Ground Report | New Delhi: Safai Karamcharis: Unsung heroes; Being a sanitation worker in India is more like a terrible sentence than a real job occupation. Although this huge Asian country, home to more than 1,300 million inhabitants, has greatly improved the situation of this sector with the construction of more than 100 million community toilets throughout its territory. It continues to lead the world ranking in terms of the volume of people without access to safe sanitation.
Nearly 190 million Indians have only limited or unimproved facilities and more than 200 million are forced to defecate in the open because they do not have regular access to toilets, according to statistics from the Joint Monitoring Program of the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.
The situation, which has important consequences on the Indian health, economy and environment, shows its most terrible face when we analyze the situation of sanitation workers, true anonymous heroes who risk their lives every day under indifference and even contempt of the local society.
Safai Karamcharis: Unsung heroes
The problem comes from afar and has its origin in the traditional division by castes that continue to rule in part life in India. Known as Safai Karamcharis, which translates to “manual gatherers”, Indian sanitation workers normally belong to the Dalit (untouchable) community, which is the lowest caste, so from birth, they are mostly condemned to live in untouchable conditions.
Extreme poverty and suffer great economic inequality. The discrimination they suffer is in fact the one that pushes them to do the toughest jobs the country offers: cleaning latrines, cleaning sewers, handling fecal sludge, cleaning drains, cleaning school toilets, cleaning public toilets, cleaning railways, work in sewage treatment plants and domestic work.
Although these jobs are essential for the health and even the functioning of any society, they are also especially difficult and dangerous tasks to carry out in India, where, contrary to what happens in developed countries, they are hardly valued.
In fact, sanitation work is not well paid and most workers are day laborers or contractors whose income is unpredictable, making them highly susceptible to financial shocks. In addition, their permanence in the informal economy means that very few can access loans and cash assistance, so they often have to use their savings to address health problems and diseases caused by the many occupational risks they run.
Average life sanitation workers is 40 to 45 years
This occupational hazard is precisely the main problem of the Safai Karamcharis: every day, they run the risk of dying from suffocation due to poisonous gases or even being buried by poorly constructed sewers. They also have huge long-term negative consequences, as they are exposed to diseases such as cholera, hepatitis, meningitis, jaundice, skin disorders, and even cardiovascular diseases, which they suffer disproportionately more than the rest of the Indian population. because, almost always, they carry out their tasks without having access to adequate safety equipment.
According to research conducted by The Wire in 2021, the average life expectancy of sanitation workers is 40 to 45 years, significantly lower than the Indian national average, which is 70 years. In addition, they experience high rates of prolonged illness and directly work-related mortality is high: between 375 and 475 people who work in the manual collection have died on the job during the last five years, mainly due to suffocation while cleaning sewers and septic tanks.
And this is only according to official records – the true death rate could be significantly higher, only certain types of accidents at work are already taken into account and in addition, many workers resort to drugs and alcohol to cope with these unsustainable situations.
An ignored problem
The arrival of the coronavirus has dealt a severe blow to India, especially in a second wave that thanks to the delta variant were especially deadly and saturated local hospitals. But the pandemic has been especially hard on the Safai Karamcharis, who have had to continue to carry out their indispensable work without any improvement in their conditions.
According to The Indian Express, more than half of the deaths due to the coronavirus among the personnel of the Delhi municipal corporation have been of safai karamcharis, who have suffered 49 casualties after the arrival of the pandemic has only exposed them to greater dangers: from collecting garbage from homes with COVID-19 positive to handle the disposal of the bodies of the victims of COVID-19, the workers of sanitation have had to take on all kinds of responsibilities. (Safai Karamcharis: Unsung heroes)
According to a 2019 study by the World Health Organization (WHO), weak legal protection and the lack of enforcement of current Indian sanitation regulations, as well as the overall poor financial situation of sanitation workers, contribute to the prevalence of the practice.