If you happen to take a walk on the road that leads to the National Games Village quarters in Bengaluru, you will find it almost impossible to pass that way without holding your breath.
The pathetic state of the road with garbage strewn all around would be the first thing that would strike you. However, the problem is bigger than you think as the conditions in which garbage collectors work are much worse.
Over the last six months, many powrakarmikas (garbage collectors) have not been paid for months together.
Clifton Rozario, president of BBMP Guttige Powrakarmikara Sangha - a union that is fighting for regularization of jobs of these workers - feels that the root cause of the problem is that nobody considers it a dignified job.
“Legally all these workers must be regularised and given government jobs. They have been employed under contracts and given less than minimum wages,” Clifton said. According to him, out of 20000 powrakarmikas, 17000 are employed under contracts and they are paid less than minimum wages.
“The wages they receive are around Rs 6691 even after years of contribution, sometimes even lesser. They work in absolutely pathetic working conditions without a single day off. Most of the powrakarmikas don’t have Employee State Insurance card (ESI) or Provident Fund, though the contribution to it is being cut from the salary.”
Streamlining is not the solution
The union has helped in streamlining payments for a few contract workers, who are a part of the union.
"A few wards over the last few years with efforts from the union, to some extent have been streamlined, but streamlining is not the solution. And then there are areas where the workers have not been unionized,” Clifton said.
Abolition of contract labour has been discussed several times. “Despite the decision taken by a three-member committee constituted by the government and a high court verdict to abolish contract labour, it still continues to exist,” he said.
An amalgam of class-caste-gender oppression
Asked about what kind of background these workers come from, he said, "This is a section of society from which generally everyone has washed their hands off. Most of these workers are from scheduled caste communities. And most of them are women. This is a perpetuation of the caste system, and this is the job that they are traditionally supposed to do. It is basically caste, class and patriarchy oppression coinciding in all three forms."
One worker from Andhra Pradesh said, “We escaped our villages and ran to Bangalore to escape the caste oppression at the hands of the Kapus. But they have now followed us to the cities and force us to shed our blood for them to prosper!”
"Workers have to bend their backs, lift heavy loads, push carts that are in pathetic conditions, no proper infra, we have been demanding for some kind of mechanisation for the work that is being done with no breaks," he said.
Asked why this problem is rife across the country and whether the government is doing anything at all, Clifton said, "The technical vigilance committee of BBMP released a report in 2015 which mentioned that in the last 10 months, over Rs 760 crore has been allotted to the contractors to do this work. But the money does not reach the workers. Most of this money is siphoned off by the officials and by the contractors. That is why it is in the interest of a few contractors and BBMP officials that this contract system continues."
"Each contractor gets Rs 15-30 lakh every month. But what they do is employ fewer people that what they actually claim in their report. Payment of the extra workers would be siphoned off. They would dump the garbage closer than what they put in the report,” he added.
It is no wonder then that with garbage collectors being underpaid and overworked, several of Bengaluru’s roads continue to emit a nauseous stench.