Creating a Life of Dignity for the Safai Sathis of India

March 8, 2022

By Shoko Noda, Resident Representative, UNDP India

Waste pickers play an important role in keeping our environment clean. We need to ensure their social protection and create opportunities for safe, sustainable, and dignified livelihoods.

Shoko with Safai Sathis at Swachhta Kendra in Goa. Photo: UNDP India/Raja Mani

I still remember meeting 52-year-old Ratnamala in Mumbai, a waste-picker, who scrapes a living out of the garbage we throw away. Ratnamala told me she had been doing this work for 40 years, but could barely make ends meet and support her four children. Her meagre savings and feeble access to the government social safety net have left her highly vulnerable to emergencies and disasters. 

Marginalised, and at the very bottom of the socio-economic chain, Ratnamala faces the same questions everyday: how to break out of this trap and move up? How to extricate her children from the same? How to create a life of dignity for herself and her children?

It is estimated that India generates 65 million tonnes of waste each year and is home to more than 4 million waste pickers like Ratnamala. Predominantly women, this army of waste pickers or Safai Sathis is the backbone of traditional waste management in most Indian cities. 

Despite this, Safai Saathis have not found their legitimate space in India’s development discourse. When the government announced measures during the pandemic to support frontline workers, the waste picker community remained conspicuous by its absence. This is particularly disheartening as they continue to collect and sort through rising mounds of potentially dangerous waste including  masks, hazmat suits, and plastic face shields.

Their multiple vulnerabilities including low and uncertain incomes, limited access to government schemes, high health risks, and severe social exclusion have all been exacerbated by Covid-19.

What do the numbers say?

In line with our mandate to ensure that no one is left behind, UNDP India works with Safai Sathis through our Plastic Waste Management programme. However, when we began in 2018, we were struck by the paucity of data on this community. How was anyone going to devise programmes and policies to support Safai Sathis if official data say so little?

This led us to design and publish India's first large-scale analysis of the socio-economic conditions of Safai Sathis, based on a survey of over 9,000 workers across 14 Indian cities. Our findings underline an urgent need to extend multifaceted support to these workers.

Our survey shows that Safai Sathis are employed mainly on the margins of the urban informal sector. Their low incomes and job security is compounded by the fact that nearly 70% came from socially backward groups and over 60% had no formal education.

More than 90% workers reported owning an Aadhar card – in line with broad national trends - but only a tiny subset owned an income, caste, or occupation certificate. This thwarts any attempts at formalising their work and limits their access to government social security schemes. Less than 5% of those surveyed had any health insurance, indicating very high degrees of health-shock vulnerabilities.

Of those Safai Sathis who had a bank account, only 20% were linked to the Jan Dhan Yojana – the government’s flagship financial inclusion programme. Half of the sample reported owning and using a ration card and this proportion was even smaller in cities where migrants formed a larger share among surveyed workers. With its focus on portability, the government’s One Nation One Ration Card scheme has the potential to play a transformative role in ensuring access to subsidised food grains for these workers.

Policy Priorities

As India progresses towards meeting the 2030 Agenda, our study makes a compelling case to intensify efforts to address the challenges faced by Safai Sathis. Its evidence-backed insights have the potential to inform government policy and action – including the government’s ambition to bring informal workers under the Swachh Bharat Mission, and the e-SHRAM initiative that links workers to the state funded health insurance.

An important starting point is the registration of Safai Sathis by urban local bodies, and providing ID cards that recognise them as municipal workers with a clear role. Ensuring minimum pay and enabling their authorized access to waste are essential next steps.

The overall policy agenda for Safai Sathis must include a firm focus on building resilience against shocks, expanding access to social protection, and creating opportunities to graduate towards safe, sustainable, and dignified livelihoods.

First, diversified solid waste management-linked livelihoods like dry waste centre managers and machine operators can broaden employment horizons for these workers. Waste-pickers’ cooperatives can strengthen Safai Sathis’ collective bargaining power enabling higher prices for what they collect.

Second, a welfare framework to design social protection schemes explicitly for Safai Sathis should be a policy priority. Proactively reaching out to the workers for enrolment in government schemes, minimising paperwork, and a greater awareness among Safai Sathis about their entitlements are essential to linking them to government programs.

In the medium term, there is a clear need to create better, safer, decent jobs in the economy that informal workers like Safai Sathis can eventually move to, supported by efforts to enhance their skills.

Finally, as India makes determined strides towards realising the Sustainable Development Goals, it must look at exploring alternate, technology-led Circular Economy models that eliminate the need for any person to do this hazardous work manually. Ratnamala and her children deserve to break away from this cycle and have a chance to a life with better opportunities and a life of dignity.

The author is the UNDP Resident Representative in India. The article was originally published in The Indian Express.