Inclusive: Special Article: Vol. 1, Issue 13 - July, 2018

Sanitation Workers in Bhubaneswar City: Risks, Coping Strategies and Vulnerabilities

Nandini Sen



1.0 Introduction

The few published documents on the lives of sanitation workers focus on their dehumanized living and working conditions. They also indicate the apathy of the state and the urgent need for providing a total package of welfare measures for them. The underlying theme has always been that they are silent sufferers and incapable of taking charge of their own lives.

The current paper is an outcome of the author’s empirical work on 300 sanitation workers working with Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation1. It aims at unraveling their lives, working conditions, emerging vulnerabilities and social protection requirements. This paper highlights the changing employment scenario amongst municipal sanitation workers, and risks and vulnerabilities arising out of their occupation and working environment.

This study clearly points out that privatization and liberalization policies have negatively impacted the working conditions of sanitation workers thereby systematically pushing them into a condition of extreme economic marginalization. Public policy on privatization is often justified on grounds that it leads to improvement of services. However, there is enough evidence in the study to show that under its garb the state is actually withdrawing its responsibility towards citizens as well as promoting and legalizing exploitation of the most marginalized sections of the society.

The present study however finds the workers extremely resilient, capable of taking social and economic decisions for their own survival. Based on the above the study identifies that sanitation workers are in need of supportive social protection measures, in particular easier accessibility to existing welfare programmes, appropriated to their needs. This will not only enhance their power to combat the increasing adversities but also build themselves up as partners of development, not mere recipients of welfare measures.


2.0 Sanitation Workers in the Context of Privatization

The rapid growth of informal employment cutting across the unorganized and organized sectors has severely impacted workforce conditions all over the globe. A majority have experienced a fall in wages, deterioration in working conditions, increasing workloads or low bargaining power2. This is especially true of casual, contractual temporary workers with low education and skills who work in bottom of the pyramid occupations3.

Propelled by a pressure to remain competitive in a global business environment many firms have shifted to informal employment arrangements. Outsourcing or subcontracting mechanisms are being widely used to redesign production and distribution systems in many key industries and services. As a result many formal wage workers are being shifted to informal employment arrangements without minimum wages, assured work or benefits while workers with semi-permanent contracts (albeit, without minimum wages or benefits) are being pushed into piece-rate or casual work arrangements.

ILO estimates that informal or employment without legal and social protection covers 50-70 percent of total employment in Asia, Africa and Latin America and is as high as 82 per cent of non-agricultural employment in South Asia4. In India, the 15.20 million additional employment opportunities created between the years 2004-05 and 2011-12 have been singularly attributed to the growth of contractual, outsourced and other informal employment opportunities in the organized sector5. Rapid growth of urbanization, heightened consumerism with mounting waste, increasing awareness about public hygiene have led to unprecedented growth of sanitation workers, all under informal employment.

At present it is estimated that sanitation services employ more that 50 lakh workers, 365 days a year. This group contributes substantially to the 310 lakh non-agricultural main workers in service sector who are employed for at least 180 days a year as per census 2001.Today sanitation workers are employed in a range of establishments including local self governments, railways, armed forces, industries, private and public establishments, shops and malls, hospitals, educational institutions and private households.

However, despite the large numbers of sanitation workers and their enormous contribution to the nation’s health and well being, there is a complete silence regarding their numbers, lives, issues in national policy and practice. Unlike the plethora of studies to be found on every aspect of the informal workforce including newer ‘reproductive occupations’ like surrogate mothers, there is hardly any in depth empirical work on them. Even the National Safai Karmachari Corporation, a national institution ostensibly established to create policies and programmes for their well- being laments this fact6. In fact, the definition of “safai karmachari7” and legal measures for them even in the 2013 Act8 is overwhelmingly focused on ‘manual scavengers’ with scant reference to the vast majority of sweepers and sewerage workers.


