For over six months, pourakarmikas (civic workers) in Bengaluru have been protesting for their rightful salaries and many workers have not been paid a single rupee.
The civic workers toil every day to ensure that the streets of the city are kept clean. They have also held protests demanding the money they are due. But their pleas have fallen on deaf ears and on Monday, 40-year-old Subramani, a pourakarmika in Ward Number 77, Dattatreya Temple, ended his life reportedly citing financial trouble.
But why have pourakarmikas been denied their salaries for so long?
How the contract system was misused
Until 2018, pourakarmikas in Bengaluru were paid by 'mestris' or contractors as per a contract system. In 2016, the BBMP was scrutinised after it emerged that the civic body had allegedly fabricated the existence of 6,600 pourakarmikas by creating ghost accounts, to whom the BBMP had been paying salaries for 10 years. The BBMP was paying salaries of over 19,000 workers, when in reality there were only 12,400 workers doing cleaning work. The amount lost was pegged at Rs 934 crore.
The biometric system was introduced starting from January 2018, to ensure that the BBMP can pay genuine workers directly and remove ‘ghost workers’ or 'fake' workers who were being paid by the contractors. “The BBMP and the garbage contractors who employed the pourakarmikas were all involved in the scam. The contractors and the ward level officials split the profits,” a BBMP official told TNM.
Under pressure to replace the contract system in place, the BBMP introduced the biometric system of registering the attendance of pourakarmikas in January 2018, and promised to pay the workers directly. Today, pourakarmikas in Bengaluru register their fingerprints thrice everyday with a ward-level official.
But in spite of registering their attendance regularly and doing the work assigned to them, many pourakarmikas have not been paid their salaries in the past six months.
‘Garbage contractors colluded with BBMP officials’
“After the fingerprint system was introduced, the garbage contractors lost out on money as the pourakarmikas were getting paid directly from the government,” said Obalappa, President of the BBMP Guttige Pourakarmika Sangha.
A senior BBMP official said that the garbage contractors then colluded with several BBMP officials to register 'fake' pourakarmikas once again.
“This scam was exposed in the BBMP and several higher-level officials came to know about how even the biometric system was compromised. An internal probe was launched – and now the engineers are scared to sign off on the salary approvals forms," the official says.
Corruption at the top, but why are the workers being penalised?
Trapped in the exploitative system are pourakarmikas in the city, many of whom spent the first few months of this year working but with no salary paid at the end of the month. As the months went by and the situation worsened, some of the workers pawned their jewellery, others sold utensils and other small items in the house to ensure that they could continue paying rent. Some pourakarmikas were also forced to pull their children out of school, and move out of their homes since they could not afford to pay the fees or the rent.
At the same time, BBMP officials continued to assure pourakarmikas that their payments will be made once they finished verifying – a process that is yet to be completed eight months after it began in November 2017.
“If the BBMP has to authorise the salary payment of a pourakarmika, the engineer (Assistant Executive Engineer, Solid Waste Management) must sign off on the bills. Since the engineers do not know which pourakarmika is real and which one is fake they hesitate to make the payments. The BBMP now has the task of verifying whether those who registered their biometrics are genuine or fake workers,” a senior BBMP official said.
This is just a ruse, allege activists
However, activists believe that the BBMP is using the verification process as a smokescreen to deny payments to pourakarmikas. "For over seven months, officials have been saying that they are still in the process of verifying the details provided by the pourakarmikas. The pourakarmikas had to submit their bank account details for the past two years to prove that they were contract employees," explains Clifton Rozario, president of BBMP Guttige Pourakarmikara Sangha – a union that fought for the regularisation of these workers.
The Sangha led numerous protests of pourakarmikas in the city, the latest of which took place at the BBMP headquarters on June 5, in which workers demanded officials their rightful salary. After the protest, few pourakarmikas were paid a part of their salaries but most pourakarmikas continued to be denied their salaries.
Pourakarmikas in Bengaluru protest at the BBMP Headquarters on June 5
Garbage contractors may return
Even the introduction of biometric attendance has been unable to bring relief to the city's civic waste workers and it appears that the BBMP is now considering bringing back the system of garbage contractors. The BBMP council on Saturday passed a unanimous resolution to float tenders for solid waste management in the city. The council has decided to table a draft of the new tender with simplified norms on July 12 for approval, after previously rejecting the tender thrice.
“The councilors all wanted the contract system to come back. This is because many of the councilors are contractors themselves. They want to bring in contractor system for pourakarmikas, garbage collecting autos, lorries, and at every level of garbage management,” a senior BBMP official said.
However Clifton warns that if the BBMP pushes ahead with this, they will have a fight on their hands. "We will not allow the contractors to come back in any form. The BBMP has to ensure that they pay the pourakarmikas the money they are due," he adds.