Shantanu Nandan Sharma that the government wants private players to bring the best technologies to sanitation sector and help enhance the societal dignity of workers. Edited excerpts:
What can make sanitation work a dignified profession in India?
With the government’s explicit attention towards the sanitation sector, dignified treatment to sanitation workers received enormous importance. In the past, sanitation and work related to it were considered taboo due to its caste-based linkages. But now people have started realising that these workers are at the forefront of a strong public health system.
Making sanitation a dignified profession is a multilayered challenge. We look at it as technical opportunity as well as social transformation. I believe that similar to the extensive adoption of mechanical road-sweeping machines across the country, urban local bodies (ULBs) now need to focus on complete mechanisation of the operations of faecal sludge management and sewer cleaning. This is possible with the implementation of robust business models that optimally leverage private sector participation at local level. We also have to leapfrog in manufacturing PPE kits and tools that have human-centric design features and can make the operations comfortable and safe for workers. Also, positioning this work as a green job and identifying their skills can upgrade their dignity in society. ULBs should actively arrange for skill training and certification programmes to bring dignity to sanitation-related work. Adequate information, education, communication (IEC), decent uniforms, training and better remuneration are making a positive impact on workers.
Why do municipalities still deploy manual scavengers when machines are available as an alternative?
Although prohibited by law, the deployment of manual scavengers essentially results from unregularised cleaning operations at city level. ULBs’ institutional mechanism to manage sanitation not only needs significant improvement but also allocation of needed resources. Lack of awareness of machines and their usage needs to be addressed at ULB level. Capacity building of municipal functionaries and mobilising them for modernisation/mechanisation shall gain momentum in the coming years as the government has accorded the highest priority to the sector. Modern machinery for suction, jetting and cutting, rodding machines, underwater cameras and sensors, robotic arms, etc., can be readily procured from Government E-Market (GEM). Stand-Up India, the central government’s scheme for fostering entrepreneurship in the country, has enabled the procurement of sewercleaning machines in Delhi.
Has there been an effort to create a trained workforce for sanitation work?
Capacity building of stakeholders at all levels has been the government’s clear focus since the launch of Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) in 2014 itself and the mission itself allocated more than `600 crore for the task. Also, the National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation has been organising workshops with officers, engineers, sanitary inspectors and contractors of municipalities to sensitise them about safe and healthy cleaning of sewers and septic tanks.
Does the government have a roadmap to turn waste-to-wealth a reality?
We foresee a huge transformation in the waste sector. Waste-processing in solid waste management sector has increased from 14% in 2014 to 66% in 2020, clearly showcasing the opportunity rise in waste treatment and the thumping potential of waste-to-wealth in the country. Circular economy in sanitation is a sunrise sector of growth, with India producing increasing amounts of manure from the composting of solid and faecal sludge waste, and fuels like bio-CNG from biodegradable waste.
Will a better involvement of the private sector in sanitation help raise the dignity of workers?
Government acknowledges the private sector as a key stakeholder in this sector. Private sector is brimming with entrepreneurial activities. Recently, a tech startup in Pune started helping sanitation workers through a contactless litter-picking machine. A startup, Genrobotics, built Bandicoot, a remote-controlled robot that clean up manholes, replacing safai karamcharis. We welcome the private sector to co-create solutions, get the best available technology to create better working conditions and enhance self and societal dignity of our sanitation workers.