“What Swachh Bharat Mission could not do, the pandemic did,” says Masood Mallick, joint MD, Ramky Enviro Engineers, one of India’s largest waste-management firms.
“During peak lockdown, when 16,000 of our sanitation workers were on duty in places such as Delhi, Hyderabad, Dehradun and Rewa, flowers were showered on them.”
The virus will eventually be tamed. The fear of Covid-19 is already on the wane. The question is, will the newly acquired dignity that the sanitation workers enjoy outlast the pandemic? Will they still be treated with the respect they deserve when they step out of their PPE kits?
ET Magazine put this question to a dozen policymakers, researchers, private waste management executives and, above all, sanitation workers themselves. They all seem to be on the same page. They say the dignity of sanitation workers — sewer cleaners, garbage collectors, cleaners of public and private spaces, among others — is linked to enhanced mechanisation, better and safer gear and greater involvement of private players.
The social standing of workers undergoes a visible shift the moment they don a uniform or a high-visibility jacket instead of a casual tee shirt and pyjamas, say experts working in the field. Similarly, a designation like housekeeping assistant has a better resonance in this country than sweeper or jamadar, words weighed down by centuries of baggage. It’s a harsh reality that a majority of sanitation workers are still Dalits. Caste discrimination, low wages, zero safety gear and age-old stigma attached to their work make their jobs miserable, even fatal. Workers die cleaning sewer lines and septic tanks. It is time machines took over these jobs from the people. Machines should clean, scrub and sweep. Workers who deploy them should be given protective gear and robust remuneration.
Early this week, this writer spoke to a dozen sanitation workers at the New Delhi railway station. Most of them hail from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They are largely school dropouts and belong to different castes — OBCs, general category, scheduled castes. On educational qualifications, one person stands out — 28-year-old Rohit Kumar Gupta, who is a graduate in Hindi literature from a college in Lucknow. “I’m in the pest control department. I have learnt the art of mixing chemicals such as sodium hypochlorite with water. Every job is important,” he says.
Out of 400 sanitation workers at the station, 300 are contractual employees who earn a monthly salary of about Rs 15,000 from a private railway contractor. The others, all permanent employees of Indian Railways, earn a basic salary of Rs 18,000, with the gross remuneration touching Rs 26,000. Most of them are not happy with their earnings in a city where the cost of living is pretty high. Yet, they say, their job satisfaction comes from a highly mechanised work environment — they operate 50 machines, including ride-on sweeping mac h i n e s , w a l k – b e h i n d scrubbers and dry mopping scooty, to clean the station. They also wear gloves and other protective gear. New Delhi railway station is an aberration in a country where manual scavenging, despite being declared illegal, is prevalent even in urban pockets.
Amitabh Kant, CEO of the government think tank NITI Aayog, tells ET Magazine that India’s private sector must co-create solutions and get the best available technology to ensure good working conditions and enhance the self and societal dignity of sanitation workers. He gives two examples — a Pune-based technology startup helping sanitation workers with a contactless, litter-picking machine and a Thiruvananthapuram-based startup, Genrobotics, building Bandicoot, a remote-controlled robot that cleans manholes, which can make the dreadful act of manual scavenging redundant. “We believe that the private sector, with the adoption of technology, can play a significant role in eliminating the need for any direct contact of workers with waste. This will help raise the dignity of our workers,” says Kant.
The total number of machines used by municipalities in the country is not readily available, but it has become apparent from the recent surge in tenders that more and more urban local bodies (ULBs) are buying machines such as mini tippers, compactors, vacuum emptiers and suction-cum-jetting machines, which will not only reduce the physical workload of sanitation workers but also make their work more dignified.
Saurabh Kumar, municipal commissioner of Raipur, says the introduction of machines cannot be the sanjeevani, panacea, for making public places clean. Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, for example, uses 771 cleaning machines. “Most machines are imported and are not designed for Indian infrastructure landscape. Then come issues of spare parts and trained workforce for operation and maintenance,” he says, adding that the looming fear in the minds of the workers that they could become redundant creates institutional resistance.
