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Insights into Editorial: The contractual functionary

Insights into Editorial: The contractual functionary


Despite increasing focus by the government and programmes such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, unsafe sanitation work, loosely captured under the catch-all phrase manual scavenging, still exists in India.

There are five million people employed in sanitation work of some sort in India with about two million of them working in ‘high risk’ conditions.

Sewage pipes and drains represent the bleaker side of India’s struggle to modernise its cities.
Reports of deaths in inside an underground drain in the nation’s capital circumstances appear regularly in the local press in different cities. They attract public attention for a day or two, but fail to sustain it.


Understanding the Problems of India’s Sanitation Workers:

The last few years have been the golden age for sanitation in India.

What started out as the Total Sanitation Campaign in the 1990s morphed into the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan under the UPA Government and then transformed into the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan with full gusto driven by the prime minister’s special attention.

This translated directly into increased budgets, a mission-mode implementation across the country and by official estimates, 100 million additional toilets getting constructed.

Now, over 89% of the country’s population has access to a household toilet, compared to 40% in 2014.

Movie stars such as Akshay Kumar made sanitation a household name and through movies such as Toilet Ek Prem Katha, sanitation crossed over into the mainstream.

A special focus on financing and participation by the private sector followed, with several prominent companies announcing large initiatives and several banks committing to financing sanitation.


Condition of Contract Sanitation Workers:

  • The case of sanitation workers on contract is worse. They work for small-time contractors who have absolutely no idea of the role of a sanitation worker.


  • The contractor feels free to exploit the worker, conveniently hopping over whatever barriers and checks, including digital devices, that the government attempts to use for providing financial security to the worker.


  • The government in the case of sanitation, it is often the municipality shows little sustained interest in imposing stringent norms for provision of equipment, including those for safety, necessary for sewer cleaning.


  • As for training, no one seems to believe that sanitation involves complex work, requiring both knowledge and training.
  • Such a thought is fully precluded by the strong and enduring bond that exists between caste and sanitation.


  • Sanitation campaigns do not articulate an acknowledgement of the relationship between the caste system and cleaning jobs. An ideological barrier prevents such articulation.


  • The media too does not highlight the connection between caste and cleaning. That is why whenever sanitation workers die in underground drains, the news simply passes into unsorted history.


Still a long way to go for sanitation workers:

While no one can argue that this is the right direction for India to be moving towards, all is not well.

The reason is that contractual functionaries see no definite prospect of a career or future in the same profession.

Also, their wage is much too small to sustain the growth of substantial professional commitment.

Glaring in its omission in formal planning is any meaningful focus on the harsh realities of the millions of sanitation workers who work across the sanitation value chain in urban and rural India, and are key to making the programme a success.

This problem of “manual scavenging” as it is commonly called, is not new and is deeply rooted in India’s caste system, which assigns duties such as the cleaning of human faecal waste to people born in the lowest sub-castes of the Dalit community.



With October 2019 fast approaching, there has been a very real shift in the dialogue within the government and the entire sanitation ecosystem.

This has led to an increasing focus on business models and tenders focused on decentralised waste treatment with several states issuing tenders for faecal sludge and septage management.

The vocabulary is also shifting from open-defecation free to ODFS/ODF+, which are frameworks that measure the safe disposal of waste.


Way Forward:

A range of interventions and innovations are needed to address this challenge and our series will describe these in detail.

However, at the highest level, they fall in four different buckets.

  • Solutions focused on entry into sanitation work: These solutions include having formal ID cards, better contract design.


  • Solutions focused “on the job” that make the work safer, more dignified and more rewarding: These include better safety equipment, mechanisms for redressal of complaints.


  • Solutions focused on “progression from sanitation work” including creating entrepreneurial opportunities, better access to finance.


  • And finally, cross cutting solutions that involve easing access to special benefits, regulatory revisions, significantly larger budgets.

Finally, the roadmap to improving this situation for sanitation workers in India will involve a combination of proactive piloting of solutions across cities and rural locations and an extensive sharing of lessons between stakeholders.

It will also require significant increase in budgets focused on sanitation worker safety within governments and larger budgets focused on innovation for sanitation worker safety, innovation within donors and philanthropic actors.

And crucially, it will require ongoing attention in the public sphere through media events and civic engagement.