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sanitation workers protest in India, credit Hindustan Times ;

Cities under climate crisis: Insights on urban sanitation in India and COP26 promises

Dr Srilata Sircar

King's India Institute

12 November 2021

The economics of tackling the climate crisis at global scale, have taken centre stage at the ongoing COP26 in Glasgow. With climate finance being one of the hotly debated issues, the focus of climate negotiations has remained fixed on market-driven tactics. This has squarely side-lined issues of justice and equity. Dr Srilata Sircar, Lecturer in India and Global Affairs, examines the India's response to climate change and urban sanitation at COP26.

One of the prominent appeals for climate finance has come from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has highlighted the failure of developed nations to provide adequate financial support to developing nations towards meeting their sustainability goals. Modi’s own five-point agenda on meeting India’s nationally determined contributions focus wholly on economic and technological strategies. These include:

  1. increased non-fossil energy capacity by 2030
  2. a shift to 50% renewable energy by 2030
  3. a reduction of emissions by 1 billion tons by 2030 (based on offsets)
  4. 45% lower emissions intensity of GDP by 2030
  5. net zero emissions by 2070

While Modi’s speech sought to remind the global community of its commitment to the guiding principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’, his agenda does not spell out how these targets will be achieved without worsening existing social injustices and inequities. A closer look at key policies on urban built environment can help illustrate further.

Urban sanitation and climate governance

In recent years, urban sanitation has emerged as a prominent sector for climate governance and sustainability interventions. Recurrent urban flooding in high-profile metropolitan centres such as Mumbai (2005), Chennai (2015), Kochi (2018), and Bangalore (2020) has attracted significant attention. Two highly publicised policy regimes have been the key drivers of interventions in urban sanitation work – the Swachh Bharat Mission and the 100 Smart Cities Mission.

Both of these policy regimes place sustainability at the centre of their agendas. The Swachh Bharat Mission, while being predominantly focused on rural India, aspires to attaining “open defecation free” (ODF) status and “universal sanitation” through “cost effective and appropriate technologies for ecologically safe and sustainable sanitation” (Swachh Bharat Mission – Grameen n.d.). On a similar note, the Smart Cities Mission seeks to create “cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of ‘Smart’ Solutions” (Ministry of Urban Development 2015: 5).

The mission guidelines identify “sanitation, including solid waste management” as a core infrastructure that all smart cities must address. While retrofitting and integrating digital technology into urban governance is a key element of the mission, a thematic mapping of the proposed smart city projects reveals that urban renewal, redevelopment projects, and physical infrastructure with the potential to generate high revenue constitute much of the ‘smartness’. Here we see an approach towards urban development that relies on the displacement and disposability of marginalised caste groups. The mission fails to address the issue of caste that underlies the sanitation crisis in urban India.

Manual scavenging and caste exploitation

Urban infrastructure has been foundational to the creation of land and market regimes that fuel global capitalism and by extension, the climate crisis. As far as sanitation goes, both urban and rural infrastructure are entirely reliant on deeply exploitative labour extraction of Dalit workers. The most grotesque form of this is the outlawed practice of ‘manual scavenging’. In the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993, manual scavenging is defined as the practice of manually handling human excreta for the purpose of cleaning a latrine, pit, or drain. However, ethnographic research has documented that there are many other forms of sanitation work in which human beings – overwhelmingly Dalits – are forced to come into contact with human excreta. These include cleaning railway stations and tracks as trains in India discharge sewage material directly onto the tracks; cleaning storm drains carrying sewage instead of stormwater; and cleaning septic tanks in private and public buildings.

According to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, there were 282 recorded deaths from manual scavenging between 2016 and 2019. Safai Karamchari Andolan estimates that there are 1.2 million people involved in manual scavenging. Other studies have estimated that those involved in the manual cleaning of drains and septic tanks have a substantially lower life expectancy than average (Das 2018). Due to the paltry wages offered to manual scavengers, the absence of any protective gear or life insurance, the lack of agency in determining working conditions, and the enduring caste character of this exploitative system, this practice arguably constitutes slave labour and the ensuing violence against Dalits is of genocidal proportions.

Yet, the two dominant policy regimes, the Swachh Bharat Mission and Smart Cities Mission, make no mention of caste exploitation in sanitation work and articulate no vision for tackling this mammoth problem. In fact, the Swachh Bharat Mission actively builds on this horrific legacy. As part of this mission, more than 5.5 million new toilets have been constructed that are reliant on pits or septic tanks that are not necessarily linked to a drainage or solid waste management system network.

While the mission celebrates the number of new toilets constructed, it does not lay out any concrete plans for expanding faecal sludge management infrastructure to cope with this massive volume of sewage. The responsibility for this is passed on to village- and city-level authorities without any system established for monitoring or support. This is where the role of municipalities becomes relevant. Under the Smart Cities Mission, municipalities and smart city cells have the opportunity to upgrade and modernise sanitation infrastructure to eliminate the reliance on caste-based exploitation. However, this has not been the case. By and large, cities have opted for superficial beautification projects under the Smart Cities scheme, introducing digital components into existing infrastructure but not fundamentally improving or rehauling them.

Smart cities and sanitation management

While surveillance is quite central to the notion of ‘smartness’ in these projects, it has very different implications for different groups of city residents. Many cities have introduced digital technology into sanitation management, which some have referred to as a “surveillance revolution”; however, this surveillance primarily targets Dalit sanitation workers. In many of the smart cities, such as Nagpur, Nashik, Pimpri Chinchwad, Bengaluru, Trichy, Vishakhapatnam, and Patna, one of the first smart city projects to be implemented was the addition of GPS trackers to waste collection carts and the vehicles used by sanitation workers.

In other places such as Chandigarh and Panchkula, sanitation workers themselves have been asked to wear smartwatches with GPS tracking. The data from these devices are tracked by municipalities and urban managers with the intention of disciplining workers with pay cuts and other punitive measures for any perceived shortcoming. At the same time, urban policy programmes have failed to increase the budget allocated for waste processing and sanitation infrastructure. As mentioned before, sanitation work in both public and private spaces continue to be dangerous, insecure, and life-threatening and is performed predominantly by Dalit workers.

Conversations and negotiations at the COP26 continue to take place with no acknowledgment of the deeply unjust and unequal social terrain on which the strategies for nationally determined contributions are built. Reliance on market forces and techno-solutions will only make matters worse for the most marginalised and vulnerable sections of society. The issue of social justice is not separate from the issue of the climate crisis.

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Srilata Sircar

Srilata Sircar

Lecturer in India and Global Affairs

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