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The Colours of Skilling India’s Sanitation Workforce

Anshuman Karol writes about the challenge of skilling sanitation workers in India. The stark reality is that with the current pace of Swachh Bharat Mission and ideas for decentralised septage management in cities, we will need 5.2 million sanitation workers in the near future. Creating Green Jobs is one effort in Skill India efforts, to ensure safe sanitation practices in municipalities. Will this effort bear fruit for all sanitation workers, who make up the bulk of municipal workers? Are we ready to take on the collective responsibility of ensuring that they will all get “green jobs”? 

Efforts to skill India is not new. It has been part of India’s policy interventions over the past six decades. What is new is the focused emphasis, with the setting up of National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC) in 2009 and a National Policy on Skill Development and Entrepreneurship in 2015. Skilling India has become the new mantra.

The National Policy on Skill Development estimates that 109.73 million additional skilled workforce will be required by 2022 across 24 key sectors identified by NSDC. NSDC has come up with the portfolio of 2000 plus job roles categorised under 39 sector skill councils. One such skill council is Green Jobs. It focuses on skills in waste management, renewable energy, green transportation, which are directly related to the environment. A major target of Green Jobs is to ensure safe sanitation practices in urban local bodies, commonly called municipalities. It is sanitation workers who will then need to be skilled to perform safe sanitation practices.

Majority of sanitation workers in India perform “yellow” and “black” jobs. Manual scavenging is a “yellow” job, and “black” jobs are done by those workers who clean our cities’ drains manually. Will they get to ride this dream of “green jobs”, especially when skilling sanitation workforce is not a priority at the municipality level?

The exclusion is deeper than the lack of prioritisation of skilling sanitation workers. Do we have data on the number of sanitation workers across the country who perform “yellow” or “black” jobs, and need to be skilled for “green”, safer livelihood options, either as a sanitation worker or in an alternative job? No one has the answer, not even municipalities. Media reports suggest there are still 1.2 million people engaged in yellow jobs, and out of these 90% are women.

One may think that the numbers can be counted through those employed in different service arrangements by the municipality. There are various permutations and combinations which give employment to sanitation workers. The first, and most sought after of course, is a regular job -- those who are on the payrolls of the municipality and get all the benefits as other employees. The second is contractual or ad-hoc sanitation workers -- they are on the payroll of the municipality too but their service conditions are different from regular employees. This makes them vulnerable in terms of their entitlements and job security. Both these categories should be easy enough to count, since they are on the payroll of the municipality? Will the number be accurate? We are familiar with the stories of “ghost workers” in municipalities. MCD recently admitted that it has 22,000 ghost workers!
Regular and ad-hoc categories of sanitation workers are attached to workers unions; their rights are somewhat secured by unions as pressure groups. The union membership records too can be a source from which to count the sanitation workforce?

The third category of contractual daily wagers is attached to a contractor (private, or NGOs), to whom the municipality has outsourced the sanitation work. These workers are highly vulnerable in terms of their service conditions. They can be counted by asking the contractor to provide employment records. How can we be sure that these contractors are keeping correct records? These contractors also hire workers on demand, on a daily basis, as and when required. Do they keep records of such workers?

There is yet another category -- the sublet worker, someone to whom a regular or ad-hoc municipal sanitation worker has sublet his/her job. Being illegal, they have no service conditions, work for below minimum wage, barely eke out a living, and remain uncounted.

If there are so many categories of sanitation workers, all keeping our cities clean, many employed to perform the “yellow and black” jobs, how will the municipality count the actual number of sanitation workers in a city? And if the municipality has the capacity and is smart enough to figure out this number, how will it ensure that the right people get skilled in “green” jobs? How will they ensure the inclusion of genders and castes in those who are chosen to be skilled?

Targeted awareness generation and information dissemination of available skilling opportunities among those who are doing these “dirty jobs” can lead to individuals making an informed choice of upskilling themselves and getting linked to opportunities for enhanced, “green” livelihood options. But, who is going to do this? Sustained awareness generation is complex and time consuming. Does the municipality have the skills, capacities and resources to do this? Are NSDC and skilling centres ready to take up this pre-skilling process? Can sanitation workers unions be persuaded to take on this responsibility? Is civil society -- RWAs, traders associations, associations like Lions Club and Rotary Club, and students -- ready to facilitate this process and commit to bringing this change?

The stark reality is that with the current pace of Swachh Bharat Mission and ideas for decentralised septage management in cities, we will need 5.2 million sanitation workers in the near future. Are we ready to take on the collective responsibility of ensuring that they will all get “green jobs”? Or will it turn into a nightmare of “yellow and black” jobs?



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