3.0 The Study

Bhubaneswar, the planned capital city of Odisha is rapidly growing into a modern urban centre of regional importance, being identified as “Smart City”. The Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation which is responsible for sanitation services of the city has effectively stopped all employment at this level during the previous five years, increasingly outsourcing the responsibility to Private Agencies. At present 4 Private Agencies operate in 40 of the city’s total 60 wards while BMC operates in 20 wards. 86 per cent of this workforce is contractual under BMC and Private Agencies. The rest 14 per cent are old time Permanent Workers in BMC. 65.66 per cent of the present workforce is women.

A Multi- Stage Stratified Sampling procedure was followed in this research. 10 percent sample was drawn from each Service Provider ie BMC and Private Agency. Male and Female samples represent their proportionate numbers in each category. BMC samples were drawn from four Service Levels. Private Agency workers were drawn from four Contractors. A total of 207 Private Agency Workers (57 M, 150 F) and 93 BMC (46M, 47F) formed the sample, shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Summary of Study Sample

Private Agency



Sample Size



Name of Agency




Service Level




Private Agency I








Private Agency II




Work Charger




Private Agency III








Private Agency IV
















A Mixed Methodology was followed in the current research study. Both qualitative techniques (FGD, Key informant interview, case study) and quantitative techniques (structured household interview schedule) were applied to bring perspective to the topic. Statistical tools and qualitative analysis techniques were used to analyze the data.


4.0 Key Findings of the Study

The study findings were classified into 4 broad sections:

These findings are summarized in the following sections. 


4.1 Demography

Respondents in the sample span an age group from 17 to 68 years, shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Age Distribution of Respondents



Age Distribution, years

Av. Age,


Total no.

18 to <25

25 to<35

35 to<45

45 to<55

55 & above



Pvt Agency Male








BMC Male








Pvt Agency Female








BMC Female
















Table 2 shows that BMC is systematically withdrawing from direct sanitation work and outsourcing it to Private Agencies. BMC share in the workforce has come down from 62.3 per cent in the age group 45-55 years to 31.5 per cent in the age group 35-45 years and finally to 9.6 per cent in the age group less than 35 years. This is also reflected in the average age data: 43.52 years for BMC workers and 34.1 years for Private Agency workers. Even those above 55 years with BMC earlier have now shifted to Private Agencies reducing BMC’s share to 56.3 per cent.

Some of the important demographic features of the sample are as follows.

Caste, Origin and Education

Nearly all the sanitation workers belong to the SC community and come from impoverished, landless rural backgrounds originating in the surrounding districts of Nayagarh, Cuttack and Khurda.

32 per cent have never been to school and 45 per cent have only primary level schooling. Interestingly, about 5per cent, mostly in the younger age group have studied upto matriculation or higher levels.


77.67 per cent of the respondents are married. Among female workers 19.80per cent are widows and 5.58 per cent are deserted. Average family size of respondents is 4.7 which is close to national figure for urban areas. However, 27.9 per cent mostly among the older workers have a family size of 6 and above. Younger workers are increasingly adopting nuclear family structure.

Among the 300 families, 661 are earning workers, 154 are non-earning workers members, 412 are children below 18 years and 173 are jobless. Therefore dependency ratio is 2.11 which is better than national average.


4.2 Living Conditions


Sanitation workers are mainly found in a stretch of slums around the railway station and Janpath Road with small numbers in all other parts of Bhubaneswar city. They live with other migrant communities and caste groups and are permitted the use of common resources like taps or shops in the area. However, some separation is maintained as sanitation workers reside in exclusive ‘sweeper gali’ or ‘sweeper colony’. Thus, social segregation of sanitation workers has reduced considerably but is yet to disappear completely.

Table 3 shows the different aspects of housing for the Sanitation workers.

Table 3: Status of Housing


Private Agency (207)

BMC (93)

Total (300)

Pukka House




Semi- Pukka House




Kuchha House




Own accommodation




Rented accommodation




Government quarters

8 (sub-let)



1 Room Accommodation




2 Room Accommodation




3 Room Accommodation




Cooking within room




Separate Kitchen




Cooking in the open




Self constructed toilet




Govt. constructed toilet




Govt. Constructed common toilet




Open defaecation




*Majority use kerosene for cooking. Some Private Agency workers also use leaves and twigs and a small numbers of BMC workers have gas cylinders.

