From darkness to dignity

The well-being of Mumbai’s sanitation employees — an invisible workforce the city turns a blind eye to — is at the heart of Mission Garima

Manual scavenging, the vile practice of manually clearing sewers and drains, should be anathema to modern civilised societies. However, though it was outlawed in India in 2013, the practice of manual scavenging continues and has remained largely beyond the bounds of rules and regulations, even in urban centres like Mumbai.

As a result, those employed as manual scavengers continue to lead a difficult and humiliating life. They risk lives and health daily, and endure stigma and discrimination. Remuneration is low for the indignity they have to endure, and the chances of contracting disease are high.

Mission Garima, a joint initiative of the Tata Trusts and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), aims to promote safe, healthy and humane working conditions for Mumbai’s sanitation workers. Using innovation and technology, it aims to bring garima (dignity) to their work and their lives.

The project traces its beginning to early 2014, when the Tata Trusts Chairman Ratan Tata saw a photo-essay on Mumbai’s sanitation workers by acclaimed photographer Sudharak Olwe. The stark images highlighted the dismal lives of the men and women who risk their health every day to unclog drains and move garbage, often without basic safety equipment. The visual after visual of suffering and indignity was the genesis of Mission Garima.

A 2015 report by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences helped the Mission Garima team define a strategy for the programme. The report was based on extensive research and a survey of about 32,000 sanitation workers in 24 municipal wards of Mumbai. It helped narrow down Mission Garima’s scope to four key areas: making available high-quality personal protection equipment (PPE) and cleaning machinery; providing access to medical services; upgrading worker shelters (called chowkis); and generating public awareness about waste segregation and management.

The survey also uncovered some terrible facts. “We found that the average lifespan of a sanitation worker is 52 years, against a normal of 65-70 years,” says Divyang Waghela, head, Tata Water Mission, under which Mission Garima operates. In addition, over a quarter of the surveyed workers had met with a major accident at work, and one-third had been ill over the previous year, with respiratory illnesses, malaria and dengue being the most common afflictions.

Safety shortage

While 69% of the interviewed workers had received some sort of safety gear, the study concluded that their quality and availability were inadequate. Safety has always been the biggest concern for sanitation workers. Regular contact with garbage and sewage water leads to a high risk of infection and the situation has been made worse by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic (since sanitation workers could potentially come in contact with virus-bearing waste in the course of their work).

Proper tools and equipment and adequate safety protocols are a critical element of the project, and with good reason. The workers needed masks, gloves and boots of enhanced quality due to their frequent exposure to sewer cleaning, and the resultant health risks.

“We supported the MCGM in identifying and procuring better-quality PPE kits and machines, and at no extra cost,” says Mr Waghela. Tata Consultancy Services was roped in as technology consultant. In december 2015, the project team met corporation officials and workers and presented options for cleaning machines and allied equipment (MAE) and PPE units.

“We leased the machines for three months and handed them over to the workers and officials,” says Seema Redkar, a former MCGM official who is now a consultant with Mission Garima. “After testing them, the officials approached MAE companies directly and procured some of those machines.”

Worker health was another vital component in the project, which covers four wards in the city: L (Kurla), D (Malabar Hill), M-East (Chembur-Govandi) and P-South (Goregaon). Health clinics were set up in the areas where workers lived. The first one was launched in Takiyawadi in Kurla in June 2016 in partnership with Swasth Foundation, an NGO that has been the implementation partner in the Mission. The clinic provides free or subsidised health services, including checkups, medicine and pathology tests, for sanitation workers. The project was funded by Tata Capital through their CSR budget.

The emphasis on health was well-founded. “Hypertension, cholesterol, diabetes, respiratory infection and skin ailments are common in conservancy workers,” says Sundeep Kapila, the founder and chief executive of Swasth Foundation. “The concern is that they also show higher incidence of more serious illnesses. For instance, HIV incidence is four times higher than the norm for Maharashtra, while for hepatitis it is twice the norm.”

Surprisingly, caution marked the initial response of the workers to the setting up of the clinic, as they didn’t want to make their health problems known. It took time and consistent effort by the Garima team to gain the workers’ trust.

