‘Invisible lives behind visible waste’: Experiences of sanitation workers and waste pickers in India


India’s municipal solid waste management (MSWM) system rests on the back of a faceless workforce, comprising a myriad of actors: sanitation workers in the formal sector are contracted directly by the government municipalities and are responsible for sweeping the streets, cleaning drains and transporting the waste to landfills; door-to-door garbage collectors are often subcontracted through private operators by the municipality, to collect waste from households; and waste pickers in the informal sector who earn their living through picking, sorting and selling recyclable waste. Their line of work is characterised by the symbolic and practical manifestations of caste and gender discrimination, as most of them belong to historically oppressed communities (Dalits, Scheduled Castes, and Schedules Tribes), who have been systematically forced into this profession.

With the onset of COVID-19, there has been increasing clamour around treating sanitation workers as ‘frontline workers’ and ‘coronavirus warriors’, as they provide essential services. The state government of Himachal Pradesh has extended financial and welfare benefits to sanitation workers and door-to-door garbage collectors, including personal protective equipment (PPE) and health check-ups – after sustained advocacy efforts by these communities. While such measures are encouraging, it remains problematic that it took COVID-19 to nudge governments to not only provide PPE, but to acknowledge and appreciate the significance of sanitation workers.

However, this appreciation too was short-lived as a recent incident involving the confusion surrounding the cremation a COVID-19 infected patient, has cast a shadow over the sustained efforts of the safai karamcharis [sanitation workers] of Shimla. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s (MoHFW) guidelines on dead body management do not specifically outline the role of safai karamcharis in handling and/or disposing of COVID-19 infected bodies. Despite this, members of the general public, media, and government bodies have accused safai karamcharis of shirking their responsibilities and being negligent. The public outcry regarding this incident underlines how many of the frontline worker ‘honouring’ efforts often amount to mere tokenism, and also hint at lurking insidious beliefs of how particular jobs are ‘meant to be done’ by certain sections of society. As Sujatha Gidla, a New York – based subway conductor and author has poignantly remarked “We are not essential. We are sacrificial.”

‘Invisible lives behind visible waste’ sanitation workers and waste pickers in India
‘Invisible lives behind visible waste’ sanitation workers and waste pickers in India : Pic Authors

In addition to sanitation workers, waste pickers working in the informal sector also shoulder the disproportionate burden of keeping our cities clean, against the growing tide of waste. They are not formally integrated into the MSWM system and are therefore forced to make their living off collecting and selling recyclables. In Bengaluru, waste pickers save the municipal authorities up to INR 4.8 million annually, but are rarely acknowledged or appreciated for their sustained efforts.  With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting restrictions on movement, waste pickers are unable to work, and their livelihoods are at stake. Due to the state’s apathy towards addressing the concerns of waste pickers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Hasiru Dala are spearheading relief efforts to ensure that the families of waste pickers are supported through these difficult times. The sharp drop in recycling markets has resulted in piles of recyclables accumulated in informal settlements and collection centres. Waste pickers are also stigmatised for their work, and notions of spatial purity amidst the lockdown to contain the pandemic restrict their access to waste, markets, and public places.

In Guntur and Vijayawada, even though the state government has announced various COVID-19 related relief schemes, most waste picking communities have been unable to avail themselves of these due to lack of documentation that are seen as necessary to prove that they are worthy of this relief. There are very few efforts to shape the policies understanding the lives of waste pickers by the state and there are also incidents of discrimination against waste pickers in the distribution of state-sponsored relief packages. With the restrictions affecting their mobility, work, and income, waste pickers have become entirely dependent on NGOs like Dalit Bahujan Resource Centre (DBRC) for their sustenance. Waste picking communities that live near dumping yards struggle with limited to no access to running water and electricity, and minimal access to and ownership of mobile phones. Waste pickers who require frequent health check-ups and medicines, e.g., people with chronic conditions, pregnant women, and children, are unable to access them due to the repurposing and overburdening of health systems during the pandemic for COVID-19 related care.

These examples from Bengaluru and Guntur, in contrast to Shimla, highlight how different actors in the hierarchy of MSWM system have experienced COVID-19 very differently, mainly due to their levels of integration/formalisation within the system. It is ironic that sanitation workers and waste pickers, who have been historically marginalised and discriminated against for their caste and work, are today being hailed as ‘essential service providers’. However, this spirit is neither reflected in their wages nor in their living and working conditions. If we are to truly honour them, we need to acknowledge and treat them as frontline health workers – integral to the foundation of cities and their public health systems.

Note: This blog is written based on our experiences of working with sanitation workers and waste picking communities in Bengaluru (Karnataka), Guntur, Vijayawada (Andhra Pradesh) and Shimla (Himachal Pradesh), through the Accountability for Informal Urban Equity Hub (ARISE).

 About the Authors

Shrutika Murthy is a Research Assistant working at The George Institute for Global Health (TGI) in India, affiliated with the Accountability for Informal Urban Equity Hub (ARISE). Twitter: @MurthyShrutika

Varun Sai is a Research Assistant working at The George Institute for Global Health (TGI) in India, affiliated with the Accountability for Informal Urban Equity Hub (ARISE) and co-located at Hasiru Dala, Bengaluru. Twitter: @VarunSa37219451

B Ramanamurthi is a Research Assistant working at the Dalit Bahujan Resource Centre (DBRC) in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh and is affiliated with the Accountability for Informal Urban Equity Hub (ARISE). Twitter: @Ramanamurthi111

Competing Interests

ARISE is funded by the United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). The authors have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare no competing interests

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