* All have electricity connection

Indifference of BMC towards Private Agency workers is evidenced from the fact that of the BMC workers 27per cent live in kachcha houses, 18per cent have 1- room accommodation, 48 per cent have separate kitchen and 30per cent have access to government built toilets, whereas the corresponding figures for Private Agency workers are 48 per cent, 40 per cent, 24 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. Also, 59 per cent of the latter are compelled to go for open defecation against 30 per cent of the former.

Health and Hygiene

Common drinking water taps are available in all slums. Tubewells are used in some.

In general, sanitation worker settlements, especially the new ones are often in close proximity to dump-yards, have clogged drains or flooded access roads during rains. Garbage clearance is irregular.

All workers reported that their daily food pattern consisted of two meals and a tiffin. Consumption of preparation of chicken skin, chicken toes and innards is common along with rice and vegetables. Tiffin items like muri, bora etc. are bought from nearby shops. 

Household Assets

Some of the important household assets are shown in the Table 4.

Table 4: Household Assets


Private Agency (207)

BMC (93)










2/3 Wheeler



Plastic Furniture






TV, Mobile and bicycle seem to have become common household equipment, the former for entertainment and the others as supportive to their work. Similarly plastic furniture owned by more than 50 per cent in each group is no longer a luxury item but may be a status symbol. However, 2/3 wheelers and fridge ownership by 38 per cent and 30 per cent of BMC workers as compared to only 14per cent and 2.8 per cent by Private Agency workers surely indicates that privatization has weakened the economic base of the workers.

Access to Government Welfare Measures

Governments, Central and State offer a set of welfare measures mainly meant for the poor. This requires them to be registered under BPL category. Surprisingly only about 15 per cent are BPL card holders. As compared to this, 87 per cent have Voter Cards which is a political necessity, closely followed by more than 72 per cent with access to Aadhar card. A comparison between BMC Male workers who are relatively richest and Private Female Workers who are the poorest reveals that Ration card holders are 26 per cent and 22 per cent respectively. Evidently BPL card, Ration Card and related Food subsidies are provided on considerations beyond the level of poverty.

Access of Banking and Indebtedness

Maintaining an account in a bank is taken as an indicator of savings and regular indebtedness is an indicator of the inadequacy of income to meet essential needs. However, respondents were reluctant to provide monetary value of the above two items. Hence status had to be assessed indirectly. This is shown in Table 5.

Table 5: Access to Banking

Respondent Category

Total Respondents

Respondents with Bank Account

Unable to meet household expenses

Private Agency- Male


4 (7.02)

10 (17.5)

BMC- Male


18 (39.13)

2 (4.3)

Private Agency- Female


11 (7.3)

5 (3.3)

BMC- Female


38 (80.85)

0 (0)



71 (23.67)

23 (7.67)

Figures in parentheses indicate percentage

Among the four groups, BMC Females show the highest access to banking facilities. Further, Females in both BMC and Private Agencies are able to manage their household economy better than their male counterparts.

Most of the respondents borrow occasionally. Health is the most compulsive reason for borrowing. Other major reasons for borrowing include Funeral, House Building/ Repair, Marriage and New Business.


4.3 Employment Conditions

Remuneration Pattern

In BMC, Regular workers are paid between Rs 14000-Rs17000/month, Work Charger are paid between Rs 8000-Rs 14000/month, DLR are paid between Rs 4500/- Rs 8000/month and CLR are paid between Rs 100-Rs 300/day. All Private –Agency Workers are paid Rs 3000/month. Some workers are given an extra amount for taking up extra responsibilities. For example a sanitation worker who is employed as a photographer is paid Rs 4000/month.

The range of remuneration shown above does not represent a grade in salary structure. There is no salary rationalization for the safai karmacharis in Bhubaneswar. Depending on the time of appointment, urgency of appointment and local situation workers are given arbitrary salary. Therefore the range demonstrates this arbitrariness in absence of a rationalized pay scale structure.

Remuneration is paid in cash on a monthly basis. Wages are given in a regular manner without arbitrary deduction. A non working day is treated as a no wage day for all contractual workers (Private Agencies and BMC).