Sushila Pawar is one of the beneficiaries of the initiative. The 57-year-old, who has worked with MCGM as a sweeper for 15 years, is a diabetes patient. “I get diabetes medicine at a lower cost from the clinic regularly,” she says. 

A second clinic has been established under Mission Garima — in Chembur in March 2018 — and there has been a gradual increase in the number of patients using the services on offer. To date, some 5,400 people, primarily sanitation workers, have visited the Garima clinics. Besides the ones at Kurla and Chembur, registered workers can visit any of Swasth’s 11 other clinics across Mumbai for consultations and treatment.

Mission Garima has also been looking at why manual cleaning interventions are so pervasive. One reason is dry waste. India’s cities are huge generators of dry bits of garbage. This garbage, especially the plastic waste in it, clogs gutters, sewers and stormwater drains. It requires massive resources and personnel to unclog them.

Dry run

To deal with the dry waste scourge, the team started a behavioural-change communication campaign. The intent was to drive home the importance of segregating dry waste. “The challenge was to overcome the mindset barrier among citizens, to demonstrate the benefits of separating dry, wet and hazardous waste,” says Mr Waghela.

The 15-day campaign focused on about 3,000 households in slum areas of Tunga village in Chandivali, with local volunteers going door-to-door to explain the need for waste segregation. The campaign didn’t quite achieve the hoped-for impact, as there was a lack of separate trucks to carry away the segregated waste, but it did build awareness.

A sanitation worker at the model chowki, which has exercise equipment

A sanitation worker at the model chowki, which has exercise equipment

A space to call their own

T he end of his shift has got a whole lot better for Ravi Bumbak, a sweeper posted in the Safed Pul area of Kurla in Mumbai. Not just because it marks the end of another hot, dusty and tiring day, but because Mr Bumbak now has a place he can retire to in reasonable comfort.

The model chowki (worker shelter) set up in Kurla by the Mission Garima team has been designed and built specifically for conservancy staffers such as Mr Bumbak. The Kurla shelter, spread over 2,000 square feet and costing about `3 million, is a far cry from the ‘container rooms’ usually provided by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai to sanitation workers.

“The old chowki had very little space and one common washroom,” says Mr Bumbak. “Only four-five workers could use it at a time; the rest of us would wait outside for our turn.” That has changed. 

Inaugurated in February 2020, the model chowki was designed after consulting conservancy workers and understanding their needs. The finished structure has separate rooms for male and female staff, ample storage space, multiple restrooms, handwash and shower facilities, a microwave oven to heat food, even a recreation zone and an outdoor gym.

About 100-150 workers use the chowki on any given day. “Many of us use the outdoor gym before starting our shift,” says Mr Bumbak. “And when we end our shifts, we freshen up there, meet together as a group, and play carrom or chess. It is a good stressbuster. I hope all my fellow-workers get this benefit.” That’s a wish Mission Garima hopes to make true.

The Mission has got going with work on a special component in the project: building a model chowki, a shelter where sanitation workers can store uniforms and equipment, and catch a bit of rest. The first such chowki came up in Kurla in February 2020 and has become hugely popular with staffers.

“Earlier, workers had problems with space for changing clothes, separate toilet facilities for men and women, or storing equipment. Now there’s ample space for them to do this and relax after shifts,” says Santosh Rokade, a junior overseer with MCGM. A second chowki is now under construction in Goregaon and the team hopes to build more of these shelters.

The Garima team has other plans as well for Goregaon. A 2,500-sq ft dry waste collection and sorting centre will be established there in partnership with MCGM. On-ground interventions on the worker safety front have also kicked off. “We have distributed PPE kits to workers in the ward and taken their feedback,” says Ms Redkar.  

To support these efforts, a behavioural change campaign aimed at the area’s residents will be launched. The aim is to remind people that waste has to be managed at the individual level, not left to the civic administration or a sanitation worker. Mission Garima has been successful in improving the lot of the sanitation workers in Mumbai, however, more ground needs to be covered.

Sanitation workers pose with a vehicle showcased at an exhibition on best practices and technologies in the sanitation space