GRIM REALITY: A new report has revealed the plight of sanitation workers, including the discrimination they may face


by LAUREN CODLING

UK AID needs to do more to support sanitation workers in South Asia, experts have urged, as it was revealed that between 2017 and late 2018, one person died every five days in India due to the lack of proper facilities.

The health, safety and dignity of sanitation workers report by WaterAid revealed that few developing countries have guidelines to protect sanitation workers, leaving them unprotected from an array of health and safety issues.

Statistics show roughly 4.2 billion people live without safely managed sanitation – more than
half the global population.

Andrés Hueso is WaterAid’s senior policy analyst on sanitation and a co-author of the report,
published to coincide with World Toilet Day on Tuesday (19).

Workers help to wash one another after manually emptying a pit, in Bangalore, India

Speaking to Eastern Eye ahead of the report’s release, he urged donor countries to do more to help overseas sanitation workers. In particular, he has highlighted the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) after claiming their funding represents 25 per cent of the aid that goes into the sector.

“There are two things they can do – one thing is to fund initiatives that address the issues of sanitation workers specifically, but the other more immediate thing is to make sure all their sanitation funding considers these issues,” Hueso advised. “For example, if they are supporting sanitation work in a city, and they were going to build on-site toilets, it is important to think that these toilets will need to be emptied and consider how that would happen.”

Many workers suffer from repeated infections and injury. According to Hueso, this can be
down to a number of elements, including exposure to chemicals in the waste and coming in contact with discarded items such as syringes and broken glass.

Workers may come into contact with sharp objects, such as razor blades and syringes, which can cause infections

In many cases, inhaling toxic gases can lead to imminent death. The effects are heightened when workers are forced to work in enclosed spaces such as septic tanks and sewers. Sometimes, a person may faint and drown if they are submerged in liquid.

“Many workers can also develop alcoholism and smoke heavily before entering the pits to numb their senses,” Hueso added. “The addictions they develop to be able to cope with the work is another layer which can have an impact on their health.”

Kaverappa, 54, is a sanitation worker from India. Although he claimed to have kept himself in
good health during his 35 years as a worker, he has known of people who have died in to the job. Others have been lucky to escape death.

“One of the people I know was inside a manhole trying to unblock it,” Kaverappa recalled. “As
soon as he unblocked it, the manhole started to fill up. Fortunately, his friends were standing above the ground, right outside the manhole, and they pulled him out before he drowned.”

An Indian manual scavenger is helped out of a manhole in the old quarters of New Delhi

The report also highlighted the social stigma and discrimination faced by low-grade, unskilled sanitation workers, especially in India and Bangladesh.

In India, the stigmatisation is linked to the Dalit community – the lowest social group in the Hindu caste system. Most of the workers affected in Bangladesh are local Hindus while in Pakistan, it is primarily the Christian minority who are impacted. For those individuals who face discrimination, it can prove difficult for them to look for other work besides sanitation. It often results in intergenerational discrimination, where children of workers struggle to escape the cycle of sanitation work.

“It is difficult for them to find other occupations as they are identified as doing that job or belonging to that caste, and if they try to do other jobs, they find it very difficult,” Hueso explained. “If they try to sell food, for instance, no one will buy from them because of the stigma they face.”

Gangalappa (centre) is a sanitation worker who performs manual sewer servicing to clear residential blockages in Bangalore

For Hueso, he hopes the report can highlight that the issues relating to sanitation are not just “an India problem”.

“It also happens in Bangladesh and Pakistan – we are realising it is a problem across the subcontinent,” he said. “The government, both nationally and internationally, needs to take this more seriously so we can support workers and help them raise their voice.”

In response to Eastern Eye, a DFID spokesperson said: “UK aid is helping people live healthier lives by improving their access to clean water and sanitation across South Asia. Our support has also helped to improve conditions or find alternative jobs for hundreds of thousands of workers in the sanitation sector in the region.”

According to the government department, the UK is providing experts to help India improve its urban infrastructure, including its sanitation systems. This has made conditions safer for more than 2,500 sanitation workers.

Feature image: WaterAid/ CS Sharada Prasad/ Safai Karmachari Kavalu Samitii