Social Security and Leave Rules

Usually cleaning operations are conducted in a single day shift of 6 hours. However, night cleaning is undertaken in specific cases like markets, VIP visits etc. Both male and females are employed for this purpose.

Overall, leave rules and employer provided social security provisions like maternity leave, provident fund and pension cover are applicable only to Permanent BMC workers (11.67per cent). However workers who have been regularized after 2002 are not eligible for pension as per wide ranging economic reforms across the country.

Leave rules including paid leave, casual leave and weekly holidays are applicable to Permanent and DLR workers of BMC (17.6 per cent). Contractual workers, both in BMC and Private Agencies are totally unprotected and have no social security or leave rules. In fact, Private Agency workers are even denied tiffin breaks. This reveals the extent of precariousness and the complete lack of social protection with reference to a large majority of the municipal safai karmacharis. 

Monitoring and Supervision

In BMC managed wards 1 Jamadar looks after 2 wards where on an average there are 47 Contractual and 20 Permanent Workers. In Private Agency managed wards there are 1 Co-ordinator/ ward, 3-4 Field Supervisors, each supervisor responsible for managing 12-14 workers each. In both systems all supervisors are Male.

Private Agencies have a relatively more stringent monitoring system than the BMC system key aspects of which include 2 layers of supervisors in place of one, a distributed monitoring system where supervisors are responsible for groups of 12-14 workers each and use of photographic evidence during attendance. Private Agencies achieve the same output with only 57 workers per ward as against the BMC system which needs 68 workers per ward. Recommendation of supervisors is essential for engaging new workers. They also have the sole discretionary power to give benefits like salary advance in case of need like sickness, family crisis etc which further strengthens their control.

Worksite Facilities

Although sanitation workers are constantly exposed to all kinds of injuries including cuts and bruises, joint pains, skin and nail infection etc. as shown in Table 6, there is no provision for first aid facilities.

Table 6: Health and Safety Hazards

Health Hazards

Persons most affected

Safety Hazards

Persons most affected

Dust and other Allergies


Accidents during loading and unloading operations

Loaders, Drivers

Cuts and Wounds


Dog Bite, rodent bites

All sanitation workers


Loaders, Drivers

Lewd comments and Stalking, mainly at night

Women workers

Foul Smell

Sweepers and Loaders



Fever due to Exposure




Muscular ailments

Loaders, Drivers



Workers are not provided any protective gear like gloves, boots, masks etc. Operations are non- mechanised and long handled brooms and shovels are the only implements in use.

There is no provision for drinking water and toilet facilities for them. Workers can use a public toilet only if there is one available close by and, use public standposts for drinking if available.

Discrimination and Harassment

Unlike popular belief that safai karmacharis are harassed and face public discrimination, the respondents revealed that general people give them the space and let them do their work without any disturbance; as cleaning is considered important for them. Women respondents clearly stated that sexual harassment is rare and supervisors help to manage such situations if the need arose.

Some cases of altercation with the public are reported, mainly if the cleaning is not proper or if dust and dirt from sweeping falls on the passerby or when sanitation workers try to collect water from common taps bypassing others. Supervisors are generally able to manage such situations.

Leadership and Unionisation

Currently, there are no organized unions of sanitation workers in Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation. Earlier there was an all male union which had tried to increase workers wages and put other demands before BMC. Former members revealed that a lack of effective leadership and differences between key members led to the eventual disintegration of the same.

At present, the leadership is vested with the supervisor as his support is critical for obtaining small favours like a salary advance, entry into employment, day shifts, access to government entitlements etc.


4.4 Economic Profile

Salary Pattern

Table 7 shows the monthly income pattern among the four categories of workers.

Table 7: Income of Respondents, Rs/month

Respondent Category

Average Income/ month, Rs.

Income Range /month, Rs.

Private Agency- Male



BMC- Male



Private Agency- Female



BMC- Female



There is no gender discrepancy in income amongst Private Agency employees as there is among BMC employees. The income level of Private Agency workers is less than 50 per cent of the BMC workers and appears to remain unchanged at Rs 3000/- for a very majority. It can be mentioned that the BMC pays @ Rs 150 /day as minimum wage as per regulations wheras those under Private Agencies are paid less.

