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For thirty years, one organisation has empowered manual sanitation workers to end manual sanitation

Dr Smita Singh, CEO, Kam Foundation

Every five days in India, one manual sanitation worker loses their life while at work. For the past two decades, the Kam Foundation has been working to bring this statistic down to zero.

It works to end the dehumanising practice of manual septic tank and sewer cleaning, carried out by daily wage earners and unregistered workers of a particular community, engaged by private establishments to whom municipal sanitation services are not available. In this interview, Dr Smita Singh, CEO, Kam Foundation, explains the delay in achieving universal mechanised sewer cleaning, how they upskill safai karamcharis and the business model of the Joint Liability Group for mechanised sewer/tank cleaning, which puts sanitation workers at the heart of the process.

What are the most important reasons for the mechanised cleaning of sewers not being a universal practice?

Sewer cleaning in public areas is the direct responsibility of the urban local body (ULB). The ULBs are gradually moving towards mechanisation; the primary constraint is funding and therefore, the process is slow but steady.

Sewer cleaning in non-public areas such as gated communities and private bungalows/societies is carried out by the informal sector, where the majority of this service is provided by manual sanitation workers who often do not have the resources to opt for mechanisation. Thus, they carry out this job manually, often risking their life and dignity.

How do you convince urban local bodies to move towards mechanised sewer cleaning?

Gone are the days where they needed any further convincing. They are adequately aware of their obligations to do so as the government has multiple mandates demanding the same. This is often not done at the required speed due to non-availability of adequate funding or lack of competence to avail of the various funds provided by the government.

Do you work with urban local bodies to train their safai karamcharis? What does this work involve?

A majority of our work is with ULBs. Our training includes:

Training of officers and supervisors about their roles and responsibility with reference to the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Rehabilitation Act 2013, which explicitly makes the official liable for prosecution in the event of the death of a sanitation worker while at work.

We also train and upskill sanitation workers and other safai karamcharis through our unique 4P module (Perception, Protection, Prohibition and Profession). Our modules include mechanised sewer and septic tank cleaning, solid waste management, desludging, mechanised and safe toilet cleaning practices, safe sanitation and personal hygiene and wastewater treatment.

What are the Joint Liability Groups formed by Kam Foundation?

A Joint Liability Group (JLG) is similar to a Self Help Group but for the urban poor. We select unorganised daily wage manual scavengers and create a Joint Liability Group as per the guidelines for the rehabilitation of the urban poor and ensure all legal compliances with prior permission of the ULB.

We provide the JLG with the required machine through CSR funding and create a sustainable and scalable entrepreneurship model by acting as a handholding agency/resource organisation (RO). The operation and maintenance of the enterprise, to ensure a surplus of income over expenditure, is done by the JLG. The RO is to be remunerated at the rate of 20% of the JLG’s revenue once break-even point is achieved.

We have successful pilot projects running at five locations in Maharashtra: Bhiwandi, Pune, Pimpri- Chinchwad, Baramati and Badlapur.

In rural India, septic tanks are outside the purview of ULBs. How does Kam Foundation plan to reach out to those who are forced to manually cleaned septic tanks in far-flung areas?

We are currently focussed on Maharashtra. We now hope to present our success stories to prospective CSR donors and expand our footprint further. We are also presenting the success of this model to other government nodal agencies for their funding and adoption of the scheme.

How would you quantify the successful impact of your work over the past two decades?

As an organisation, we have done more than 35,000 man hours of training on different job roles in different parts of India. We have conducted extensive training for sanitation workers and safai karmcharis:

  • Use of PPEs while doing their work, resulting in reduced accidents/visits to doctors, leading to more economic stability.
  • Changing perceptions of our sanitation workers towards their own occupation, to do the job as any other maintenance professional.
  • Awareness about the importance of rules and regulations, making officials and sanitation workers aware about their rights and duties.
  • Importance of mechanisation and machines for sewer and septic tank cleaning, bringing pride and dignity to the job.
  • Creation of livelihood for the unorganised sanitation workers through Joint Liability Groups and providing them with septic tank cleaning machines to clean tanks in and around city areas. The workers engaged in JLGs have gone from being daily wage earners to now being joint owners of a septic tank cleaning machine, and earning a honorarium of ₹22,000/per month + Mediclaim + Accident Insurance + PPE, thereby leveraging their unique competency.
  • Adoption of 10 women sanitation workers for their complete transformation through training and upskilling on waste management, providing them with PPEs with replenishments, medical insurance, daily medical care through medical cards in consultation with the local hospital, menstrual hygiene kits and linking them with the various government schemes.
  • Training on wastewater treatment and placement for BSc and MSc students of two colleges in Pune and Nagpur (batch of 30 students each). 20 students have been placed so far in reputable companies for wastewater treatment.
  • Training on wastewater treatment for STPs of Pune and Uttarakhand: Training and upskilling of engineers/operators and helpers (Over a 1,000) on practices and safety to bridge the gap of the skilled workforce.

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