Harpic World Toilet College (HWTC) has been training sanitation workers by equipping them with the right skill set that helps them secure jobs and lead dignified lives. This training will help sanitation workers uplift their lives and live with dignity.
As an organisation, Reckitt is committed to supporting communities and helping people lead healthy and dignified lives. By expanding the Harpic World Toilet College network to cover 14 states across the country, the company endeavours to transform the lives of sanitation workers and positively change their socio-economic status. Over the years, for every Rs 1 invested, HWTC has been delivering Rs 23.20 of social value, according to SROI Evaluation ’20.
In Patiala district in Punjab, 42-year-old Kulwinder Kumar, a Dalit, tells how a chance meeting with the Hari Bhari Patiala initiative, a partner of Reckitt, opened doors to a better life for him.
“When I married 20 years ago, I worked as a daily wage labourer. I needed money, especially since I had more responsibilities,” says Kumar. But coming from the Valmiki community, he did not have many options. “I joined a private agency as a cleaner and worked as a housekeeper in a private hospital on a contractual basis,” he says.
Four years later, Kumar, who lives in Patiala with his wife and kids, met the Hari Bhari team. “The visits and counselling sessions by the Hari Bhari Patiala waste management team taught me about waste management and safety at the workplace,” he explains. “I decided to take up a part-time job with Hari Bhari to make enough to save up for a better future for my children.” Hari Bhari appointed him as a part-time housekeeper. “My wife also works as a housekeeper to support our three little boys,” he says, adding. “We are all doing great!”
The story of Amar Sahota, 30, has the familiarity of a fairy tale. Sahota brought home his first salary which was just Rs 16: a day’s wage for a sweeping job in the city. It opened the door to bondage as he worked with a contractor who provided the Patiala Municipal Corporation with sweepers and sewer cleaners for the next five years. All this for a measly Rs 2,850 a month.
Though underpaid, Sahota never realised the pain of joblessness until the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, bringing with it a lockdown and the worst time of his life. “I lost my job to Covid-19,” he says.
That was when a friend referred him to the Hari Bhari Patiala waste management office for training. The Hari Bhari team was impressed with his work and hired him as a ward supervisor to ensure waste collection and segregation. He has been with Hari Bhari for a few months now and could not be happier. “I feel like my wishes have been fulfilled,” smiles Sahota. “Now, my dream is for my children to get a good education, maybe even join the army. I hope they never have to endure what I have had to,” he says.
There is a dire need to safeguard and uplift sanitation workers in India, given their severe financial, social and health challenges.According to the report Sanitation worker safety and livelihoods in India by Dalberg, there are some five million “full-time equivalents of sanitation workers” in India. These sanitation workers face varying degrees of risks to exposure. About a million of these are in urban areas, working for drain and community cleaning, and six lakh engage in toilet cleaning.
Current sanitation infrastructure in India regularly puts workers in hazardous conditions; equipment and gear do not fully mitigate the unsafe conditions. The dangers faced by sanitation workers were exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the lack of protective gear and formalised training impacting the health and safety of the workers when carrying out additional tasks like disinfecting hot spots, transporting bodies of Covid-infected patients and handling infected biowaste. Women sanitation workers faced unsafe work environments due to constant interaction with the public at odd hours and lacked any mechanism to raise the issue.
Sushil Kumar came from a family of sanitation workers of Varanasi. His father, grandfather and many earlier generations were sanitation workers, cleaning streets and sewers. Kumar’s father, who never went to school, did not care to send him and his four siblings to school either, because he believed that the son too was destined to become a sanitation worker.
When Kumar enrolled with the Harpic World Toilet College in Varanasi, the trainers were surprised to see that he would take the elder of his four children along to work. It did not take the faculty much time to realise that his opinion on education differed from his father’s.
In the days that passed, the trainers convinced him of the need to educate his children and took his son for admission in a school. Getting to know what a difference a decent education could bring about, Kumar then decided to enroll his other three children in school as well.
Sanitation has recently seen a major push in India, though mainly on the demand side. However, sanitation workers have been largely ignored, perpetuating their historical designation as a socially invisible class of human labour. The Harpic World Toilet College addresses the issues of sanitation workers and works towards their empowerment. They are also made aware of their entitlements.
In Leh, for example, the group regularly follows with government officials about their work status. So much so that the sanitation preamble is also placed in government offices.
This Hari Bhari initiative has enabled Reckitt to help fight caste prejudice. One such experience is that of Sunil Siraswal. “I was working in a manhole when a bunch of women, seeing me filled in muck, spat at me. Humiliation was an everyday challenge, but this incident left me heartbroken,” he recalls.
After cleaning gutters and manholes for over 16 years, Siraswal underwent a training stint at the Harpic World Toilet College to learn about using machines to do the same job. He says, with a sense of pride, that Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan gave him a machine.
Siraswal, president of a self-help group initiated by Harpic, says, “I will be an entrepreneur—the king of sanitation!”
Helping those who keep India’s towns and cities clean and people’s health is the natural spinoff, but it comes with the realisation that sanitation workers cannot be taken for granted any longer. Sanitation workers work in unhealthy and hazardous conditions, are paid very little and have no insurance. They are socially ostracised and have no mobility prospects in their jobs. The average life expectancy of a sanitation worker is less than 50 years, much less than the national average of 70 years.
From cleaning drains and sewages to septic tanks, sanitation workers clean and dispose of human waste nationwide. As they encounter human waste daily, they risk their lives with deadly diseases —cardiovascular degeneration, musculoskeletal disorders, hepatitis and leptospirosis, to name a few.
Against such a backdrop, Reckitt’s Harpic World Toilet College initiative offers a ray of hope to sanitation workers across the country. Today, the HWTC has a presence in 14 Indian states. HWTC aims to help sanitation workers lead dignified lives by providing opportunities for alternative livelihoods through robust and comprehensive training and post-placement support.
From Waste Picker to Wellness Champion
There are many inspirational stories among the sanitation workers. One of these is Aman Kumar. A 20-year-old school drop-out, Aman earned no more than Rs 150 a day collecting waste in Patiala, Punjab. Their lives changed after their training at a Harpic World College.
Aman attended a two-day Harpic World Toilet College training at Patiala, where he learnt and understood about housekeeping roles and cleaning work, the need for sanitation and hygiene around the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. Once trained, Aman was selected as a cleaner, cleaning and washing some 25 toilets daily in two, and sometimes three, government schools, showing he could indeed earn a living with dignity.
On the World Toilet Day even in Mumbai, he met Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar and shared the story of his journey.
“I am proud to work for children and provide sanitation and cleaning services for them. I hope my contribution helps reduce their school dropout rate and lead healthier lives,” says Aman.
(The author is a senior journalist)