Amongst contract labour employed by Private- Agencies there is no extra value in consideration of years of service. Therefore there is no career improvement opportunity or improvement in quality of life. The situation is similar for contractual workers working directly under BMC. This shows that all contractual labour whether under BMC (organised sector) or Private Agencies (unorganised sector) are severely exploited.

Family Income and Expenditure

Detailed income from various sources and expenditure on different heads were collected and analysed.In view of the wide dispersion amongst respondents, Tables 8 and 9 show the Mean value, Root Mean Square value, and Standard Deviation under 4 categories of workers.

Table 8 : Total Family Income, Rs/ month


Private Agency Female



Private Agency- Male
















Table 8: Total Family Expenditure, Rs/month


Private Agency- Female

BMC- Female

BMC – Male

Private Agency- Male
















In order to match the family income with expenditure, several members of the family work and pool their incomes. The distribution of earners is shown in Table 9.

Table 9: Source of Family Income  

Category of Sanitation Workers

Total Res.

Type of Employment

Total Earners



Non- Sanitation


Private Agency-Male


105 (88.98)

14 (11.9)


BMC- Male


78 (85.7)

13 (4.3)


Private Agency- Female


276 (84.67)

50 (15.33)


BMC- Female


102 (80.95

24 (19.05)




561 (84.87)

101 (15.28)


Figures in parentheses show percentages

The salary of a jobholder as a safai karmachari is inadequate to maintain even a small family within the city. Therefore to survive all of them require more than one earner per family.

The expenditure in each group is just matching income. Therefore there is very little chance of saving much. Therefore there seems very little chance of sanitation workers improving their quality of living at their present economic situation.

15.28 per cent of family members of sanitation workers are shifting to other occupations ( non- sanitation), like driving, sales, pathological testing, house-keeping in hotels, house help, wage labour and micro- enterprises on their own initiative.


5.0 Economic Risks of Sanitation Workers

Risks or hazards affect different aspects of people’s livelihoods. It affects whether people can maintain assets and endowments, how these assets are transformed into income via activities and how these incomes and earnings are translated into broader developmental outcomes, such as health and nutrition9. While risks can be classified in various ways, this paper focuses on the economic risks faced by sanitation workers. Simply put, economic risks are hazards or uncertainties that arise due to macroeconomic conditions such as changes in government policies and regulations and political stability amongst others.

Economic hazards faced by the sanitation workers can be classified into four interdependent categories.

Low wages

In general it is observed that the wages of sanitation workers is quite low. However, wages of Private Agency workers is even lower. A comparison shows that the income level of Private Agency workers is 50 per cent less than that of BMC workers. It appears to remain unchanged at Rs 3000/pm for a very majority, irrespective of years of service. In other words, the daily wages for these workers is Rs 100 per working day and 7 days working per week, which is below the Minimum Wage norm in Odisha. Moreover there is no increment. In comparison, the few who are employed contractually by BMC are paid Rs 4500/- pm. which is the Minimum Wage as per agriculture norms. However, examining this phenomenon further one finds a couple of contradictions. Though there is no similarity in the two kinds of employment, agricultural norms (for ploughing and non- ploughing operations) are applied to determine minimum wages for sanitation work in the urban area. Secondly, even if wages for BMC workers appear to adhere to the minimum wage norms, in reality there is a shortfall as explained in the following paragraph.

As per Odisha Gazette notification of Labour and ESI department dated 6 October 2012 No.8536─LL-I(AR)-2/12/LESI the minimum wages for employees of local authority ( No. 39 of Schedule of Employment) is the same as in the agricultural sector ie Rs 126 for non- ploughing and Rs 150 for ploughing operations. The notification clarifies that the daily minimum rate of wages is inclusive of wages payable for the weekly day of rest and is applicable to employees employed by contractors. In other words, the law stipulates that the minimum wage for these workers is Rs 1050 for 6 days of work and 1 weekly holiday.

