As garbage piled up on Bengaluru’s streets on Saturday following a flash strike by waste management contractors, the Karnataka government invoked the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) to force garbage collection back on schedule.
On Saturday evening, the government invoked Section 3 of ESMA and announced that all parties involved in the waste collection process are prohibited from going on protest for the next one year.
The decision came after contractors went on a second flash strike within a month’s time, protesting against the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike’s decision to directly pay wages to pourakarmikas, putting an end to the contract system of solid waste management in most parts of Bengaluru.
According to a media release issued by the BBMP Guttige Pourakarmikara Sangha – a union representing contract pourakarmikas in the city – contractors not only refused to ply their garbage collection autos and compactors, but also allegedly attempted to intimidate pourakarmikas into not working.
The media release alleged that contractors told workers not to work and return their uniforms, and in some cases even threatened them and physically tried to block them. “Despite the same, workers have continued to work in the light of such threats across the city,” the release stated.
Officials have claimed that ESMA has been invoked in a situation where garbage contractors hold the city to ransom because the BBMP does not itself own a fleet of vehicles that can be used for garbage collection. “This is being used as a bargaining chip by contractors,” The Hindu quoted one BBMP official as saying.
However, the Guttige Pourakarmika Sangha called the imposition of ESMA an anti-workforce law. S Balan, president of the Sangha told The Times of India, "For all the hard work done by the pourakarmikas in the city so far, the government wants to jail them if they fight for their rights.”
Alleging that contract pourakarmikas have not been paid arrears of Rs 14,400 per month for the last six months, Balan told TOI, “Sky was promised every time we raised our voice and now the threat of arrest.”
The union has demanded immediate termination of all contracts related to solid waste management, and the regularisation of workers at the earliest.
It also demanded that the BBMP take necessary steps to protect the workers from retaliation by the contractors. It also called for stringent action against errant contractors, and the immediate payment of all arrears to pourakarmikas.
Bengaluru’s garbage management system has been facing a crisis for over a year, owing to a longstanding conflict between pourakarmikas, contractors and the BBMP.
Contract pourakarmikas have launched multiple protests and strikes on the complaint that they were not only being paid much lower wages than those workers directly employed by the BBMP, but were also facing massive delays in receiving their wages in many cases.
In 2016, the government had declared that all pourakarmikas would be brought under the government payroll by March 2017. However, by June 2017, only 5,500 out of over 20,000 contract employees were regularised.
Recently, the government had passed an order empowering direct hiring of pourakarmikas, which set off stiff opposition from the contractors.
Besides striking work, the contractors had also allegedly tried to dupe pourakarmikas into signing blank papers in the promise of ESI facilities and other arrears. According to the Pourakarmikas Sangha, these blank papers were later converted into statements demanding the continuation of the contract system.