by G. Mathi Vathanan, Durgesh Nandini Sahoo and Rashmita Patel, Housing & Urban Development Department (H&UDD), State of Odisha, IndiaDownload story
India is home to over five million sanitation workers who form the backbone of its sanitation systems. In a labour-driven field, they work in unsafe conditions having to deal with human faeces. It is disheartening to see that despite their seminal contribution to the society, this community has been subjected for ages to the worst forms of discrimination attributable to multiple vulnerabilities, such as poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, disease and exploitation. The social stigma associated with their occupation has traditionally pushed them to the lowest rung of the social pyramid making their life and living difficult and thoroughly compromised. It is an irony that generation after generation, they continue to serve us and suffer in order that we may live.
Manual scavenging has been a stark example of discrimination in the name of caste, practised in India, relegating the less privileged to perform sanitation work handling human faecal matter. Despite the Nation making several strides in various sectors and competing with the best in the world, these underprivileged people were made to render this invaluable service to the society for generations, and deprived of safety, dignity and a decent livelihood, as well as from suffering social stigma and exclusion.
Odisha, as the pioneer in many areas of development, is the first state in India to recognize the problems of the sanitation workers dealing with human faecal matter and has concretized a comprehensive plan of action to address their safety by ushering in a policy of zero tolerance to deaths among the sanitation workers. The story of Babuli Naik exemplifies the transformation the state policy has brought about in his life.
Babuli Naik, a Core Sanitation Worker (CSW) in Bhubaneswar, was like any other such worker whose days were spent in dangerous, dark, filthy ditches and sewers from dawn to dusk. The locals identified him by his filthy attire, cleaning tools on his shoulder and his dishevelled look. A pushover with an intense hunger for survival, he epitomized the typical worker struggling to eke out a living and was destined to live a life of penury, hardship, deprivation and disease in a dingy corner on the outskirts of the city.
In recent years, the state is advancing on multiple fronts on a scale far wider and deeper than originally planned thanks to accurate diagnosis of problems, appropriate policy orientation and a carefully structured collection of programmes aimed at not just inclusive and sustainable growth but more importantly dismantling the pernicious hold of societal mores which symbolize inequity and untouchability. The Government of Odisha approached the problem by acknowledging the contribution of people like Babuli to the society, prioritized their need for safety and security, and reached out with targeted intervention by implementing a dedicated scheme, namely ‘Garima’.
The ripple of revolution was in the form of Garima, a path-breaking government initiative, designed to empower CSWs. The scheme, designed to empower the CSWs, has already hogged national headlines, attracting policy makers across the nation. No wonder, Babuli has left behind his bitter past, become financially sound, decently attired and working as a modern CSW. A positive outcome of this drive that gives hope is the change in his attitude to cleanliness as a common good.