This means that minimum wages calculated on the basis of days of work is (1050/6) Rs 175. Evidently Private Agency workers are being paid 75 per cent less than what is stipulated by the law. While BMC appears to have adhered to the Minimum Wage, they have also ignored the provision of 1 rest day for 6 working days. This translates to a wage which is 16.7 per cent less than stipulated.

Insecure Employment

Present government policy favours privatization of all including municipal services with concomitant reduction of its own responsibilities and expenditure.

The study found that BMC started reducing direct employment of sanitation workers 15 years ago and completely stopped direct recruitment 5 years back. At present 86 per cent of the sanitation workforce in Bhubaneswar is contractual. BMC itself employs 54.8 per cent on contract whereas all Private Agency employees are employed on contractual terms.

Earlier, under BMC control it was possible to convert temporary employment into permanent employment with certain years of work experience, thereby giving a career path to workers. This is reflected in the present salary range for BMC employees which extends from Rs 4000 to Rs 17000 pm. On the other hand Private Agency workers are offered a flat salary of Rs 3000 pm with marginal increment upto Rs 3300 pm.

All contracts are ‘verbal’ and without any paperwork. This increases the vulnerability of workers as there is no way to prove the status of their employment or to demand their rights.

Thus, in the wider perspective of privatization, BMC not only appears to be washing off its financial and management responsibilities but is showing total indifference to protecting the interests of the workers. Although the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act 1986 2, specifically stipulates that the contract agreement must lay down conditions like hours of work, fixation of wages, other essential amenities in respect to contract labour these are not adhered to.

Thus, there is a vacuum on the regulatory front with government giving a free hand to Private Agencies to set the terms of employment without any attempt to monitor or control them.

Absence of Workers Collective

Prior to year 2000 sanitation workers in the city had a union to represent their interests. This is reported to have become dysfunctional due to infighting amongst the leaders. Even now they have not been able to form a collective to voice their concerns.

In place of providing an organisational protection to workers under privatization, a strong supervisory system (1 supervisor for 12-15 workers) has been brought in. The recommendation of supervisors is essential for engaging new workers. They also have the sole discretionary power to give benefits like salary advance in case of need like sickness, family crisis etc. In this process, as far as the sanitation workers are concerned, they are divided into small groups and scattered under different employers.

The restructuring of management and worker relations in the new situation has effectively transferred the power of managing workers from the employers onto their supervisors. However, by placing the responsibility of recruitment, performance assessment and worker welfare in the same hands this system has considerably weakened the bargaining position of the workers while disproportionately strengthening that of the supervisors.

All the workers belong to SC caste traditionally engaged in cleaning and have poor education and no other skill. These are obstructions to their moving into other forms of occupation, which renders them effectively captive to this employment despite all the negativities including insecure employment.

Absence of Social Security Measures

The policy of BMC to privatize sanitation services does not appear to have taken into account existing social security laws for workers as part of the contract agreement.

89 per cent of sanitation workers in Bhubaneswar do not have access to Maternity Leave, Provident Fund or Pension. Contract workers are the worst off amongst the lot. No contract worker, whether under BMC or Private Agencies even has weekly rest days. A policy of ‘no work no pay’ is vigorously followed, although the causes of absenteeism maybe beyond the control of worker including natural hazards, political turmoil, personal illness etc. Contract workers in BMC enjoy at least 30 minutes lunch break. Even this is not available to Private Contract workers.

Sanitation workers are constantly handling waste materials which contain biological, mechanical and chemical materials which are detrimental to their health and safety. Yet, there is no mechanism to prevent these hazards or to protect the life and health of the workers. There is no provision for health check-ups, subsidized medical facilities or medical insurance for the workers either. Workers are not registered under mainstream ESI scheme nor do they access any private health insurance scheme. The Rashtriya Swasthya BimaYojana is a national insurance scheme meant especially for workers unreached by other systems of health insurance which offers an annual Rs 30,000/- worth of insurance against hospitalization on a family floater basis. However, even this benefit has not been extended to these workers.

Important labour welfare legislations applicable to these workers like Employees Compensation Act, 1923, Employment State Insurance Act, 1948, Employees Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952 and Maternity Benefits Act, 1951 are not adhered to in case of contractual workers employed under Private Agencies and BMC.