This coupled with an overall reduction in municipal revenues because of the goods and services tax and stagnant property tax makes it difficult for local bodies to transition from manual to machine-led interventions in sanitation, says Kumar. The machines are expensive. For example, a suctioncum-jetting machine of 6,000-litre capacity, which is used to clear the clogging in sewer lines, costs about Rs 44 lakh. A trommel screen, which is used for screening and segregating waste, costs about Rs 65 lakh. And poclain and dozer, used for overall waste management in whatare called secured landfill facilities, costs over Rs 1 crore.
Putting more money in the coffers of states and local bodies is something that the 15th Finance Commission is keen on. Speaking to ET Magazine last month, chairman of the panel NK Singh hinted that it would recommend major reforms in property taxes.
While that could ease the financial concerns of local bodies, it won’t be enough. More money and machines can only go so far. The key problem is attitude. While everyone generates waste, no one wants it on their balcony or backyard, especially in urban areas. And urbanites would like some faceless person to pick up their garbage and transport it far away.
According to a government task force report on waste-to-energy, published in 2014, 377 million urban people in India generate 62 million tonnes of garbage annually. With growing urban population and rising levels of prosperity, this will go up to 165 million tonnes by 2031. This means, if 10-m-high dump sites — that will be one-fifth of Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill — are created across cities, we will have to set aside 454 sq. km of urban land in the next 10 years. That would be one-third the size of Delhi — just to dump garbage.
What do we do with waste?
“Why should we escape from our own waste?” asks Vinod Tare, a professor at IIT-Kanpur, who has developed and patented a biotoilet called Triansh. He says research should focus on developing models for transporting and using human excreta as compost, arguing that as long as human excreta is not seen, touched or smelt — something that the scientific community working on waste disposal must ensure — people won’t have any problem in handling it.
“People wearing suits and ties will handle such waste,” he says.
Research on recycling wastewater is going on. At IIT-Kharagpur, two professors of environmental science, Makarand M Ghangrekar and Brajesh Dubey, are working on making potable water from toilets. Already 100 kilolitres of water are generated daily. But no one is sipping it yet. For now, it is used for non-potable purposes on campus and there is a proposal to divert some of it to agricultural fields on campus.
“The target of the project is to provide potable water as defined in IS-10500 (a specification in drinking water). It will undergo rigorous testing before it is declared as a safe reuse option for drinking,” says Dubey.
Several waste-management models are cropping up. ITC has a Pune-based facility to recycle the tough multi-layered plastic.
“In 2019-20, we could channellise about 500 tonnes of plastic waste for recycling,” says an ITC spokesperson. Since ITC has tied up with local waste collectors, it has created an additional income stream for them as well.
Meanwhile, government and private plants are coming up to convert waste to energy — the work has just begun on the latest at Okhla, Delhi. In June, an MoU among Indian Oil, NTPC and South Delhi Municipal Corporation was signed to convert combustible components of municipal waste to generate electricity in the Okhla plant. Earlier, in January, the Railways had commissioned India’s first government-owned waste-to-energy plant in Bhubaneswar with a capacity of converting 500 kg waste a day.
But electricity generated from waste is costly. Mallick of Ramky Enviro Engineers, which has a 24 MW waste-to-energy plant in Bawana in West Delhi, says,
“The per megawatt cost of waste-to-electricity is as high as Rs 22-25 crore as against Rs 3.5-4 crore for solar. So we have to be absolutely clear that we need to recycle not because of its resource value but to mitigate landfills that would have otherwise cropped up.”
The toll a landfill takes is colossal. It pollutes the environment, adversely affects people living nearby, deprives the city of precious real estate and, above all, it forces sanitation workers to climb and cross the vast expanse of waste, exposing them to multiple health risks.
That is an affront to human dignity. It looms larger than the mountainous waste of Ghazipur.