The invisible environment ‘Wallahs’ of India

Safai Saathis (Sanitary Workers) - UNDP

At the very foundation of the country’s waste management system, India’s four million Safai Saathis (sanitary workers) are engaged in the segregation of tonnes of hazardous plastic waste stuffed in landfills so that it can be sent for recycling.

COVID has added to the concerns related to the disposal of around 15 million tons of plastic waste generated in India, as only one fourth of it is recycled. The situation puts enormous burdens on essential workers, Safai Saathis both physically and psychologically as they are the ones who are most vulnerable to infection.

It is a very sorry state of affairs that despite their arduous work which gave us the assurance that we can live in the hygienic and sustainable ecosystem even  in these demanding times,  in some quarters these safai saathi, mostly women are faced with discrimination due to the humble nature of their work, and their socio-economic status.

Many scrap dealers are afraid of possible exposure to COVID-19 through waste, so it is a challenging task for them to find buyers for the segregated waste. Sometimes a very low price is paid.  The waste which we get is often mixed with used masks, gloves, etc. This increases the risk of exposure to the virus. People don’t separate plastic waste from other wastes. Every little thing people do when disposing of waste can help someone in the process.
Representatives from The Embassy of Japan, Corporation of The City of Panjim, Goa, HDFC Bank and UNDP at the launch of the facilitation center in Goa. Photo: UNDP India

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has been working with the local governments and Embassies to lower the risk of the Safai Sathis. In response to the pandemic UNDP has launched Utthaan, which means ‘rise with resilience’. Since October last year the initiative has helped 9,000 Safai Saathis get national ID cards, which in turn makes them eligible for the government’s financial inclusion and social security. In March 2021, UNDP launched the first-ever Social Protection Facilitation Centre in Goa with the support of The Embassy of Japan, Corporation of The City of Panjim, Goa and HDFC Bank.

Apart from this Safai Sathi played a critical role in the partnership project of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, Hindustan Unilever Limited, HDFC Bank & Coca Cola India Foundation to reduce the impact of plastic waste in India. The alliance promotes collection, sorting, and recycling of all kinds of plastics with the objective of a ‘circular’ economy, where instead of just being thrown away, plastic is used more than once.

Pandemic has made it necessary to reevaluate the definition of ‘essential’ worker. Safai Saathis contribute to local economies, public health, and environmental sustainability. But the nature of their work and dismal living conditions make their state ever so precarious.

Cover Image by UNDP

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