Safai Saathis — the invisible environmentalists

Rihana Bibi collects and segregates waste in Cuttack, in the Indian state of Odisha.

Every day she travels three kilometres to reach the Swachhta Kendra, facilities where waste is collected and separated before it’s sent for recycling.

She’s one of India’s four million Safai Saathis, who form the backbone of the country’s waste management system.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought extra difficulties for her. At first she couldn’t earn any money at all because as an informal worker, she didn’t have a valid identity card. When she did go back to work there was the extra danger to contend with.

“When the work finally resumed, I was always under the fear that I would be the one to be infected next. I was worried for my family because the waste we got was all mixed with used masks, gloves, PPE kits, and other hazardous waste,” she says.

India generates 15 million tons of plastic waste every year but only one fourth of it is recycled. This leads to burdens on the landfills and doesn’t provide essential workers such Safai Saathis, who are mostly women, with safety equipment or social security. This is on top of the discrimination they face due to the humble nature of their work, and their socio-economic status.

Yet COVID-19 has forced a reevaluation of the definition of ‘essential’ worker. Safai Saathis contribute to local economies, public health, and environmental sustainability. But the nature of their work and their poor living conditions has meant they face the highest risk of infection.

Jaswinder Singh says they had to segregate waste which was mixed with COVID-19 and other medical waste such as gloves, masks and personal protective equipment.

“This was very upsetting. Scrap dealers were afraid of possible exposure to COVID-19 through waste, so we also did not get buyers for the segregated waste. Sometimes very low price was paid,” he says.

Kanchan Nessa has been working as a Safai Saathi for more than a decade. She separates plastic waste at Swachhta Kendra in Ghaziabad.

“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 waste can help someone in the process,” she says.

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.

It has been a boon to people such as Abdul Kuddus, who couldn’t work at the Swachhta Kendra because he didn’t have an ID card. This had left his family in a precarious situation.

“I am the only breadwinner in my family, and, without an income, I feared my family would go hungry. Our work is still not considered as an essential service.,” he says.

Vanita Danke, a single mother of three, was unable to take advantage of the food grain subsidies and distribution to informal workers because she did not have a valid government identity card. Through Utthaan, she has been able to enroll herself in Aadhar card programme, to be eligible for government health, education, and financial benefits.

The Plastic Waste Management Programme, in partnership with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and corporations such as Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, Hindustan Unilever Limited, HDFC Bank & Coca Cola India Foundation is reducing the impact of plastic waste in India. It promotes collection, separation, and recycling of all kinds of plastics, and it aims to create a ‘circular’ economy, where instead of just being thrown away, plastic is used more than once. Safai Saathis are critical to this partnership.

In March 2021, UNDP launched the first-ever Social Protection Facilitation Centre in Goa with the support of The Government of Japan, Corporation of The City of Panjim, Goa and HDFC Bank.

It acts as a crucial bridge the government departments operating social protection schemes and Safai Saathis and has helped about 150 front line workers be vaccinated. UNDP is working with the local governments to get more Safai Saathis vaccinated.

These improvements have been particularly gratifying for Babita Kumari from Patna. She is a champion of Safai Saathis and has been recognized by the local municipality for her work during COVID-19.

The workers at the Swachhta Kendra have high quality protective equipment, and Babita now feels safe at her workplace and valued for her important contribution to her community.

“This work has given me identity, livelihood, and respect in my society,” she says.



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