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'Connect' with Their Rotting Back Yards

Forty-two years ago, a certain day was established as the day to celebrate the air we breathe, the earth we borrow to grow our crops, the water we drink, and the ecosystem we thrive in. 5th of June was crowned as World Environment Day back in 1974 and is meant to be the vanguard of the United Nations in raising awareness on current and emerging environmental issues. The day is celebrated each year with changing themes, ranging from global warming, green economy advocacy, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, saving endangered species and more. This year, the theme is ‘Connecting people to nature – in the city and on the land, from the poles to the equator’. A wonderful idea, which encourages us to protect our environment and unite for inclusive, sustainable development. But on this day, I can’t help but wonder how impossible the idea would sound to the sanitation workers I met a few weeks ago in Jhansi. 

Imagine waking up, putting on your slippers, brushing your teeth and going out to your front yard for some fresh air. Now imagine taking that long breath of air and smelling burnt garbage, animal and human excreta, with the sound of flies buzzing around you. Imagine that yard is an open naala with piles of faeces, plastics and polythene, with slugs and other insects.

This is not imagination for the thousands of sanitation workers living across Jhansi, a city in Uttar Pradesh (and in other small towns of India). Sanitation workers (waste pickers, scrap collectors, e-waste pickers, manual scavengers and many others) live, work and eke a survival in de-humanising conditions, cleaning our city one scrap or septic tank at a time. We enjoy our clean cities, while falling short of honouring the basic needs of our sanitation workers. The abysmal and unprotected working conditions of such workers also reflect a grave matter of identity politics which de-politicizes their bodies while ignoring their rights as workers as well as citizens.

Of all the problematics associated with the interventions to find sanitation solutions, the persistent elephant in the room that most projects, methodologies and strategies ignore is the need to humanise sanitation workers. That said, there are various organisations (such as KKPKP or Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, SWaCH Seva Sahakari Sanstha Maryadit, and Chintan) who engage in interventions to ameliorate the living conditions of sanitation works. Academicians and researchers work to bring out their problematics, debating the value of e-waste and its handling by sanitation workers. 80% of what is taken apart by e-waste pickers with their bare hands is reused in creation of new equipment. In a capitalist economy like ours, waste is one side of the coin and value is the other. In such a system, sanitation workers become the ‘bodies of accumulation’ of such waste (or value).

The ‘personal’ of sanitation worker is also the ‘political’ and their stories need to be told. We at PRIA are undertaking an action study on sanitation workers in three cities (Ajmer, Jhansi and Muzaffarpur) where we will focus on the lives of sanitation workers, their occupational health, the city networks or ‘pyramids’ of waste they work in, issues of education, gender, sexual harassment, personal hygiene, mental and emotional being, child labour, and more. Our aim is to humanise them and their existence, not only through numbers and legal documents but through life narratives, reaching a wider audience than just organs of our government. It is essential for us, as a participatory research organisation, to work towards finding and incorporating nuances in strategies that value the contribution of sanitation workers in resolving India’s sanitation challenge.

On this World Environment Day, let us ‘connect’ with those who enable us to enjoy nature in our cities, despite living themselves in rotting back yards.

This blog post is authored by Nilanjana Bhattacharjee, Programme Officer at PRIA, working with the Engaged Citizens, Responsive City project.

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