6.0 Coping Strategies for Balancing Income- Expenditure

Coping strategies are the assets, entitlements and capacities that individuals, households and communities can mobilise and manage in the face of hardship10. Highlighting coping does not mean that people are able to overcome their insecurities but it is important to bring out the ways in which people manage to survive and their resilience.

Pooling Incomes of several earners

Table 9 shows that there are 2.2 earners per family on an average with a maximum of 2.68 earners for BMC female families and a minimum of 1.98 for BMC- Male families. In this process the average number of dependents, including self for each earner is reduced to 2.14 which is less than the national figure of 3 dependents per earning member

Family income increases as number of earners increase in a family. Thus pooling of multiple incomes is the mechanism used to meet living expenses in a sanitation worker household. Also, supplementary income or additional income plays a very important part in meeting household essential needs especially in case of the Private Agency employees where it makes up the major share (60 per cent)of the family income. In the case of BMC workers where income is much higher, proportion of supplementary income in family income tends to reduce but is still important to improve living standard of a household.

Shifting Family Member into Alternate Occupations

15.28 per cent earners from respondent families have moved into other professions and micro-enterprises on their own. 19.05 per cent of these belong to BMC Female families and only 13 (4.3 per cent) belong to BMC Male families. Although National Safai Karmachari Finance Development Corporation and its corresponding State Channelizing Agencies offer interest subsidy on loan under 8 different categories to promote self – employment amongst sanitation workers and their dependents, families of the respondents have not received any support for self-employment. State Employment Mission and Urban Development Department are implementing various skill development programmes, but the respondent group is not accessing any of these benefits.


Although the families have developed coping power and strategy to overcome their regular economic backwardness, they cannot cope with emergencies. Most sanitation workers in all four respondent categories borrow occasionally from their relatives and friends to meet large expenditure for various reasons like ill-health, funeral, marriage, new business etc. This reveals a strong community bondage where the victims of deprivation extend helping hands to each other for the survival of the community.

Several urban low-income group earners have come together as self-help groups to meet both livelihood as well as emergency needs. This microfinance system is built with their own savings. Financial Institutions have also clear policy regarding promotion and support for these groups. For the sanitation workers of Bhubaneswar such organisations have not built up. The rigid and hard working life and their own ignorance are probably the key factors deterrent to such group formation.


7.0 Emerging Economic Vulnerability

Vulnerability refers to defenselessness and insecurity due to exposure to risks, shocks and stress. It is a result of the degree of exposure to risk and the capacity of households or individuals to prevent, mitigate or cope with stress. Vulnerability analysis not only involves identifying the risk

but also the resilience in resisting or recovering from the negative effects of a changing environment 10.

Based on the above discussion the following vulnerabilities can be delineated with reference to the sanitation workers:

According to the ILO11 decent work involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families and, increases workers’ chances of individual development and social mainstreaming.  Decent work   creates enabling conditions for workers to express their needs, and take an active role in making decisions that affect them.

The study highlights privatization does not necessarily support the concept of decent work. For those at the bottom of the pyramid it often creates conditions which are inimical to the promotion of decent work indicators.

Intended to bring higher profits and ensure worker discipline, the contract system under private agencies lends itself to full-scale exploitation of workers, which is particularly draconian for communities at the bottom of the pyramid like those of the sanitation workers.

Government in the guise of ensuring higher productivity and efficiency turns the other way and appears to have given a free hand to private entrepreneurs without ensuring a fair regulatory environment to protect the workers and their interests.

However, one must record that as far as sanitation workers in cities are concerned, urbanization leads to definite reduction in the level of stigmatization along with improvements in the social image of this community. This impacts their aspiration levels and improves self- confidence, which in turn strengthens their coping power. Keeping this in view one can think of a diverse and wider set of measures to combat vulnerability.


8.0 Recommendations

Low wages, denial of decent working conditions and precarious employment of the sanitation workers are remnants of their historical isolation, subjugation and systematic dispossession by society. It is now time to repay this historical debt by bringing dignity to the profession and those involved in it.

