovation was to ensure the improved health, safety, dignity and well-being of sanitation workers and waste pickers. Along with this, WaterAid India hoped to improve the skills and available resources of FSM and SWM workers to increase their income.
The initiative built a common citizen-led forum to bring together community members, local governing bodies, sanitation workers, and other representatives to discuss and deliberate on WASH-related challenges and arrive at solutions, while acknowledging the contributions and hardships faced by sanitation workers and Solid Waste Workers.
For this, a team of ‘Swachchhata Doots’ (volunteers for cleanliness) were mobilised across the three grampanchayats. These volunteers, with support from local governing body members, took the lead in supporting sanitation and solid waste workers while ensuring sustainable FSM and SLWM moving forward. Local committees at habitation and colony level were made aware, and their capacities were strengthened for taking action to improve sanitation services with active involvement of the local governing bodies.
Other achievements include:
- The BCC campaign led to workers and users understanding their rights and responsibilities towards accessing improved WASH services
- Increased coverage of sanitation infrastructure and a deepened understanding among the community on the critical issues of FSM and the overall sanitation value chain
- The development of a friendly and holistic environment in nearby villages, Panchayats, SHGs, businesses and local institutions to understand, discuss and share their WASH related challenges, come up with community-led solutions while focusing on the workers’ dignity, safety, and health, and provide safe spaces for workers where they feel respected and valued.
- Generation of awareness among the user groups across three Gram Panchayats to build an “inclusive, healthy, and protective atmosphere for the families of sanitation workers”.
- Sensitised government officials on the sanitation workers’ agenda and created a public forum for them to meet and understand the concerns of local villagers and workers on different governance issues pertaining to SWM, LWM and integrated WASH.
- Built capacities of sanitation workers, provided trainings on their rights, roles, responsibilities, opportunities in the sanitation sector, leadership and entrepreneurship, occupation health and safety, usage of PPE, first aid techniques, and use of technological solutions to avert manual scavenging.
To further the work above, the WaterAid India team will continue dialogues with users, officials and government officials to assess the effectiveness of the behaviour change and communication activities in advancing the right of sanitation workers and their safety, dignity and welfare. They plan to take this innovation further by piloting innovations on low-cost, portable and easy to use mechanical desludging equipment. Avenues for turning sanitation workers into entrepreneurs with the aid of such equipment as well as through our operating FSTP will also be prioritised.
Key challenges & learnings
- Residents and officials were more concerned about their drinking water and solid waste management services than safe sanitation. This encouraged the team to tweak their strategy to encourage the community to discuss their challenges and arrive at solutions which incorporate aspects of safe sanitation, FSM, safety, dignity and their overall well-being.
- There is still much work to be done in the area of WASH awareness in rural India.
- Reflections from failures are extremely important as they help to better tackle the problems and challenges at-hand
- Huge and irrational small bore sewerage systems with large collection tanks at the end of colonies are leading to wastewater pilferage and flooding in many colonies. This is furthering users’ dependence on sanitation workers to address regular choking of chambers and tanks - manual cleaning and repair in both small and large scale due to lack of required equipment.
- Lack of availability of desludging vehicles, machinery and equipment in residential areas adds to the challenges of sanitation workers.
- The majority of residents in colonies are migrant workers employed around the clock at the factories nearby, and are mostly rented residents who are simple shelter-seekers and don’t want to take ownership of their current sanitation scenario and infrastructure.
- Indefinite nature of the postings of local administrators has become a major challenge to the ongoing and upcoming works. Our efforts were paused for over month due to uncertainty about the impending local body elections.
- Sanitation workers in the project area, in order to provide for their families, undertake multiple jobs every day. As a result, our field team’s direct interaction with the workers has been more limited than expected.
- During the Festive and Harvesting seasons, it becomes more challenging to engage village residents, especially in rural population areas.
Stay up to date
Sign up to the newsletter and hear more about the Impact Accelerator’s progress and other WaterAid projects