Welfare of sanitary workers is the first step towards 'Clean India'. (સફાઈ કર્મચારીઓના કલ્યાણ વગર 'સ્વચ્છ ભારત' શક્ય નથી.)
Is it only me, or did everyone miss the great spectacle on October 2 of netas, babus, celebrities and wanna-be-celebrities posing with brooms in their hands? In 2014, this time of the year, the media was buzzing with photos and videos of celebrity cleaning acts. Some naïve people like me thought the dirty days are over. Indian cities will be clean. But we live in times where the photo-ops are more important than the cause.
There are two severe bottlenecks in the governing system of garbage in our cities. One, the workers, who collect garbage and clean our streets, are not much cared for. And the organisations who hire these workers – the municipalities – have their own problems of financial health and political autonomy. Who is looking into these aspects of ‘clean India’?
Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has started a remarkable pilot project of segregating garbage at the household level into dry and food waste. Households, which segregate the waste, will get 5 percent discount on property tax bills as incentives. This is a great way to make waste collection environment-friendly.But the garbage collection, in itself, is a major challenge in most cities in Gujarat. Apparently, Gujarat state has reported that they have 120 towns out of 195, which collect and transport 100 percent of the garbage produced. Only the citizens of those 120 towns can verify these claims. My experience of towns in Gujarat is quite the opposite. Streets remain filthy, and garbage is not collected for days, unless there is an official visit of some sort. Probably, I have only experienced those 75 towns, which do not claim to collect 100 percent garbage.
So, what kind of garbage collection systems do our municipal towns have? How frequently are the streets cleaned? How is the collected garbage disposed of? What percent of garbage is burnt openly? How are they paying for the cost of their staff and equipment? How much is paid to municipal sanitary staff and sweepers?
It is important to recognise the foot soldiers in the battle against filth in our cities. They are the sanitary workers and sweepers, who are the least-paid in the municipal hierarchy. The sanitary workers are paid lower than even the prevalent minimum wages in the state. And then, we expect these workers to perform their duties all seven days a week, whether during festivals or after violent clashes.
Oxford University professor Barbara Harriss-White has studied India’s waste economy in great detail. She says that the dignity and social condition of workers involved in waste management figures right at the bottom of the political agenda. Unlike many countries, India’s sanitation sector is highly caste-based. Many ‘dalit’ workers continue to clean our cities with little or no possibility of moving out of their occupations. Unless the ‘Clean India’ mission addresses such fundamental issues of welfare of workers who are actually cleaning India, our country is unlikely to be either be filth-free or be able to develop an egalitarian society.
Unless the financial health and administrative capacities of municipal towns are improved, they will not have any wherewithal to work toward the welfare of their sanitary staff. Clean India will need explicit policies of empowering the sanitary workers and municipalities.
(12th October, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)