Health and Well-being of Waste Workers in India
Waste workers include government-employed sanitation workers; privately contracted door-to-door garbage collectors; and waste pickers who work in the informal sector. India has over 5 million sanitation workers. While there are no official data on the number of persons engaged in waste picking in India, it is estimated at up to 1.5 million persons, which is approximately 10 percent of the global waste picker community. A waste picker is “a person or groups of persons informally engaged in collection and recovery of reusable and recyclable solid waste from the source of waste generation - the streets, bins, material recovery facilities, processing and waste disposal facilities for sale to recyclers directly or through intermediaries to earn their livelihood.” Waste pickers in informal employment collect over 80 percent of the total recyclable waste, contributing significantly to savings for the government, and to environmental health.
Access to health care and good quality health services is severely iniquitous, with marginalised and historically oppressed communities, such as waste pickers, facing numerous impediments to the attainment of health and well-being. Their experiences of health inequity and precarity are shaped by intersectional vulnerabilities, stemming from caste, class, gender, region of origin, mother- tongue, religion, religion, degree of formality of employment, nature of occupational (e.g., picking, sorting, or selling waste) and place and conditions of residence.
Waste pickers are exposed to various occupational hazards, physical, chemical, and biological, and encounter numerous impediments to the attainment of optimal health and well-being, in access to information; strategies for disease prevention, management, and rehabilitation; economic and social security; and opportunities for health promotion and recreation.
The Accountability for Informal Urban Equity Hub (ARISE) at The George Institute for Global Health, India (TGI) engaged in a policy content review, participant-observation, in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, and community meetings with waste workers at the ARISE project sites, and present the following recommendations for policy and research.
Recommendations for policy
- Health and well-being interventions need to be tailored to the specific needs of waste pickers, particularly informal workers.
- Waste workers need to be recognised as an occupational community engaged in diverse activities related to cleaning, collection, sorting, processing, and sale of discarded materials.
- The ability to access services needs to be delinked from specific documentation, and assistance with obtaining documentation needs to be provided to waste workers.
Recommendations for research
- The lives, livelihoods, occupational and social security of waste picker communities need to be explored, ideally through participatory research.
- The health conditions, occupational hazards, practices for health promotion, disease prevention and management, recreation, and recourse to health care among waste picker communities need to be understood and documented, and effective interventions designed for improvements in their health and well-being.