This can be done in 3 ways i.e. by improving sanitation workers’ own image of themselves, and by easing access to state provided social protection and professionalizing their occupation.

Improve Self Image

A positive view of self is a key to building confidence, self- esteem and self- pride. Education, skill improvement and alternate employment are key elements of this process.

Educational efforts for this educationally weak community must focus both on children and adult learners. For the children, it is necessary to focus on improving the schooling experience of many of these first time learners, such that they are able to complete their matriculation. On the other hand, adult learning needs to be situated in the context of alternate livelihood planning.

The ‘unclean’ public perception of sanitation workers associated with their dismal living conditions and stigmatized occupation needs to be overcome. This can be achieved through improving their housing conditions such that these are not only cleaner but visibly better and different than those in the surrounding areas.

Improve Access to State Assistance

As sanitation workers come from one of the most economically and socially deprived groups they are eligible for a range of state provided welfare benefits. However, access to them is presently hindered by several procedural issues, which need to be simplified.

Providing all sanitation workers with a Job Card as proof of employment and work identity, and treating this as the single document necessary for gaining access to all relevant welfare schemes can substantially reduce the time period for processing applications.

The State and its agencies must be held accountable for the coverage of disbursement made to existing sanitation workers under various schemes and their outcomes, rather than monitoring only the amount of allocation. For this strong monitoring and grievance redressal mechanisms must be put in place by the state.

Professionalize the Occupation

Professionalization is the only way to transform sanitation from a menial occupation to a modern service which is delinked from its historical caste connotation. Public recognition of the task of cleaning as responsible skilled work provides the necessary first step. Increasing minimum wage of sanitation workers from that of unskilled agricultural labour to that of skilled urban masons or plumbers can ensure this. Bringing all sanitation workers under comprehensive provisions of Factories Act, 1948 is also another step in this direction.

Mechanization of the process of manual garbage collection with the use of modern tools and implements adds dignity to sanitation work. Technical education, training and compulsory use of of protective gear induce pride and dignity in any profession.



Notes and References

  1. Nandini Basu ( Sen) , Social Protection for Informal Workers: A Study of Sanitation Workers in Bhubaneswar City, PhD thesis, unpublished, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar 2016
  2. Dana Rodrik, Globalization and Labour, Or: if Globalisation is a bowl of cherries, why are there so many glum faces around the table? In R.E. Baldwin and D. Cohen. (Eds.) Market Integration, Regionalism and the Global Economy, New York: Cambridge University Press for CEPR, 1999
  3. Martha Chen, The Informal Economy: Definitions, Theories and Policies, WEIGO Working Paper 1, Cambridge: Massachusetts, USA, 2012
  4. International Labour Organization , Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture, second edition, Geneva: ILO, 2013
  5. Srija and Shrinivas Vijay Shirke, An Analysis of the Informal Labour Market in India, Economy Matters, Special Feature, 2014, pp. 40-46.
  6. Government of India, Report of Sub Group on Safai Karmacharis submitted to Chairman of Working Group on the “Empowerment of Scheduled Castes (SCs)” for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan, (2007-2012), 2006
  7. Government of India, The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis Act, 1993, act no. 64 of 1993, cent20Nationalper cent20Commissionper cent20forper cent20Safaiper cent20Karamcharisper cent20Act,per cent201993.pdf accessed on 12 September 2017
  8. Government of India, The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013
  9. Stefan Dercon, “Risk, Vulnerability and Poverty in Africa”, Journal of African Economies, vol. 14, issue 4, 2005, pp. 483-488.
  10. Caroline Moser, Andrew Norton, Alfredo Stein and Sophia Georgieva Pro Poor Adaptation to Climate Change in Urban Centres: Case Studies of Vulnerability and Resilience in Kenya and Nicaragua, Social Development Department Report No. 54947-GLB, June 2010, Washington: The World Bank
  11. Dharam Ghai, Decent Work- Concept, Models and Indicators, Discussion Paper- DP/139/2002, International Institute of Labour Studies, Education and Outreach Programme, Geneva: ILO, 2002


Dr. Nandini Sen
Social Work Programme Co-ordinator, St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata