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Work, Hygiene and Relaxation: A New Chapter for Leh’s Sanitation Workers

Leh town has become one of the first of its kind in urban India to start a ‘free wash’ facility for its sanitation workers.
leh sanitation.

The hollowness of the sustainability of the cities, especially those that used to boast about their commitment to the SDGs (sustainable development goals), was squarely exposed during the lockdown imposed in March this year. Much literature with local empiricism has also been reported widely about the plight of the workers in the urban centres.

In such a given scenario in the last eight months where almost 75% of the relief work was carried out by the non-governmental sector comprising trade unions, civil society groups etc. This thoroughly exposed the claims made by the government of different economic tranches released to help the poor in the country.

In such a background, Leh, a small town in the North and the capital of Ladakh (now a union territory) is experiencing small interventions by different groups, including the Leh city council, in the city to make it liveable; it is a ray of hope for the working people in cities, especially the sanitation workers. Since the vision document of Leh materialised, I have been a part and parcel of the deliberations of a liveable Leh vision.

Leh sanitation workers

The Leh town is at an altitude of about 3,400 metres above mean sea level and is also called the winter desert. The temperature in the winters falls to minus 25-30 degree Celsius. The lakes freeze and the river Indus flowing below the town also freezes partially. In such a harsh climate, the sanitation workers continue to work and keep the town clean.

The Leh town probably became one of the first of its kind in urban India to start a ‘free wash’ facility for its sanitation workers.


The sanitation workers provide the most essential public service. A service which far too often comes at the cost of health, safety and dignity of the workers. Despite the important work they do, they have been given less attention by the people and various city and state governments. Also, with the current pandemic showing no signs of abating, sanitation workers are at an increased risk of infection.

With the support of the municipal committee of Leh, BORDA (Bremen Overseas Research Development Association) and LEDeG (a well know NGO working in Leh for ecological development), a plan to improve the working conditions of the sanitation workers while reducing the health hazards faced by them on a day to day basis was laid out. Leh town has around 140 sanitation workers working for the Leh municipal council on everyday SWM (solid waste management) activities such as waste collection, waste segregation, street sweeping etc. Most sanitation workers reside in informal settlements without proper access to water or toilets and often live in an unhygienic condition. Majority of these works are contract based with no employment or health benefits or social protection and low pay (Rs 7,000-8,000 per month).


The wash facility is provided in Skampari, a location near the municipal council office and workers housing settlement, where it is easily accessible and will be used by all sanitation workers on everyday basis. The facility is planned over 1008 square feet and is expected to be implemented on ground by the end of November, 2020.

leh 1

The facility will have improved toilet and bathing facility for both men and women, provision for black and grey water treatment and reuse of treated water along with various additional features.

The workers, after finishing their sanitation work, will have free access to this facility. It will include:

  1. Separate toilet blocks for men and women.

  2. Bathing facility/change room with the provision of solar heated hot water during winters as well.

  3. Lockers for sanitation workers.

  4. Recreation room with seating area and television set to relax and entertain themselves.

  5. Laundry area with automatic washing machines facility. This area will have common washing machines and driers to ensure that the clothes are ready to use.

  6. Drinking water units.

  7. The entire building is insulated to conserve heat with air-lock entries to regulate temperature.

  8. Solar passive walls to ensure that minimum heat loss occurs during winter.

  9. Central heating system with radiators to ensure that a temperature of 18 degrees is maintained.


This was an important development because the temperature in the winter dips below minus 20 degrees Celsius and it is extremely difficult for health workers to maintain their hygiene and health standards during that time.

The second foremost reason is that unlike in India, where manual scavenging is banned, it continues legally in Leh. This may sound absurd but it is true. The manual scavenging was earlier done by the respective family members when agriculture and horticulture was their principal mode of production and livelihood. Leh town still has almost 90% houses that use dry toilets. It means that instead of the flush system, the dry faecal matter settles down and is then mixed with sand and straw and then, during the summers, it is extracted from the houses to respective agricultural fields. This is in fact one of the best forms of manure/ fertilizer. The best quality apples producing villages in Himachal-- Nako and Chango--still continue this practice.

The change that has happened in the Leh town or the transformation that has starkly changed the behaviour is that now, most of the households in the Leh town sustain on tourism rather than on agriculture or horticulture. This has created a situation where the faecal matter, which is a manure, has become a problem to both the household toilets and to the community toilets. This task is then performed by the sanitation workers. In the absence of proper hygiene and bathing facilities, the health of such workers is at stake. Hence, this wash facility is a boon for them.

leh 2

The land for this building was provided free of cost by the Leh municipal council and BORDA and LEDeG executed the project.

The design of the building was done by a Kochi-based group of architects that encompasses the aesthetics and the requirements for the sanitation workers. However, the design of the entire project could have been done in a more eco-friendly manner. For example, in a water-scarce town, the water could have been put to reuse and similarly, the machines for washing etc., could have been more eco-friendly.

Nevertheless, keeping all the design impediments apart, this is an example in itself which shows an inclusive intervention with a well-thought out plan executed with clarity. Had the same wash centre been constructed outside the town, it would have been of no use to the workers. Constructing it close to their houses speaks volumes of the details worked out to not just ambitiously conceive a plan but also making it practically functional.

Hope in the smart cities being constructed in the country a fig of such an imagination gets captured and passed on to the workers living there.

(The writer is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. Views expressed are personal).

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