In the Dark Times for Urban Workers a small Inclusive Intervention

In Leh, the capital of Ladakh, some small interventions by different groups including the Leh City Council is a ray of hope for the working people in the cities to make the city liveable.

In the Dark Times for Urban Workers a small Inclusive Intervention


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 in March 2020. Much literature with local empiricism has 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 per cent of the relief work was carried out by non-governmental sectors 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) some small interventions by different groups including the Leh City Council is a ray of hope for the working people in the cities to make the city liveable. Since the vision document of Leh was envisioned; I was part and parcel of the deliberations of a liveable Leh vision.

The Leh town is at an altitude of about 3,400 metres above mean sea level and is also called as the winter desert. The temperature in the winters falls to minus 25-30 degrees Celsius. The lakes get frozen 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 in its kind in urban India to start a ‘free wash’ facility for its sanitation workers.

The sanitation workers provide most essential public service. A service which far too often comes at the cost of the health, safety and dignity of the workers. Despite the important work they do, they have been given less attention to 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 municipal committee 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 sanitation workers of Leh 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 are on contract basis 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 by the workers and will be used by all sanitation workers on an everyday basis. The facility is planned over 1008 sqft and is expected to be implemented on ground by end of November 2020

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

The workers after finishing their sanitation work will have free access to this facility. This facility 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 dryers to ensure that the clothes are ready to use.

  6. Drinking water units/refills with water dispensers.

  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 winters.

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



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

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. This manual scavenging earlier was done by the respective family members when agriculture and horticulture was their principal mode of production and livelihood. Leh town still has almost 90 per cent houses that use dry toilets. It means that instead of the flush system the dry faecal matter settles down which is then mixed with sand and straw and then during the summers 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 & 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 was/is a manure has become a problem both to 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 great boon for them.

The land to 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 which for sure 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 speaks about an inclusive intervention with a well thought out plan and 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.

Tikender Singh Panwar is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla and Advisor to Samruddha Bharat Foundation.