Sanitary workers most neglected in Odisha

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Sanitary workers most neglected in Odisha

Friday, 05 August 2022 | MANAS JENA

Sanitary workers are not like other workers of any occupation but they are also one of the most vulnerable communities among scheduled castes. Scavenging or sanitary work is still prevalent as a customarily caste based occupation in India. As per 2011 census the population of Hadi community in Odisha was 2.5 lakh. They are also called by different names such as Mehenter, Behera, sweeper and scavengers.


With increasing urbanisation most of them have migrated to urban locations to get engaged in sanitary work and largely concentrated in cities. In the recent past, the Government has identified about 60,000 manual scavengers from 18 States including Odisha. Though legally manual scavenging is banned under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013, it is still in practice in many places.


Both men and women of the community are being engaged in this occupation and the State Government is the largest and principal employer. In a caste ridden society of India sanitary workers are looked down upon in the caste hierarchy and they are the most socially discriminated community both in rural and urban areas.They clean toilets, clogged drains by entering manholes, carrying and cleaning, disposing off all kinds of waste, garbage, disposal of dead animals, carcasses, including human excreta. They all start work early in the morning only to keep our houses, all public places, hospitals, schools, stations, bus stops, roads, and cities clean to maintain sanitation for a healthy and clean life. In spite of modernization, this particular community people are routinely engaged in large numbers with this most hated occupation which has no social respect in society. Some of them also do drum beating, leather work, shoe making and bamboo work.


But in spite of all their dedicated service to mankind what they have been getting? What is their socio-economic status? Almost all of them live in slums for generations without homestead land and even struggle every day to access basic amenities such as safe drinking water, electricity, toilets and a house for the family. Their houses in slums routinely face eviction drives as unauthorized habitations without a rehabilitation plan. They have been always pushed into the outskirts of the cities and displaced again and again either in the name of expansion or beautification of cities without a permanent solution to their land  and housing rights which must be recognized as basic human rights  to live a life with identity and dignity.


The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 is in place to abolish manual scavenging as a correction of historical injustice and indignity and to establish the right to live with dignity as a fundamental right under the Constitution. There is a provision in Section 13(1) (c) of the Act for allocation of residential plots and financial assistance for construction of houses or a ready-built house to sanitary workers. As per the rule, there should be a State-level and district-level survey committees under the chairmanship of district Collectors with representatives of community including women, but the Odisha Government has not yet implemented it.


Their literacy rate is comparatively lower than other social groups. Their children become rag pickers, child labourers and largely dropouts. There has been no major change in their life even with 75 years of intuitional interventions, protective laws, and a host of schemes. Why so? It is because the popular clean drive project has not been inclusive of the concerns of sanitary workers.  In almost all urban bodies in Odisha, sanitary work has been slowly getting converted into privatization and contractual appointments and surprisingly no one has been getting minimum wage as semi-skilled or skilled workers because sanitary workers are not the skillful one. Even many of them get less than minimum wage for eight hours of hard work and extra for overtime. The principal employer has no role to ensure minimum wage of these vulnerable helpless workers. The kind of work they have been doing is most hazardous as they are more prone to TB , skin diseases and water borne diseases due to long exposure to dust, wastes and unhygienic places. It is the duty of the employer to provide all kinds of protective equipment, rest and holidays and sickness leave but this has been undermined. They must have protective equipment such as   masks, gloves, boots, helmets and all kinds of such instruments while on the job.


It has been frequently reported that  some of them die in roadside manholes, soak pits  and waste pits while cleaning. Unfortunately such deaths largely remain unrecorded by urban bodies. The trade unions, civil society organisations and other such identity based bodies have made very little intervention to change the socio-economic condition of the sanitary workers. As part of national commitment in line with the Constitution of India along with the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), there is a special panel since 1993, the National Commission for SafaiKarmacharis (NCSK), and the National SafaiKarmachari Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC) since 1997 with a share capital of Rs 700 crore to look into the specific issues of scavenger communities. The NSKFDC has schemes for skill development, swachaudamiYojana, sanitary marts scheme, construction of pay and use toilet, study loan and rehabilitation programme for self employment with loan at lower rate of interest and subsidy. The Odisha SC and ST Development Finance Cooperative Corporation (OSFDC) is the nodal agency in the State for implementation of such programmes for the Safai Karmacharis. In States like Karnataka, there is also a State commission for Safai Karmacharis under the provision of the State Act to ameliorate their condition. The various public sector and private corporations are also contributing out of their CSR funds to the NSKFDC for rehabilitation work. But it is most unfortunate that the State of Odisha has been neglecting the cause of sanitary workers.



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